Nepal is allegedly at a historical juncture right now. After a decade of a bloody civil war, the country had been filled with a new hope for peace and prosperity. That hope has all but disappeared today, as the country attempts to recover each night from the absurdity and humiliation of the day’s proceedings.
Simply put, the country is closed for business. The last two weeks have been especially bad, with various diverse outfits taking to the streets. Some normalcy might have returned to Kathmandu, but the rest of the country is still reeling from numerous strikes. Given the recent tussle over the CA term, this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Different groups rightly want to be heard to pressurize the government, but it is certainly not fair of them to do so at the explicit expense of everyone else.
At a time when most of these claims are made under the rubric of access and representation, it is precisely the poorest and the most marginalized that pay the heaviest price for the actions of the relatively privileged, who can afford to call and enforce national strikes without affecting their daily necessities. Regardless of their ethnic or political orientation, most marginalized people rely on their daily wages to try and make ends meet but national strikes directly hinder their earnings and everyday aspirations.
To that end, whether it be the Far-West Ekata Samaj and the Samyukta Loktantrik Paribesh, or the Tharuhat Struggle Committee, or the United Brahmin Chhetri Struggle Committee, or NEFIN, or the Madhesi Alliance, their calls for indiscriminate and often indefinite strikes might have earned them short-lived promises from a defunct political alliance, but they have lost goodwill and legitimacy among the general populace. That these protests have relied heavily on violence, and the lack of basic dignity towards fellow beings, is testimony to the challenges Nepal faces in its path to reconciliation, peace and prosperity. Most people live in an environment of chronic fear because they have been held hostage by the numerous, often conflicting, demands of various broad interest alliances.
The ticking time bomb is the deadline to promulgate the constitution. The politicized Nepali society is worried about what shape the constitution will take, even as—ironically— it places all its hopes and dreams on the same document. Politicians used to repeatedly emphasize taking the constitution ‘to its logical conclusion’ without ever discussing what that conclusion meant, and to whom it was logical. Now, as the deadline has moved across time and space, public and media discourses have been fixated on a timely constitution, at the expense of attention to its content. This fixation on time must remain secondary, even as the CA must be reprimanded for its chronic failure to meet deadlines.
Just as popular as strikes are the ‘two-point agreement’ or the ‘seven-point agreement’ that various political parties regularly pen among each other. This ‘fashion’ has now infiltrated negotiations between the so-called government and the agitating populace (who, by the way, certainly do not represent all concerned interest groups, only the most overt ones). The government, today and in the past, is also to blame for perpetuating this culture of negotiation only from the streets. If you really believe in your cause, you must hire some goons, break some bones, vandalize private and public property, and generally be a nuisance to be noticed by the so-called government.
For instance, the government has now agreed to label Brahmnis and Chettris as indigenous. The list of indigenous nationalities had been prepared with careful consideration through negotiations and deliberations between NEFIN and the Ministry of Local Development’s subordinate body, the National Foundation of Indigenous Nationalities. The BCs largely ignored these channels to seek recognition for their status, until recently, when they have taken to the streets. Regardless of whether they are indigenous or not, the government’s short-sighted decision to ‘agree’ indigenous status for them makes mockery of the due process necessary before reclassifying a whole group of people. This is only one example in a long list of transgressions.
At the same time, none of these agreements between any of the stakeholders holds any meaning because of the revisionist interpretations of the agreement, even by those present during the meeting. The most recent example is the so-called landmark agreement on federalism, reached at a meeting between top leaders representing NC, UML, CPN-Maoist and UDMF (05/16/2012). Within days, these very leaders, including the PM and Deputy PM, have backtracked spectacularly, and the so-called landmark agreement has been reduced to a footnote.
It is in this context that I return to the Leviathan, our Constitution. The political parties might have failed to come to an agreement on any of the serious issues, but they nonetheless voted overwhelmingly to ignore due process on deliberation through a constitutional amendment (05/20/2012). This decision to fast-track the constitution once again shows their fetishism of time over substance. The Supreme Court appears firm on the deadline, but in a constantly changing political landscape, it is too early to assume this is final. Alarmingly, however, the Big Three have ‘agreed’ to promulgate the constitution on time, instead of opting for the other options presented by the court.
There is no easy fix to the country’s problems, and trying to pretend that a poorly deliberated, expedited constitution provides an easy answer is the height of political dishonesty. If the constitution is promulgated without deliberation, if even the five people who finalized the agreement cannot agree to the interpretation, how are we to accept that the vast majority of the ignored Nepali people can come to terms with it? If only three days ago these fickle political parties asked for another three months, how is it logistically feasible to prepare it now? Besides, can we accept a constitution which was prepared in the heat of the moment, without perspective, in the last two days?
Many activists have already threatened to launch severe protests if their particular demands are not met. The failure of the political parties to convince their own colleagues and cadres, let alone the diverse populace they claim to represent, should provide early preface to the possibility of further street violence in the country. As such, amending the very few deliberative processes that had been institutionalized in the interim constitution should have rung far more alarm bells than the failure to promulgate a timely constitution.
Nepal does not need more strikes or a monolithic, half-patched document that the framers themselves do not fully understand. Instead, we need to return this process of drafting the constitution to the grassroots, deliberating not only with the most vocal and violent protestors but all concerned Nepalis, so that decisions are made with understanding and acceptance. Given how removed this process has become from the grassroots, perhaps an election, if not a referendum, is necessary, as it will force these so-called leaders to return to the people. Not every Nepali’s hopes and dreams are going to be met by this constitution, but it is important that they participate in the process through which the Leviathan is taking shape, regardless of the time it takes.
If due process is too much for a Nepali to ask from a democratic republic, perhaps the so-called government could at least ensure an environment where the poor and the marginalized, if not everyone else, can at least earn their wages and make ends meet, even as the political bickering continues. I recognize in the strongest terms the right to protest, and the government should protect that right, but that arrangement should not extend to people who protest violently (whether they be Brahmin, Chettri, Madhesi or Janajati), and at the expense of others. Regardless of the timing or nature of the constitution, the aim has to be to build a more peaceful and harmonious society.
The writer is a D. Phil. student in International Development at Oxford University