This very insightful article reveals the consequences that constituent assemblies within Nepal will have on that country and those around it. The success of democratic participation in Nepal would provide inspiration to other South Asian countries where ethnic representation and dissenting views have been oppressed. This article shows the way that diverse people are connected in the struggle for a voice in the governing processes around the world and that in this struggle we are all connected by inspiration and hope for the future. -Editor
This is as it should be, democratic opinion in South Asia is likely to proclaim, along with other sections which favour peaceful power transitions. Getting all dissidents, armed or otherwise, into a negotiatory or political process and integrating them into peaceful power transitions is the ideal path to conflict-resolution. This approach, democratic opinion the world over has come to accept and is widely looked upon as the civilized way of political problem-solving. All praise to Nepal for attempting what would seem to be the impossible for quite a few states in this region. Following India’s exemplary constituent assembly exercise decades ago which resulted in the installation of what may be described as South Asia’s most successful democracy, Nepal’s current effort at implementing a constituent assembly approach to bringing into being a new democratic order may be seen as another memorable moment in South Asia’s faltering democratic experience.
If Nepal’s Maoist rebels with demands of power-sharing were to be considered the sole poser for the somewhat politically conservative Nepali Congress-dominated government, Nepal’s lot could not be considered to be too arduous. For, the Maoist rebels have been both a prominent and convulsive player in politics whose concerns have finally won mention in the state’s plans for national reconstruction .The same could not be said of the country’s multitude of ‘ethnic’ groups, the majority of whom have been wilting in poverty and backwardness over the decades with hardly any voice or political representation. The depressed Madhesis who are now articulating some of their demands is only one such ‘ethnic’ group whose voice has gone unheard. Suffice it to know that the Nepali polity is segmented by tribal, caste and religious groups who have been languishing on the social margins from times immemorial. The fact that they are not identifying themselves with the Left or the Maoists is proof that ‘ethnicity’ is transcending class as a basis for the articulation of grievances. If this is so, the Left has to ask itself whether its mobilization efforts have failed. Is it sending out the correct appeals?
A general notion of the segmented nature of the Nepalese polity could be obtained by considering only its ‘ethnic’ and caste composition. In 2001 it was estimated, for example, that the dominant caste or the Caste Hill Hindu Elite Males (CHHEM) constituted 30.89% of Nepal’s population. The other main social groups and their corresponding percentages were as follows: Indigenous Nationalities: 36.31%, Dalits: 14.99%, Madhesis 16.59%, Muslims 4.27%. Thus far it has been the CHHEM which has proved the predominant socio-economic group – the section to wield most political power. The challenge before the constitution-makers would be to ensure that substantial power is enjoyed by all the social groups.
A principal demand of the Maoists has been the abolition of the Nepalese monarchy. While this demand is in keeping with republican ideals, a more vital task would be the sufficient empowerment of the country’s deprived sections. This is a principal responsibility of the Maoists, since their main power base has been the poor. The Maoists would need to champion their cause or enable their voices to be heard in the constitution-making forum.
A sticking point for the government is the Maoist demand that its fighters be absorbed into the state security forces. This poses a risk for the hitherto ruling conservative sections’ grip on power because the possibility of a future power grab by the Maoists would not be ruled out by them in the event of this absorption taking place. Accordingly, another challenge for the main political actors would be to not only share power but to bring into being the necessary constitutional checks and balances which would ensure the continuation of the agreed constitutional order.
There is still a long way to go before it could be declared that Nepal is on a safe course towards political normalization. However, it could not be denied that ground-breaking changes are afoot. Nepal’s endeavours in power-sharing and democratization would prove highly instructive from the point of view of the rest of South Asia.