Idea of inclusionIf one had to identify the central leitmotif of Nepal’s political discourse over the past decade or more, the idea of inclusion would certainly be the one.
If one had to identify the central leitmotif of Nepal’s political discourse over the past decade or more, the idea of inclusion would certainly be the one. A sure indicator is the federal Nepal we are now living under. Despite the initial, and, occasionally worrying, stumbles in the march towards that goal, a once-unitary Nepal has now been transformed into a federal state. The call for a federal Nepal itself was motivated primarily by a desire for a greater political inclusion by those who felt bypassed by the state, and even though the current provincial boundaries do not necessarily hew to their aspirations, the form it has taken, particularly when viewed together with the local governments in place and the existing electoral laws, it would be quite safe to say that the Nepal of today is politically a much more inclusive state than any time in the past.
The quest for inclusion has a long history, with most of the groups now identified as being historically marginalised—women, Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis and Muslims—having engaged in sporadic action since the middle of the 20th century for greater acceptance of a dignified space within the nation. To take federalism as an example, in the early 1950s, the short-lived political party, Nepal Tarai Congress, sought employment for Madhesis in public service while also demanding the creation of an autonomous Tarai. The demand for federalism was revived in the aftermath of the 1990 political change when a number of individuals and organisations representing various Janajati groups sought to divide up Nepal along ethnic lines. Likewise, the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (NSP), with its base in the Tarai, stated its position thus: ‘Since Nepal is multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and a country of different ethnicities, in order to strengthen national unity and ensure proportionate participation in the administration, Nepal Sadbhavana Party believes that there should be a constitutional provision for a federal government. This party is in favour of declaring autonomous regions in the Tarai as in the hills and mountains on the basis of common language, dress, culture and geography.’
It was also greater inclusion that was being sought when different social movements demanded greater recognition of languages other than Nepali, equal rights for women, turning Nepal into a secular state, special provisions for the marginalised in education and public sector jobs, and an end to the practice of untouchability. The state response was somewhat half-hearted and belied the lack of urgency felt by those in positions of authority, and had it not been for the Maoist insurgency, the response might have been even more delayed.
The launch of the ‘people’s war’ in 1996 proved to be the game-changer since it was able to mainstream the concept of creating an inclusive Nepal within a few years, a feat that had eluded social movements in spite of their organising over the decades. Of the 40 demands put forth by the Maoists back in February 1996, six dealt explicitly with the issue of inclusion: i) increasing representation of women, Dalits and Janajatis in the parliament; ii) dealing with the problem of citizenship in the Tarai; iii) ending discrimination against women and increasing their representation in different tiers of government to 33 per cent; iv) affirmative action for marginalised groups along with protection of different languages, religions and culture; v) criminalising caste-based discrimination; and vi) doing away with discrimination on the basis of social, linguistic or religious identity.
The state responds
The rapid gains by the Maoists in the initial years nudged successive governments to try to understand the reasons for the unexpected success of the insurgency, and, by extension, introduce measures that would undercut the Maoist message. The first such effort was the taskforce under Prem Singh Dhami of the CPN-UML in 1997, and was followed by another led by Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress in 2000. Both recommended socio-economic reforms somewhat along the lines of Maoist agenda. Hence, the Dhami Commission recommended ‘socio-cultural package programmes’ to preserve and promote the religions, languages and cultures of those groups who feel discriminated against, marginalised and exploited. For its part, the Deuba Committee report stated that Janajatis ‘feel that they have been ruled over by the tagadhari (“upper castes”) and there is some truth to that’, and that Janajatis and Dalits are disenchanted because they feel they have been sidelined in the decision-making process of the country.
In 2001, Deuba became prime minister and he presented his reform programme that included ‘a 25-year action plan to provide special opportunities and protection in education, employment, and national development process to women, Dalits and Janajatis, who for centuries have been deprived of socio-economic, political rights and other developmental opportunities’. A little over a year later, Deuba was out but the Lokendra Bahadur Chand government approved Nepal’s 10th Five-Year Plan in 2003 that envisaged special programmes for women, Dalits and Janajatis.
The political parties that found themselves in the margins following Deuba’s ouster by King Gyanendra began to feel the need to become even more progressive and came up with an 18-point ‘Forward-Looking Reform Agenda’. Accordingly, representation of women, Dalits and Janajatis in the parliament was to be increased while the upper house of parliament would become an assembly of women, Dalits and Janajatis, among others; the problem of citizenship in the Tarai would be resolved; women would be provided with equal opportunities and their share in parliament and local elections would be raised to 33 per cent; equal opportunities would be provided to marginalised groups through specially devised programmes; and discriminations based on caste or ethnicity, geography, language, culture and religion would be eliminated. The similarity with the Maoists’ demands presented seven years earlier indicates how far the parties had travelled towards the creation of an inclusive Nepal as a political platform.
The government was then being led by Surya Bahadur Thapa, and its own position on reforms not only mirrored the 18-point agenda mentioned above but also went further. It called for proportional representation of Dalits and Janajatis in the upper house of parliament and at least 25 per cent in both houses; promotion of all religions and languages, including allowing the use of non-Nepali languages in local bodies; and introduction of reservations for women, Dalits and Janajatis in education and government service. It went further in November 2003 and announced plans to provide reservations in education and government service to women, Dalits and Janajatis, while also addressing the citizenship issue for Madhesis. The justification for such a measure was as follows: ‘Forward-looking reforms in the present state system had already been extremely necessary both to end all kinds of inequalities, discrimination and exploitation in the society and to translate into action the changed expectations of the people.’
After King Gyanendra seized power in February 2005, even his government promised affirmative action for women, Dalits and Janajatis in the state bodies. It should be noted though that apart from the recognition of non-Nepali languages and issue of citizenship, none of these declarations of intent specifically catered to the aspirations of Madhesis, many of whom faced the same forms of disadvantages as Dalits and Janajatis. That was rectified when the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) formed against the king’s takeover declared in May 2005 that, despite the great strides in governance, infrastructure development and enhanced social service delivery, the post-1990 political order in Nepal had not succeeded in ensuring that ‘women, Janajatis, Dalits, Madhesis, people from backwards region, and the poor and the destitute experienced these changes because of shortcomings in making democracy deeper, wider, aspirational and inclusive’. In its ‘forward-looking programme’, the SPA committed to a restructuring the state to make it ‘participatory, representative and inclusive of the country’s social, cultural, geographic, caste/ethnic and linguistic diversity’. It further assured reservations to women, Dalits, ‘backward’ Janajati groups, Madhesis, and ‘backward’ regions, and to resolving the citizenship problem.
By the time of the 12-point agreement of November 2005, Nepali politics had become well primed to adopt the ‘forward-looking restructuring of the state to resolve the problems related to all sectors, including class, caste/ethnicity, gender, region, political, economic, social and cultural…’. By also appealing to ‘people of all communities and regions’ to take part in the planned movement against the monarchy, the 12-point agreement clearly tied the signatories to thereafter pursue more inclusive politics.
The same language was carried over into the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which committed the state to ‘carry out an inclusive, democratic and progressive restructuring of the state by eliminating the current centralised and unitary form of the state in order to address the problems faced by women, Dalits, Adivasi Janajatis, Madhesis, oppressed, neglected and minority communities and backward regions by ending discrimination based on class, caste/ethnicity, language, gender, culture, religion and region’.
The Interim Constitution of 2007 introduced the mixed electoral system with the idea of ensuring higher representation of women, Dalits, Janajatis and Madhesis. As a statement of the government’s priorities, the Three-Year Interim Plan (2007/08–2009/10) approved around the same time, explains the rationale for inclusion: ‘Inclusion means to fulfill the physical, emotional and basic needs of all the people, groups or castes. It has to be achieved by respecting their dignity and their own culture and also reducing the disparities between excluded and advantaged groups and by reducing the gap in the existing opportunities and access. In addition to this, it is to help to build a just society by ensuring rightful sharing of power and resources for their active participation as a citizen.’ The Plan envisaged raising the human development index (HDI) of Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis and Muslims by 10 per cent over the next three years by adopting strategies such as: mainstreaming excluded communities in the development process; increasing their access to resources; ensuring their proportional representation in all decision-making processes and structures of the state; launching special targeted programmes; and adopting positive discrimination policies.
It was in this backdrop that quotas were introduced for all government jobs, including in the Army. More importantly, electoral laws were formulated to increase the presence of the marginalised in the Constituent Assembly (CA), and although the presence of such groups decreased somewhat in the second CA, the two CAs were much more inclusive than any of the national legislatures that preceded it. Actual power continues to remain in the hands of the historically dominant groups, whether in the government or political parties, but the implementation of reserved quotas, including in the political parties, will ensure that this situation cannot but change over the long term.
In terms of symbolism, however, Nepal has come a long way. The country has seen a Madhesi as president and another as vice-president, followed by a female president and a Janajati vice-president. There have been Dalit ministers and Muslim women have become politically prominent. Societal attitudes appear to have changed as well. For instance, while the first CA saw a number of Dalits elected and the second CA saw none, it appeared to be a setback to the cause of inclusion. But, in an expression of a progressive society the recent parliamentary elections once again saw Dalits elected. The provincial assemblies are by definition much more representative of the population they serve while local governments are even more so. Nearly 40 per cent of all representatives are women, and Dalit women make up nearly half that number. A Muslim has taken office as the first chief minister of a province, and while the absence of any women among the seven provincial chief executives and speakers is somewhat jarring, the law has ensured that at least all the deputy speakers will be women.
In sum, although not perfectly executed, political inclusion has been achieved to a large extent. The challenge for Nepal and the leaders who have been thrust to power is to ensure that the long-promised growth we hope to achieve as a country is shared as equitably. If, as Aristotle said, humans are political animals, the acolytes of Karl Marx now in charge of our country know very well that their master’s main thesis was that humans are also economic animals. Only when inclusion is achieved in the economic sphere as well will our journey towards a just society be complete.