Trouble aheadThe disagreements over the constitution are gradually dragging Nepal into a vicious cycle of conflict
As the leaders of the major political parties are drawing the constitution to a close, there have been widespread conflict and confrontation over a number of issues. The protests in the Tarai, Mid-West and Karnali, varied demands of different interest groups and demos announced by the Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum, Madhesi parties and the Mohan Baidya and Netra Bikram Chand factions of the Maoist party predict a bumpy road ahead for Nepal before and after the promulgation of the new constitution.
The delineation of federal states has presently taken centre stage, but the issues of religion and citizenship through the mother can equally escalate tensions. If the leaders fail to take a consensual decision on these three issues, they are going to cost Nepal dear, and it may take several years for it to recover from the resulting instability and violence.
Tangle of troubles
The conflicts linked to the constitution-making process are multifaceted. However, there are four major dimensions of the current conflict.
First, there is a conflict between the forces represented in the Constituent Assembly (CA) and those who are out of it, mainly the Baidya and Chand factions of the Maoist party and ethnic and regional groups. They are eagerly waiting for the day when the new constitution is adopted so that they can intensify their struggle by claiming that it does not do any good for the people while the major parties do not intend to revert their decisions once the constitution-making process is completed.
The second conflict is between the political parties who are represented in the CA but have serious disagreements with some provisions in the proposed constitution. The first sub-category of this conflict is the dispute between the four major political parties and those who claim to be defending the rights of various castes, ethnic groups and the Madhesis. The conflict between these two groups is largely focused on the demarcation of the federal states and partly on the future governance structure. The conflict between these two groups has mounted over the past few weeks and may increase further. The second sub-category of the conflict is the dispute between those for and against declaring Nepal a secular state. Initial symptoms of religious conflict have already been seen with the nationwide protests by pro-Hindu groups demanding that Nepal be declared a Hindu state.
Third, there is also a conflict between those who support full citizenship rights in the name of the mother and those who are in favour of controlled citizenship rights. This disagreement has the potential of making future political processes more complex as the activists advancing this issue have become more vehement. The women’s citizenship rights movement can also merge with other mass-based political movements in the days ahead.
The fourth category of conflict is related to the ongoing nationwide protests against the way the four political parties have delineated the provinces. This is a complex issue in terms of recognising the leaders and supporters of the movement. They sometimes seem to be led by a coalition of the major political parties in the name of undivided (Akhanda) districts, zones or development regions and sometimes by certain interest groups. These movements lack clarity about their core demands.
After an analysis of the various conflicting groups and the nature of the existing conflicts, it can be argued that the disagreements over the constitution-making process are gradually dragging the country into a vicious cycle of conflict. The multiple layers of conflicting issues and conflicting parties, the power struggle among the political forces at the top, personal interests of the key political leaders and unhealthy power-sharing deals, and the lack of a consensual national political vision among the political leaders has played a central role in making the conflict further complicated and harder to resolve. However, there is still some hope that Nepali leaders will take constructive steps to resolve the conflict. But this requires new conflict resolution approaches and strategies. In this context, three solutions have been suggested for finding a widely accepted solution to the conflicts mentioned above.
Ending the cycle
First, Nepal needs to take the help of local third-party mediators to resolve contentious issues regarding the constitution-making process. Globally, mediation has been used as a reliable tool to resolve conflicts. Nepal has not used it adequately as the disputing actors have never favoured active and formal third-party mediation. So far, attempts have been made to resolve disputes over constitutional issues through a leader-centric approach, which are very lengthy, badly negotiated and lack long-term vision. Thus, decisions made through such a processes have often been highly controversial and not well received by a large segment of society. Local third-party mediation with the use of skilled mediators would help political leaders to find locally grounded negotiated solutions and see things from a different perspective. Political leaders should accept the fact that they may not have a solution to each and every conflict they encounter.
Second, political party leaders should form a local expert group which can work simultaneously with local mediators to resolve highly contested constitutional issues. With their solid understanding of the constitution-making process, the expert group could provide some constructive solutions to the conflicts based on their experience and expertise. However, the selection process of members of the group should be fair, transparent and trusted by a large segment of society. One possible criterion to select the right persons could be that candidates should not be involved in active party politics or identity-based movements as that could compromise their ability to provide professional advice.
Third, in a scenario where locally facilitated mediation and the local expert group’s advice does not work, and when the parties themselves cannot find durable and acceptable solutions to the conflict, they must take a decision to go for a referendum especially on the issue of federalism. A referendum can be the best approach to find legitimate solutions to highly contested issues, and we have seen this approach being successfully practiced in Scotland and Greece for different purposes. If the political debates regarding the formation of the federal states are prolonged and widespread protests and violence continue for a long time, then a referendum on this issue seems inevitable in Nepal. The modality of the referendum on the issue of the formation of the federal states can be discussed and finalised among the political parties in and outside the CA.
Bhattarai holds a Phd in peace and conflict studies and is associated with the Centre for Social Change, a Kathmandu-based research and advocacy institute