Back to basicsWe have been handed a constitution, certainly not by a feudal lord but by a committee no less feudal
As much as one felt like celebrating the new constitution, not unlike Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, it was difficult to avoid being pulled in different directions by mixed feelings. Rejoicing in the fact that we at least got something out of an exercise that was beginning to look interminable, and not because, as Maoist supremo Prachanda claimed, it signalled the end of the era when feudal lords bestowed a constitution unto the people (more on that later). But also quite disturbed that our ruling triumvirate thought it fit to rejoice with abandon when the mood was definitely more than a little sombre in large parts of the Tarai.
Not being anywhere close to a constitutional expert, I would not know if our new constitution is the most progressive in all of South Asia, as the Nepali Congress Vice-President, Ram Chandra Poudel, proclaimed it to be. What I do know is that any constitution promulgated even as people are dying in protest would need some quick and radical overhaul if it is to last at all.
Pretense of ignorance
It is rather intriguing that the new troika running the country continues to try to impress upon the agitating groups that violence will lead nowhere and that they are ready for talks. One does wonder if they even pause to hark back at their own lineage. At least two of the parties, the Nepali Congress and the UCPN-Maoist, are where they are now because of a resort to armed struggle. And although there is merit in the argument that all issues can be resolved through dialogue in a democracy, it presupposes a sagacity on those who wield power that our leaders have proved sorely incapable of demonstrating. For, whether it was the Maoist insurgency or the 2007 uprising in the Tarai, it was only after prolonged violence that the rulers deigned to begin negotiations.
Unfortunately, we are witnessing a repeat of this tendency. Everyone knew that no matter how the division of the federal units was to be undertaken, there would be some amount of dissatisfaction. But to assume that because the three parties have the required numbers in the Constituent Assembly (CA), and declaring that they had been given a free hand to do as they pleased was not the most tactical way of beginning a dialogic process.
More worrisome is the manner in which the ruling threesome feign ignorance about the demands of the disgruntled, and repeat ad nauseam their readiness to discuss the ‘genuine’ demands. It would save everyone a lot of trouble if they dropped that pretence since they seem well aware of the major sources of dissatisfaction and the proof of that is the unilateral drafting of constitutional provisions that appear to address some of those. Can our leaders not even see the irony in their call to abjure violence while trying to mollify the same groups accused of engaging in violence? Why does it always take lives lost and societal harmony put under strain for the powers to be able to act?
It would help if they could declare what demands they consider to be ‘genuine’ and what outright frivolous. For, at the moment, it seems that anything the ruling parties are ready to compromise on are ‘genuine’ and the rest not so. That certainly is not the most conducive basis for a genuine dialogue.
No less fuedal
Now, on to Prachanda and his apparent satisfaction at having ensured a constitution passed by the CA. That is nothing but legal skullduggery for, apart from the one distinction that the constitution was voted on by CA members, the whole point of having a CA was thoroughly undermined. If the purpose of the CA was to rubber-stamp decisions made by a small coterie of leaders, we could have been spared all the sham of having a CA to begin with. Going by what the CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal recalled about the 1990 constitution-drafting process in which he had played a key role, there seems to have been a franker exchange of views and more strategic compromises then—not to mention some duplicity on the part of some of the more conservative people among those tasked with writing the constitution.
The spirit of the first CA that had expected free-flowing discussions on all constitutional provisions unencumbered by party position had already been thwarted with the expansion of the anti-defection law in 2010 to apply to the CA as well, thereby controlling any inter-party dissensions. We all made a big hullaballoo about how the first CA was among the most inclusive legislative bodies in the world. But that great diversity among our honourable members and expected articulation of interests specific to their social group was rendered moot by that most powerful of tools in a Westminster-style democracy, the party whip. Hence, we have now been handed a constitution, certainly not by a feudal lord but by a committee no less feudal in its outlook.
Hypocrises of the UML
One may recall that soon after the second CA was elected, the UML had issued a diktat to its lawmakers that they were to be clad in daura-suruwal in the CA. Gone was the recognition of the country’s immense social diversity of the first CA, most visible on that inaugural day when it voted out the monarchy, and in its place was ordered a rigid regimentation reminiscent of the one-dress Panchayat era. But, when it also ordered its cadres to be decked up in their ethnic finery at the celebratory tea party it organised, it was that same diversity that the UML made great pains to demonstrate to justify its claim that the constitution had the backing of all Nepalis.
The Czech author Milan Kundera writes: “I was not a hypocrite, with one real face and several false ones. I had several faces because I was young and didn’t know who I was or wanted to be.” It seems to be an affliction that the UML and also the UCPN (Maoist) suffer from severely. Going on 40 for one and past 40 for the other, both the parties seem not to have shed their behaviour of their youth.