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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nepal: A court order highlights the faultines


Identity and state restructuring in Nepal:

A court order and faultlines

Jiwan Kshetry

 A Supreme court order (unsuccessfully?) staying a landmark agreement between Nepal's major political parties has highlighted the simmering divide between those for and against identity-based state restructuring.

"Let's be proud as citizens of a country where politicians pass verdict and judiciary indulges in politics." quipped an angry person in twitter after Nepal's Supreme Court gave an interim verdict objecting to the agreement among major political forces about the central issues in new constitution.

Among others, the major political parties had recently agreed to speed up the constitution drafting process by postponing two crucial and disputed issues: the demarcation and naming of federal units. The agreement says that the task of demarcation will be done later by a Federal Commission and the names will be decided by provincial assemblies.

The court order says that the two crucial issues should be settled now when the Constituent Assembly (CA) is still in existence and cannot be left to be decided later.

Along with the sense of relief that the breakthrough brought after a year-long stalemate in the second CA in the backdrop of failure of the first, voices of discontent have also been building up. Those who favor a strong role for ethnic identity (mainly geographic and caste-based) in state restructuring have felt cheated by the deal which they perceive as the ploy to altogether jettison the role of identity in the process of state restructuring.

As the ruling parties (NC and UML), both vocally opposed to the central role of identity in restructuring the state, along with the UCPN (Maoist)—so far the largest pro-identity political party which seems to have compromised on that stance with the agreement––enjoy a comfortable two-third majority in the CA, the deal had all but ensured the formulation of new constitution in near future.

The pro-identity voices which have been opposing the deal thus risk being increasingly pushed to the fringe. The fact that the political parties advocating or sympathetic to the identity-centered politics, including the Maoists, had lost much ground during second CA vis-à-vis first has not helped the matter.

That pro-identity camp in Nepal, formed mainly by regional parties based on country's southern planes, and groups and parties claiming to represent ethnic minorities throughout the country, has suddenly found a lifeline in the SC's verdict and has caught the opportunity to ask the main political parties to roll back the agreement.

As the polarization between forces for and against the role of identity in the state restructuring––which crescendoed before the collapse of first CA back in 2012––simmers, raw nerves are now being hit once again on both sides with the SC verdict.

That chasm is now clearly seen in the social media with people jumping to make sweeping arguments and counterarguments. Many are restrained in language but others are not. Most opposing the SC verdict have pointed to the ethnic background of the justice whose single bench passed the verdict: he hails from the Madheshi community in the South of the country.

The pro-identity camp, which has felt cheated by the judiciary many times in the past including in the 1990s when SC banned the official use of local languages in local bodies, has come out strongly in support of the verdict. One commentator aptly summarizes their position and criticism of the opponents in two consecutive tweets:

"Want to know how ethnicity/caste dominant state could be, Nepal is fine example. SC's verdict is seen from ethnic angle and not on its merit. This is what superiority feeling of own ethnicity/caste does to one's psyche. Anyone else is incompetent and casteist but yourself." 

As these lines are being written, the parties are duly engaged in preparing the draft of the constitution ignoring the SC  verdict which they say impinges upon the jurisdiction of Constituent Assembly. 

Whether the SC verdict will have lasting impact on constitution writing or it will be simply brushed aside by the major political parties remains to be seen. In either case, however, the verdict has profoundly impacted the discourse around politics of identity in the country.

It is a common perception in Nepal that, as people apparently voted mostly based on agenda other than identity in the last polls, the parties have incentives in sidelining the  issue of identity as far as their electoral future is concerned. This perception has also been amplified by the dominant section of media in Kathmandu. 

The largely status quoist vocal section of Nepali society feels that the concept itself of ethnic grievance in an era of globalization is anachronistic. They argue that the whole issue of ethnic identity and its incorporation in mainstream politics was the result of ill-devised and opportunistic policies of Maoists who, after failing to draw enough cadres and fighters on the class plank, had switched to ethnicity plank as a desperate measure during the armed insurgency.

This camp feels vindicated in this stance by the massive losses that the Maoists and other pro-identity parties suffered during the second CA polls.

The other side in the debate thinks the opposite: a country ruled for two and a half centuries by Shah Kings and Ranas--both caste and race supremacists--the shadow of whose rule still looms large in the newly republican country, Nepal has no option but to address those historical grievances now if future conflict and strife are to be prevented. As giving ethnic identity a central role in state restructuring is, according to them, the only means of doing so, they fear that the major political parties are now set to move forward without repenting for the past crimes of the state.

For them, the defeat of pro-identity parties in latest polls is a aberration rather than a true reflection of the will of the people.

Paradoxically, the two sides seem to increasingly agree about one thing: it is impossible to logically convince the other side about the merit of one's arguments.  

That has seen hardening of stances and radicalization on both the sides which had peaked before the collapse of first CA nearly throwing the country into chaos. Even though much subdued since, this radicalization is still a major obstacle to the efforts aimed at constructively engaging the two sides of the divide so as to find a solution acceptable to both. 

That said, the challenges for Nepali leadership after promulgation of constitution are immense and reconciliation with the disgruntled groups and parties will be one of them. 

While further integration into the world system by reviving the ailing economy and improving the abysmal track record in governance and accountability should be the top priority of Nepal's leadership now, amicably settling the disputed issues like role of identity in state restructuring is no less important. The merits of the court verdict will be debated for a long time to come but the divide it has highlighted has to be bridged as Nepal negotiates its entry into the era of CA-promulgated constitution.

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