Police clashed with protesters in major demonstrations in Kathmandu last Sunday, as the deadline for drafting the constitution passed and the current term of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) came to an end. Nepal is now not only left with a constitutional crisis and no parliament, but a possible political crisis in which dissatisfaction, uncertainty and fear are growing. Prime Minister Bhattarai called for fresh elections on 22 November, but the other mainstream political parties claim the call is unconstitutional.
When it was elected in 2008, the CA was tasked with drawing up a new constitution that would reflect Nepal’s ethnic diversity, consolidate the Maoists’ entry into the mainstream, and signal the conclusion of the peace process, which began in 2006 following ten years of the Maoists’ people’s war. Four years and 6 billion rupees later, the 601-member CA – the largest and most representative body ever elected in the country’s history – has been unable to agree the basis for federal restructuring.
Two issues plagued the process from the beginning: the first was how many former Maoist PLA fighters would be accepted into the Nepal Army and on what basis, and the second was the nature of federalism. Progress on army integration was made when the Maoists handed over the keys to the weapons containers of the PLA, and political parties agreed on the number of Maoist fighters to be integrated. But arguments over the national question – how Nepal should deal with its ethnic diversity in the new federal structure – have proved insurmountable for the moment.
Central to the debate amongst the parties and wider society is whether to draw state boundaries along ethnic lines, allowing a measure of self-rule for ethnic groups in the regions where they are dominant, or to assign names and boundaries according to geography and in such a way that allows natural resources in the region to be exploited for the benefit of all.
A federal structure on the basis of ethnicity was first proposed by the Maoists, who argued that ethnic states would give ethnic minorities more autonomy and help address long-standing and deep-seated discrimination against Nepal’s many ethnic groups. Ethnic minorities have been excluded from state institutions for centuries, while Bahuns (Brahmins) and Chhetris dominate political and cultural life in Nepal and control the economy and resources.
Of course ethnicity-based federalism has largely been supported by various ethnic groups, including the Madhesis of the southern plains, who shared power with the Maoists in government. Opponents, including Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), argue that ethnic federalism risks dividing the country and undermining national unity. These parties are worried that securing ethnic rights threatens upper-caste domination. But their real concern is the challenge it presents to the economic power of the traditional elites.
If the Maoists are to salvage any of the gains of the people’s war, questions of class must take precedence. The root of the Maoists’ dilemma is that since coming into the mainstream, they have moved closer to the country’s political elite, through a coalition and consensus-based government, and further away from reflecting the aspirations of the poorest in Nepal, who voted for the Maoists in their millions. The fact that the governing elite in Kathmandu is predominantly upper caste is only part of the problem; the point is that they continue to exploit the poor majority and govern an economic system that reinforces their poverty.
The defence of ethnic minorities and the establishment of various national liberation fronts during the war brought the Maoists some important political benefits: increased support from excluded groups and more votes. But raising the question of ethnic rights should not be dismissed as opportunistic by either the left or right; the creation of ethnic fronts helped further the revolution and produced a new consciousness among oppressed groups. The problem is what they have become – ethnic fronts without a revolutionary project.
The national question can only be successfully addressed in the context of a wider class struggle. Where that struggle has been postponed, as it has been in Nepal, ethnic mobilisation becomes divisive and leads to a reinforcement of the power of traditional elites. Unless concrete economic benefits can be secured for all Nepalis regardless of ethnic background, then raised expectations for ethnic rights have the potential to encourage ethnic tensions.
There are no signs of ethnic violence materialising in Nepal on a mass scale at the moment, but there will be ethnic minorities who fear they are losing out. It is not inconceivable for them to conclude that the source of their exclusion is both the governing elite and other ethnic groups. A focus on economic demands would defuse potential divisions along ethnic lines.
The real disaster took place when the Maoists demobilised the movement, entered into a peace deal facilitated by India, and put faith into an electoral strategy – complete with a bourgeois constitution – as the main path to social change.
Student unions from across the political spectrum have now begun calling for Prime Minister Bhattarai to resign. The left faction within the Maoist party, which calls for a return to the revolutionary aims of the party, is preparing to launch street protests to force his resignation. Whether this latest episode in Nepali politics drives them to make a radical break with the dominant line remains to be seen.
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