After the constitution was promulgated on 20 September, the Madhesi parties agitating for amended provisions in the new constitution changed their tactic of demonstrations and shutdowns and started blocking the border with India.
One week later, as Nepal reels under a shortage of fuel and other essential commodities the top three parties, which pushed through the constitution, have formed a three-member committee to negotiate with the disgruntled Madhesi parties and talks are expected to begin in a couple of days.
But what are the major demands put forth by the Madhesi parties? They are not different from the seven points that India reportedly pressed Nepal to address.
The Madhesi parties want the five disputed Tarai districts to be in two plains provinces, rights for naturalised citizenship holders to assume important posts like President and Prime Minister, proportional representation in all state organs and demarcation of electoral constituencies in proportion to population.
Are these demands genuine, and are they too difficult for the government to address? Madhesi leaders belonging to the top three parties say two of these demands are genuine and can be easily addressed. But they say the other two, if addressed, will hurt the long-term interests of Nepalis.
Nepal’s 2007 Interim Constitution adopted principles of proportional representation in all state organs. The new constitution has partially incorporated them. In its preamble, the new constitution states that an equal society shall be created on ‘the basis of principles of proportional representation’. In Article 285, it again states that principles of proportional representation shall be adopted to appoint civil servants.
But the word ‘proportional’ is missing in the fundamental right to social justice. The new constitution merely talks about principles of inclusion in state organs. The Madhesi parties are suspicious that the top three parties are trying to wriggle out of the earlier provision. They believe that the word ‘proportional’ was deliberately omitted to exclude already-excluded communities.
“Madhesi parties have misinterpreted it to spread the lie that 45 per cent of government jobs will no longer be reserved for them,” says Mahendra Yadav, a Nepali Congress (NC) member of the parliament. “This is not a big issue, and it can be resolved through an amendment.”
UML’s MP Satrughan Mahato says the top three parties are ready to include this word even in the fundamental rights. “It can be addressed in the next parliamentary session,” he says.
UCPN (M)’s MP Surendra Prasad Jaishawal says the demand for demarcation of election constituencies in proportion to population is genuine and the top three parties are ready to address it.
“Proportional representation and demarcation of constituencies in proportion to population were our demands, too,” he says. “We signed the constitution only after our respective parties promised to address these demands by amending the constitution.”
All Madhesi leaders of the top three parties believe that addressing these two genuine demands will ease tension in the Tarai. Mahato of the UML says: “People in the Madhes are angry because the state quickly responded to protests in the hills, but did not wake up even after so many deaths in the Tarai.”
Article 289 of the new constitution bars naturalised citizenship holders from becoming President, Vice President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speakers of both houses, Head of Provincial Government, Chief Minister, Speaker of Provincial Council and Chiefs of security agencies. But the Madhesi parties say this is a discriminatory provision and naturalised citizenship holders should have equal rights.
Madhesi parties say people in the Tarai share kinship and cultural ties with Indians, and this constitutional provision is a discrimination against those who settle in the Tarai after marrying Madhesi men or women. But Madhesi leaders of national parties believe that allowing naturalised citizenship holders the right to assume important posts would be detrimental to the long-term interests of the Madhesi people.
“Reversing this constitutional provision would mean that those Madhesis who were born in the Tarai will have to compete with Indians married to our sons and daughters to become Chief Minister of the Madhes province,” explains Jaisawal of the UCPN(M). “And this provision does not stop our children from becoming Nepal’s President even if we are married to Indians.”
Madhesi parties want no more than two provinces in the Tarai. The new constitution has created just two plains provinces. But Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa in the east and Kailali and Kanchanpur in the far-west have been put in the hill provinces. Madhesi parties want these five districts to be in the plains provinces. But not all Madhesis support this demand.
UML’s MP Shital Jha says: “I am fighting for a Mithila state, but I do not have reservations about how provinces have been demarcated in the Tarai. What if we insert Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa in the Madhes province, and people from these districts rise up against it? We should listen to what a majority of people living there want.”