Nepal can claim to have many distinctions. It is the country with the highest mountain peak in the world and Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, lies in present-day Nepal. It can now claim another distinction—Nepal is a country that has twice held elections to a Constituent Assembly (CA).
It was primarily the federalism issue that led to the dissolution of the first CA in 2012, without having written a constitution. The agenda of ethnic federalism is mainly that of the Maoists. It was because of this agenda that five precious years and billions of rupees were lost, including billions of dollars in aid given by western countries and the United Nations to write a constitution. The death of more than 15,000 Nepali killed in the so-called ‘People’s War’ should also be added to this. The bill for the second CA is estimated to amount to Rs 50 billion. What about the loss to the economy by frequently organised bandas? The opportunity cost of these could be even more massive.
One of the oldest Nepali communist leaders, Mohan Bikram Singh, has said that the major reason for the defeat of the Maoists was their advocacy of ethnic federalism (Tarun, November 25, 2013). Communist leaders like Rohit and Chitra Bahadur KC have also long opposed ethnic federalism. Several parties running on the ethnic platform were badly defeated in the recent CA elections. These include the Federal Socialist Party-Nepal (FSP-N), led by Ashok Rai who left the CPN-UML after being dissatisfied with the party’s lukewarm support of the ethnic agenda. The FSP-N failed to secure a single seat under First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) but won a few under proportional representation (PR). Parties with a similar agenda is the Federal Republican Socialist Party, led by Parshuram Tamang, the Mongol National Organisation, the Dalit Janajati Party led by Bishwendra Paswan and the Nepa Rastriya Party, which contested all the constituencies in the Kathmandu Valley but failed to win a single seat in FPTP.
On the other hand, Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai is one of the few leaders to win the elections, although he lost the seat he contested from the Tarai. In his article titled “Our agenda was not defeated” (Naya Patrika, November 24, 2013), he writes that the party’s agenda regarding identity are correct and scientific. However, he had stated that federalism based on single identity is not possible (The Himalayan Times, August 14, 2013), which the newspaper had stated: “Bhattarai signals party’s U-turn on federalism”.
It must be recalled that it was Bhattarai who had advocated ‘priority rights’ for the ethnic groups after which the states were to be named. In fact, in none of the proposed single identity states, such as Limbuwan, Kirat, Tamsaling, Tamuwan, Magarat, Newa and Tharuwan, does the targeted group constitute more than half of the population. Unlike Prachanda, who is a demagogue, Bhattarai is a scholar with a doctorate. He must be aware of the ethnic distribution of Nepal’s population. Many Maoist leaders, like leaders of mainstream parties such as the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, belong to the Khas-Arya community, which make up a third of Nepal’s population. They were branded as ‘others’ and denied identity.
As a result of the movement just before the dissolution of the first CA, Bhattarai’s government was forced to grant the Khas-Arya the status of indigenous people. The Maoists did not grant them identity-based states even though they make up an overwhelming majority in the country’s Mid and Far West. These regions are among the most backward in the country, unlike the eastern and western hills and the Kathmandu Valley. They were given geography-based states. Unlike in the first CA elections, the Maoists lost badly in this part of the country.
The international aid agenda of ethnic identity also needs to come under consideration. Aid agencies of countries such as Britain, Switzerland and Germany state in their Basic Operating Guidelines that their aid would be channeled in accordance with International Labour Organization Convention No 169 (ILO 169), regarding indigenous people. These countries themselves have not signed the ILO 169 treaty. These are double standards.
Former US President Jimmy Carter and his Carter Center gave legitimacy to the Maoist victory in the first CA election. The former American president, in a press conference organised after the election, declared, “We now have the most inclusive CA in Nepal”. Even while I agreed with his statement, I questioned him about inclusiveness in his country and his home state of Georgia. It is easy to preach the virtues of inclusiveness to others. Carter also visited Nepal just before the second CA election but was wiser about issuing premature statements.
Similarly, the United Nations Development Program office in Nepal has formed a Centre for Constitutional Dialogue and organised many seminars to discuss the Maoist agenda of ethnic federalism. They even printed and distributed maps of Nepal showing the proposed ethnic states. Like Carter, UNDP was wiser this time and the CCD didn’t organise a single symposium about ethnic federalism before the second CA election. When I asked an UNDP official why, he only replied, “We have been asked to keep a low profile on this issue this time.”
Raj was vice-president of the Nepal Council of World Affairs and is secretary of the Nepal Chapter of International PEN, an organisation of writers