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Minorities and the constitution building process in Nepal

4 August 2009

Nepal is in the midst of a historic constitution making process. After ousting the country’s monarchy through a people’s revolution in 2007, last year the country elected members for a Constituent Assembly, tasked with writing up a new constitution for the country. MRG’s Head of Conflict Prevention, Chris Chapman, recently organized a round table discussion with Nepali indigenous and minority groups on their ideas for a new constitution. MRG Communications intern Farrah Tek spoke to him about the process.

Read more on minorities and indigenous people in Nepal

Q: How are minorities represented in Nepali politics today?

A: Indigenous people are fairly proportionally represented. The Constituent Assembly consists of 219 indigenous members, which is 36 percent of the total seats. However, while the Madhesi have their own political party, Dalits and indigenous peoples’ representatives are members of mainstream political parties and have to support those parties’ positions in the assembly, so it is difficult for them to promote their own communities’ concerns.

Q: How different will the new constitution be from the original one?

A: The original was a monarchist one, where power was very centralized. The new Constitution is of course yet to be written but what appears to be certain is that it will be federalist in design, where some powers will be devolved to local authorities at the state level.

Q: How far does the new constitution deal with Nepal’s ethnic issues?

A: When the conflict began, the main issues were not mainly ethnic. They were more political and class based, as the main insurgent group was based on Maoism. Ethnicity came into it because the Maoists tried to recruit indigenous peoples and Dalits as a constituency by playing on their grievances. So these communities were sucked into the conflict; for example, they were often targeted by the government because it was assumed they sympathised with the Maoists. Then, the Madhesi issue came to the fore; this very large minority had suffered political and social discrimination and they started militating for a say in the Constitution process.

Q: How will the Constitution recognize minority groups that don’t currently have a political voice?

A: The 54 indigenous groups, Dalits, Madhesi and Muslims are trying to work to make sure their voices will be represented. Even with a federalist model, there is always a danger that there will be marginalization; for example Dalits are spread across the whole country and will struggle to gain a political majority in any state. Importantly, these communities are lobbying to promote stronger human rights protections in the new Constitution.

Q: What are the major changes we could expect in the new Constitution?

A: There will be better and stronger human rights protections. Ideally, minority rights will be more protected. It is important to give international human rights Conventions legal precedence in the constitution; this is important in order to protect the rights of all people in the country, including smaller minorities, and minority women, who are often discriminated against doubly – because they are minorities, and because they are women.

Q: With a federalist model, how will the state lines be drawn?

A: That is one of the issues that need to be decided. Some people say it should be according to geography, while others say it should be according to ethnic groups.

Q: What are other obstacles that could affect this process?

A: It is a slow process and it is already behind schedule. It should finish by May next year. But writing a Constitution should not be rushed because the Constituent Assembly needs to consider a huge number of issues, and importantly, they need to go out and find out what different people want from the Constitution. There is meant to be a process of consultation, but it might not happen as thoroughly as it should because they are already behind schedule. So far, they have been talking about the process and forming committees.

Q: What is being done to ensure the new Constitution will be completed in a timely manner and that it will also represent everyone?

A: The international donor community will certainly apply pressure. There will probably be delays. MRG’s position would be that it is more important for the constitution to be based on broad consultation, than for it to be on time. It all depends on the flexibility of the donor community and the government.

Q: How have the international community been involved in Nepal’s Constitution process?

A: They have been donating financial aid to civil society groups so that they can be involved in drafting the Constitution. The United Nations Development Programme has set up a center in Kathmandu to support the process. The center has spaces for seminars and training programs run by the UN and NGOs.

Q: Is the Constituent Assembly looking at any other country examples?

A: At the Roundtable discussion on Constitution making in Nepal, I asked the same question; it seems they are not looking to any country’s model. India has some similarities relating to Nepal’s issues. They are both struggling to overcome the legacies of a caste system, and have highly diverse populations including indigenous peoples, and a Muslim population. But Nepal needs a Constitution that will be suitable to their specific issues.

Q: What are the specific issues that you are talking about?

A: It is not easy to delineate between ethnic communities. The indigenous peoples and the Madhesi tend to be concentrated in one area, whereas Dalits are spread all over the country. There are minorities within minorities. While the indigenous peoples and Madhesi are in favour of federalism, Dalits do not believe they will benefit as much from it.

Q: What can be done to ensure that Dalits will benefit from a federalist design?

A: Dalits, like all minorities, need to have very strong rights prohibiting discrimination, and strong, effective mechanisms to enforce those rights. Affirmative action can help to ensure they have access to jobs and education. They could also have a system of cultural autonomy, which is not based on territory, but on having structures which ensure that the community’s rights are protected.

Q: Why are Dalits so discriminated against in Nepal?

A: In Nepal, their identity is rooted in negative prejudices which are very strongly entrenched in cultural beliefs and attitudes, based on a Hindu caste system. They used to be called “untouchable,” but have rejected that word. The main demand from Dalits is to have proportional representation of jobs in Parliament and the government, and in the education system, so that they have a way to fight against the political domination they have been subjected to.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: Yes, I would like to add that the complexity of ethnic issues in Nepal is because the communities interlock. There are communities within communities. Thus, it is hard to protect minority rights based on a federalist system. MRG wants to promote strong human rights protections in Nepal, where there is a prohibition of discrimination and strong minority rights protections.