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Minorities in the new Nepal

29 May 2008

After several years of bloody conflict the South Asian state of Nepal is set to become a republic and end 240 years of royal rule. The country has recently elected constituents to an assembly that is meeting in Kathmandu to draft a new constitution for the Himalayan state. Deependra Jha, a human rights activist from the ethnic Madhesi community, discusses some of the main challenges facing minorities in this current transition phase.

Despite minor incidents of violence in a few districts, the election of a Constituent Assembly (CA) held on April 8 was fair, impartial and ended with great success. Results have established the Maoist as the largest party and also revealed the strength of regional and ethnic political parties like Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF). The Maoists, a rebel group that fought the Nepali government for 12 years calling for an end to the country’s monarchy, won 225 of the total 601 seats. Despite the influential and powerful position of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal – Nepal United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) – both parties did not secure enough votes to continue their collaboration government.

It is still unclear whether all of the parties with seats in the CA will be willing to participate in a new coalition government lead by the Maoists. The shocking results which have given the former rebels such a significant lead indicate that there are likely to be several challenges in the future for the working of the CA.

On one side a majority of the people expressed that the Maoists have been given a mandate for change and to continue the peace process. On the other hand, the second and third largest political parties, including newly emerging political forces, want to see a clear road map and commitment from the Maoists over a range of pending issues before joining the government. There are many unresolved issues since the Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed on November 8 2006 between the government and the Maoists, including security sector reform, integration of the Maoists’ forces and Nepal Army, forming of federal structures and the implementation of a Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Addressing demands of economic, social and cultural rights, federal structure with autonomy and grievances of the minority groups and ethnic communities will be added major challenges for the smooth functioning of the CA.

Minority/ethnic issues were one of the major slogans of April 2006 popular movement that resulted in an end to the monarchy and restored parliamentary democracy. Later, the April Movement was backed, shaped, strengthened and renewed by demonstrations by ethnic Madhesi and Indigenous people in early 2007. One of the consequences of this was that the term ‘proportional’ was recognized as a means of equal sharing of power in state structures with full recognition of identity of minority groups. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the interim constitution and the 22-point agreement with the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum have guaranteed proactive compensatory measures to ensure proportional representation of various ethnic marginalized communities, including Madhesi, at all levels of the three state organs – the executive, legislature and judiciary.

The greater number of representation of the minority groups in the CA now brings more hope for the institutionalization of their agendas. However, the peoples’ mandate may be challenged by hidden colonial attitudes and racial perception of the status quo, who have been capturing and limiting the state power within themselves. The various agreements with Indigenous people (Janjatis) and Madhesi have legitimate moral grounds to be incorporated in the forthcoming constitution. Still, minority groups have certain doubts that their genuine rights based demands may be manipulated at the time of the Constitution drafting process as past experiences have proven political parties to have little commitment to protecting minority rights.

If these issues of the minority/ethnic groups are not be properly dealt with within a certain time frame, it will result in heightening local tensions and will widen space for the emergence of ultra radical forces in various parts of the country. The failure to meet existing high expectations may also create the risk of disillusionment and lead to conflict. It is for this reason the Maoists seem eager to cash in on the high expectations of the minority groups. But they also want to ride the growing wave of popularity and by attempting to quickly address these important issues of marginalized ethnic groups through a populist approach they may endanger individual civil and political rights.

Finally, the task ahead is difficult, and the challenges are greater than they were ever before. But this is no reason to sit back and watch the processes unfold. The current need is to be more active as an unfair, non-consultative and secretive process could be cause for future ethnic conflicts. A starting point would be to demand an all-inclusive peace-building process with obvious affirmative actions to ensure participation of deprived and ignored communities. These minority groups need to be encouraged and convinced to be major part of the Constituent Assembly process and ensure adequate participation in drafting the new constitution.

Mr. Deependra Jha is a Coordinator of the Dialogue Group for Constituent Assembly and Chair of Democratic Freedom and Human Rights Institute.