Story so far: the four main political parties made up of the ruling NC and UML with the opposition UCPN(Maoists) and MJF(D)signed an agreement on 8 June to speed up the constitution draft with a provision for eight provinces, but leave the demarcation of provincial boundaries to a future Federal Commission and their names to state legislatures.
After protests erupted, the parties said âoopsâ and went back to the drawing board, demarcating boundaries not for eight but six provinces. How that number was picked out of a hat, we donât know. But it set off a maelstrom of protests by various groups which felt left out.
The people of the Province #6 in the west were for and against and went on a weeklong arson spree. The folks in Baglung and Rukum found their districts cut cleanly in half and were unhappy. The Tharus wanted their own homeland in the western Tarai and were on warpath. And the Madhesis were suddenly not satisfied with just the plains in Province #2 and also wanted a piece of the Pahad.
So the constitution framers went back to the maps and decided on seven provinces by dividing Province#6 into two: the trans-Karnali and the Mid-West. This put out the flames in Surkhet and Jumla, but angered the Tharus who felt their demands had been ignored. It got serious enough for the Tharu chief of the MJF(D), Bijay Gachhadar, to disassociate himself from the four-party grouping and join other Madhesi and Janajati parties at the barricades. And now things have gone out of control with the violence in Tikapur of Kailali where Tharu protesters fought pitched battles with police that left at least sevenÂ protesters and policemen dead.
Already the Tharuhat Struggle Committee and Madhesi activists had shut down Nepalâs plains for the past week or more, essentially blockading the hill and mountains. Thousands of trucks are stuck on the Indian side of the border, hundreds of thousands of people are stranded, and there is a danger of the unrest spreading after the Tikapur clashes.
So, as the number of proposed provinces goes from the original 14 to 8 to 6 then 7, the number of parties in the constitution alliance goes from 4 to 3. Senior ministers from the NC, UML and UCPN(M) tell us informally that they are doing the best they can, but there canât be a formula that will satisfy everyone. They are determined to take the process forward with an amendment bill, clause-by-clause debate and voting in the coming week so that the constitution will be ready. They say even if everyone is not fully on board, there will be a provision to turn the Constitution Commission into a Constitution Appeals Commission to address the demands of those who feel left out.
While we can go along with the argument that there is no compromise that will satisfy everyone, the process so far is murky, lacks transparency, appears arbitrary and reeks of vote bank politics of the main protagonists: Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NC, KP Oli of the UML, Bijay Gachhadar of the MJF(D) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists. It is also driven by the impatience of all these gentlemen to get to power in the national unity government after the constitution is passed.
Among the parties that have most reason to be aggrieved are the indigenous Tharus who have found themselves disenfranchised by the process. Even when the demands of the Karnali was heard by the Big Three in Kathmandu last week, they failed to meet the Tharu demand for greater autonomy in the western Tarai. This has brought the Tharus and Madhesis, who had no love lost for each other, together to find common cause. The government has to act urgently, leaders including Gachhadar need to try to douse the flames and come up with a solution that satisfies the Tharus.
Madhesi leaders, thoroughly discredited and most of whom were voted out by their own people in the 2013 elections, have now resorted to their only weapon: incite hatred against Kathmanduâs âcolonisersâ. Last week, they had made irresponsible and incendiary remarks exhorting the Tharus to take up axes and knives, or promising Rs 5 million to anyone who is killed in street protests in future. It is clear that they want to reignite the flames of another Madhes Movement. But now that they have Province#2, the movement has not gained too much traction so far.
Meanwhile, Kathmandu lives in a bubble. Rulers here tend not to notice, or underestimate the anger outside. The Madhesi people may be disillusioned with their leaders, but there is simmering distrust over Pahadi rulers in Kathmandu not treating them with enough respect and giving them more say in their lives. But they are much angrier about the stateâs neglect of their region, the poorest in terms of Human Development.
The lesson from all this, which we should have learnt from similar exercises elsewhere in the world, is never to leave maps in the hands of politicians. Never mix politics with boundaries. Demarcation is a technical subject with implications for viability that is best left to experts, politicians just mess it up with their short-term time horizons. For immediate firefighting, top leaders from all parties and groups must find a way that doesn’t involve more bloodshed.
Over-fermented federalism, Bidushi Dhungel
Twist in the tale, Om Astha Rai