Nepal has gone through a remarkable transformation from war to peace and monarchy to republic in the last decade. But in the final phase of its constitution writing, which is meant to institute this new political order, the situation has turned violent. On Monday, eight people, mostly police officials, were killed in the western Nepal district of Kailali. The Tarai plains, bordering India, have been paralysed by a strike for almost two weeks. Curfew has been imposed and clashes are frequent.
The primary political battle is over the issue of the federal structure. Nepal is a remarkably diverse country, but many ethnic groups have felt excluded from the power structure and see federalism as a tool of political empowerment.
The top three national parties, led by traditionally dominant castes, have agreed to a seven-state federal model. But the politically marginalised ethnic groups and Madhesis — who share close ethnic and kinship links with people in Bihar and UP — believe the current boundaries do not empower them. Madhesis and Tharus, another ethnic group, have been at the forefront of the protests, one of which turned violent. There is a risk of deeper polarisation on ethnic lines if a solution is not found soon.
The State has to enforce order.
Disproportionate force can trigger more violations and deepen the alienation. Kathmandu’s top leaders must sincerely reach out to Madhesi and Tharu groups, putting on hold the constitutional process, initiate a dialogue, revise federal boundaries, and then promulgate the statute.
If the new constitution is not owned by the country’s minorities, it would be a self-defeating exercise. The issues are not intractable and a slight adjustment of districts in the east and western plains can soothe tempers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to his counterpart PM Sushil Koirala on Tuesday to express his sorrow at the loss of lives. He also advised the Nepal leadership to widen consultations, and accommodate the aspirations of its citizens. While India cannot be seen as directly intervening in Nepal’s affairs, the wise counsel of Mr Modi is welcome. New Delhi played an important role in initiating the peace process in Nepal by bringing together the Maoists and parliamentary parties. As the process reaches its climax, India has done well to call for a broad-based constitutional settlement and peaceful accommodation.