In a welcome statement, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has welcomed the progress in Nepal’s constitution writing process, but with strong caveats. She has emphasised the need to resolve outstanding issues through dialogue and the need for parties to display continuing flexibility. New Delhi has consistently argued that only the widest possible agreement can lead to a durable constitution. India has also emphasised the constitution must be owned by, and must address the aspirations of, all regions and sections of Nepal.
Indian policy formulation assumes immense significance as a conflict peaks over the constitutional process in Nepal. Three top parties have pushed through a vote in the Constituent Assembly — and have decided to promulgate the constitution by Sunday. But they have been rigid, have not reached out to dissenting parties and many social groups are alienated from the process.
Nepal has been writing a constitution for over seven years. So any effort that leads to the culmination of the process has to be welcomed. But Nepal does not just need a constitution. It needs a constitution that addresses the root cause of past conflicts. This lies in the exclusionary State structure in Kathmandu that did not take into account the enormous diversity of the country and kept many social groups excluded. The constitution was meant to unite the nation, and make all citizens equal. But the current process does not meet those objectives. Substantively, the constitution institutionalises a federal democratic secular republic. This is laudable. But people in the southern plains are on the streets, objecting to federal boundaries, citizenship provisions and a system that will lead to their underrepresentation in the legislature. This has been a mass movement for over three weeks; 40 people have died; there are reports of people fleeing for safety to India. The unrest across the open border has political and security implications for India.
The next three days are crucial. If the constitution is pushed through without taking Terai on board, it can sow the seeds of a new ethno-nationalist conflict. And eventually, New Delhi will be dragged into it in some form. India cannot afford another secessionist movement in its neighbourhood. It is best to nip it in the bud and this requires New Delhi to use its influence and leverage to push through a new constitutional compromise. The government must follow up on the statement with action, including sending a special envoy if necessary, to persuade Nepali parties to see sense.