Nepal is among the oldest states in South Asia. But it has never been a nation in an inclusive, democratic sense. Staggeringly diverse for its size, its various groups and ethnicities were tied together due to the force of an autocratic monarchy rather than a common sense of citizenship.
Democracy in 1990 opened up political space, but it was only in 2006, through a popular movement, that Nepal’s political parties and Maoist rebels succeeded in forcing the monarch to accept that sovereignty lay with the people. The two forces together decided that they would draft a new Constitution, through an elected constituent assembly (CA).
Nepal’s new Constitution institutionalises some of the core elements of a new Nepal — particularly republicanism, secularism and federalism. Many Nepali citizens are relieved that the prolonged political transition has ended. But the constitution also is a lost opportunity. This CA was to bring the nation together and overcome social cleavages; instead, it has deepened the rift between the hills and the Terai, and between various communities.
It was meant to give citizens a sense of collective participation in drafting a common document; instead, the Constitution was rammed through even as a mass movement was building across the Terai, curfew was imposed, and over 40 people killed. It was to create a political order where excluded social groups exercised greater political power; instead, a tiny set of leaders — all belonging to traditionally dominant hill upper caste communities — hijacked the process and used it to entrench their power.
The Constitution draws federal boundaries in ways that would perpetuate the dominance of certain communities, at the cost of Terai’s Madhesi, Tharu and hill ethnic groups. It dilutes the principle of affirmative action. It shrinks political representation for those in the Terai, both by reducing constituencies in the region and the share of proportional representation. It includes draconian citizenship provisions against the interests of women and Madhesis.
India has rightly assessed that such a constitution will only lead to instability and chose not to welcome it. Despite PM Narendra Modi’s personal investment in improving ties, Kathmandu’s elite has not listened to wise Indian counsel. Instead, it has chosen to stoke chauvinistic ultra-nationalism targeting India. New Delhi should have paid more attention and prevented such an outcome.
But now it must sustain high-level focus on Nepal and exert pressure on Kathmandu so that the leadership agrees to a substantial review and amendment in the constitution. And it must stay firm in pushing for a truly inclusive Nepal.