In a significant political breakthrough, the Nepal government on Tuesday approved a constitution amendment proposal that will partially address the grievances of the Madhesis. The amendment is expected to be tabled in Parliament.
The proposal comes in the backdrop of the deep political polarisation in Nepal over the past year, which had affected both Kathmandu-Tarai and Nepal-India ties. Ever since the constitution was promulgated in September 2015, Madhesis of the southern plains had been protesting, demanding a revision in federal boundaries and greater political representation.
India had urged Nepali political leaders to take all sections of society on board. When a new government led by Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ took over power in August, it promised to address these demands.
But while it will get registered, the passage of the amendment requires a two-thirds majority. With the main opposition, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) led by K P Oli opposing the amendment, this will be difficult - though not impossible - to achieve.
The federal revision
The amendment proposal, finalised in the Prime Ministerial residence in Kathmandu, deals with four broad issues. The most contentious issue is of federal demarcation. The constitution had created a single plains-only unit in the eastern Tarai with eight districts, and merged the remaining districts of the plains with the hills. Madhesi parties want a complete demerger of the hills and the plains as they believe this would allow them to exercise a degree of self rule. They wanted two broad units in the Tarai region.
The amendment proposes to hive off hill districts and create a Tarai-only unit of six districts in western plains, stretching from the district of Nawalparasi to Bardia. This would create two units in the Tarai plains, on an east-west axis.
Five districts of the plains - three in the south east, two in the south west - however remain merged with hill provinces, on a north-south axis. The government has decided to form a commission, which will resolve all other federal disputes, leaving the door open on these districts.
Representation and citizenship
The amendment also proposes to change the pattern of representation in the upper house of parliament. Earlier, the constitution had determined that Nepal’s seven provinces would send eight representatives each to the upper house. Madhesi parties had insisted this would lead to under-representation of the Tarai, and demanded the principle of population rather than geography must be prioritised.
The amendment proposes a minimum of three representatives from each state - which must include one woman, one Dalit, and one disabled person. Besides these 21 members, 35 seats of the house were to be distributed among the states on the basis of population- so provinces of the Tarai with more people would now send more representatives.
Third, the amendment clarifies that foreign women who marry Nepali men, once they leave their original citizenship, can acquire naturalised citizenship of Nepal under federal law. There are deep cross-border kinship relations between people of the Nepali plains and Indian citizens of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh - and there was an apprehension among Madhesis that the state would seek to block these natural flows by making it difficult for Indian women to get citizenship.
However, the constitution continues to discriminate between citizens by descent and naturalised citizens - the latter are not eligible for a range of positions. It also continues to discriminate on gender lines in terms of passing citizenship to children.
The fourth issue in the amendment is to do with languages. Those languages recommended by the Language Commission as Mother Tongue, and as official languages, will be incorporated in the constitution as an annexe, giving it statutory legitimacy.
India is closely watching the developments in Nepal, and sources told HT they would be very encouraged when the amendment is tabled.
“It also vindicates our old position that the constitution must be inclusive and take everyone on board. It is encouraging to see Nepali leaders internalise this on their own and take forward the process. We now hope it can be passed.”
The amendment is seen widely in Nepal - except by the UML - as an essential first step to implementing the constitution, including holding of elections.