Nepal The Royal Curse

Will Monar­chy re­turn to Nepal, by de­fault?

Southasia - - Contents - By S. M. Hali

The moun­tain king­dom of Nepal, which abol­ished monar­chy in De­cem­ber 2007 as part of a peace deal with Maoists, who had agreed to re-join the gov­ern­ment, is on the brink of a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis. Gov­erned by a Con­stituent Assem­bly (CA) un­der the pro­viso of an In­terim Con­sti­tu­tion, the CA was tasked with draft­ing Nepal’s per­ma­nent con­sti­tu­tion. The predica­ment is com­pounded by the fact that the CA has been un­able to com­plete the as­sign­ment de­spite mul­ti­ple ex­ten­sions.

The In­terim Con­sti­tu­tion of Nepal ex­pired at mid­night on May 28, 2011. The CA had al­ready ex­tended the orig­i­nal dead­line of May 28, 2010 by one year. The cri­sis ag­gra­vated when on May 25, 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the 2010 ex­ten­sion of the In­terim Con­sti­tu­tion was un­con­stitu- tional; yet on May 29, 2011 the CA ex­tended the In­terim Con­sti­tu­tion by a fur­ther three months. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of this ex­ten­sion of the dead­line. In Au­gust 2011, the CA again ex­tended the In­terim Con­sti­tu­tion by yet an­other three months and in Novem­ber, by six months un­til 28 May 2012.

Neu­tral ob­servers note with con-

cern that a per­ma­nent con­sti­tu­tion is far from fi­nal­ized. With a leg­isla­tive and con­sti­tu­tional vac­uum loom­ing, the gov­ern­ment and the Maoists, who hold the largest num­ber of seats in the CA, are locked in a po­lit­i­cal stand­off over what hap­pens next. The ex­per­i­ment of this land­locked South Asian state with democ­racy needs to be ex­am­ined.

Pri­mar­ily a Hindu monar­chy, lo­cated in the Hi­malayas and bordered to the north by the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China and to the south, east, and west by the Repub­lic of In­dia, the erst­while tourist haven was rocked by a decade long civil war. In 1996, the Com­mu­nist Party of Nepal (Maoist) launched a vi­o­lent strug­gle to re­place the royal par­lia­men­tary sys­tem with a peo­ple’s so­cial­ist repub­lic. The bloody strife took a toll of 12,000 lives with King Gya­nen­dra’s at­tempt to quash the vi­o­lent Maoist move­ment fail­ing and on 18 May, 2006 he re­lin­quished sov­er­eign power to the peo­ple thus end­ing Nepal’s of­fi­cial sta­tus as a Hindu King­dom. In April 2008, gen­eral elec­tions were held; former Maoist rebels won the largest bloc of seats in elec­tions to the new CA but failed to achieve an out­right ma­jor­ity. Dur­ing the last four years, four Prime Min­is­ters have ruled Nepal in a vir­tual game of mu­si­cal chairs.

The pro­mul­ga­tion of a new con­sti­tu­tion will com­plete Nepal’s tran­si­tion from a mono-re­li­gious king­dom to a plu­ral­ist democ­racy. The prob­lems that im­pede the process are myr­iad. Strong dis­sent has emerged to Nepal’s new iden­tity: nu­mer­ous voices are clam­or­ing for the restora­tion of a Hindu state. Nepal’s cur­rent in­terim con­sti­tu­tion sug­gests am­biva­lence be­tween the two po­si­tions. On the one hand, the pre­am­ble de­clares Nepal as a ‘sec­u­lar, in­clu­sive and fully demo­cratic State’. On the other hand, it fails to wholly pro­tect the right to free­dom of re­li­gion.

Ar­ti­cle 23(1) pro­vides that, “Ev­ery per­son shall have the right to pro­fess, prac­tice and pre­serve his/her own re­li­gion as handed down to him/her from an­cient times pay­ing due re­gard to so­cial and cul­tural tra­di­tions. Pro­vided that no per­son shall be en­ti­tled to con­vert an­other per­son from one re­li­gion to an­other and no per­son shall act or be­have in a man­ner which may in­fringe upon the re­li­gion of oth­ers.”

Legally, this per­spec­tive is flawed. Prin­ci­pally, it fails to com­ply with nor­ma­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the right to re­li­gious free­dom by out­law­ing con­ver­sion and pro­vid­ing only for the preser­va­tion of a re­li­gious sta­tus quo. The UN Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on free­dom of re­li­gion or be­lief has ex­pressed ‘deep con­cern’ over anti-con­ver­sion laws, blam­ing them for vil­i­fy­ing re­li­gious mi­nori­ties. A num­ber of low caste Hin­dus, the Dal­its, have been try­ing to con­vert to Chris­tian­ity or Is­lam but they have been out­lawed.

The other prob­lems that en­cum­ber the draft­ing of the new con­sti­tu­tion are whether Nepal should have a pres­i­den­tial form of gov­ern­ment or a prime min­is­ter as the chief ex­ec­u­tive; how many states the new fed­eral repub­lic should have; whether the ju­di­ciary should be un­der par­lia­ment or be in­de­pen­dent and whether the par­lia­ment should be uni­cam­eral or have two cham­bers. Party con­flicts along with a lack of im­ple­men­ta­tion of past agree­ments have un­for­tu­nately marred the process.

One MP has opined that pub­lic re­ac­tion may be tested by float­ing the idea of a “mini con­sti­tu­tion” that would be en­forced on May 28 as a to­ken. Re­port­edly, Maoist chief Pushpa Ka­mal Da­hal Prachanda, whose party is likely to draw the most flak if the dead­line is missed, has be­gun train­ing party cadre on what to do (per­haps tak­ing up arms) if the new statute does not ma­te­ri­al­ize in May. The con­sti­tu­tion has a pro­vi­sion for ex­tend­ing the dead­line by six months in case of an emer­gency like civil war. How­ever, it also has the pro­vi­sion to be amended fur­ther, which could be used by the de­fault­ing par­ties to ex­tend the dead­line by more than six months.

Should that hap­pen, Nepal is headed for ut­ter chaos with the pos­si­bil­ity of pub­lic vi­o­lence. Com­mon Nepalese, who have the high­est stakes in the mat­ter, have been en­dur­ing in­fla­tion, lack of se­cu­rity and a crip­pling 14-hour daily power cut in the hope that things will im­prove af­ter the new con­sti­tu­tion comes into ef­fect.

As the fog of Nepal’s con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis thick­ens with the ap­proach­ing dead­line, Nepal’s Min­is­ter for In­dus­tries, Anil Ku­mar Jha has sul­lied the wa­ters by com­ment­ing that fail­ure on the part of po­lit­i­cal par­ties to com­plete the as­signed job could lead to monar­chy re­turn­ing at the helm. The omi­nous state­ment ap­peared the day former King Gya­nen­dra re­turned to the cap­i­tal from west Nepal, amidst an en­thu­si­as­tic wel­come and cheers of “you must come and save the coun­try” by an ex­as­per­ated peo­ple aspir­ing an end to their woes. Jha’s coup de grâce to spec­u­la­tions maybe his state­ment: “We have a habit in Nepal to come to a con­sen­sus dur­ing the last minute and that is why the new con­sti­tu­tion would also be a last minute event.” There is still hope for a demo­cratic fu­ture for Nepal but the clock is tick­ing.

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