Nepal The Royal Curse
Will Monarchy return to Nepal, by default?
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.