Monday, September 28, 2015

C K Lal - Most Nepalis are Not Celebrating their New Constitution // Prashant Jha - Baburam Bhattarai’s exit: A body blow to Nepal’s Maoists // Manjushree Thapa - Why I burned Nepal's new constitution

An ambitious warrior from the tiny Gorkha principality in the mid-mountains of Nepal founded the country with a combination of trick and treachery in the late-eighteenth century. Kathmandu has remained a hotbed of conspiracies ever since, where the ruling elite scheme against each other almost on permanent basis. With the ruler’s command as the only law, there was no way to break this vicious cycle that harmed almost everyone.

It was at the urging of Jawaharlal Nehru that the kingdom got its first statute in 1947 when Prime Minister Maharaja Padma Shamsher promulgated a constitution to confer political legitimacy upon the Rana oligarchy. The statute didn’t last. Padma was ousted in a bloodless coup soon afterwards and the country returned back into the hands of the more autocratic Ranas. It was only after the overthrow of the Ranas and the restoration of a Shah King into power in 1951 that a proper constitution was made – once again under the influence of Nehru – which sought to lead the country towards democratic rule. Perhaps to make up for the lost time, Nepal has given itself a fresh statute once every decade on an average. That must be the highest turnover rate of constitutions anywhere in the world.

The new constitution: The supreme law of the land that President Ram Baran unveiled on September 20, 2015 in a somber ceremony inside the Constituent Assembly hall is this the latest in the series. Of course, it is a much awaited document, but it merely replaces the existing statute rather than fills a constitutional vacuum. And that’s the reason the current constitution is being contested so fiercely: Its critics insist that the statute seeks to turn the clock back, specially on issues related to minority rights. Proponents of the document, however, claim that it’s the best constitution in the world.

It is possible to take a reformist view and consider the constitution to be a dynamic document where changes can be introduced in a gradual and legitimate manner. The problem with that position is the intransience of the dominant majority in Nepal that has refused to entertain voices of dissent. There is yet another reason that has made opponents of the new constitution desperate – Nepal’s experience shows that those in power never amend any constitution to address the aspirations of the marginalised. Without hitting the streets, minorities have never got their aspirations addressed in a legitimate manner. That could be one of the reasons behind the desolation of the Madhesi population in the southern plains of Nepal, where protests have continued for more than one-and-half months, and nearly four dozen people have lost their lives, including eight policemen, in a brutal crackdown by the security forces.

When the constitution was being inaugurated in Kathmandu, nearly half the population of the country was reeling under voluntary shutdowns, police prohibitory orders, and a state of curfew being enforced by the Nepal Army.

Terai-Madhes – the southern plains of Nepal – is home to over half of Nepal’s population, two-thirds of them being ethnic Madhesis who are incorrectly described as ‘people of Indian origin’ due to their family and cultural affiliations across the border.

The presence of Madhesis in the security forces of Nepal is negligible. The ethnic composition of the security forces during times of crisis is a sore point everywhere. Madhesis perceive soldiers and police personnel as oppressors rather than protectors. The security forces, on the other hand, act as if they were keeping order in occupied territories where they have no emotional involvement. Protests have turned violent in response to brutalities by law enforcement agencies and vice-versa, perpetuating a vicious circle of violence. The complete absence of politicos of the dominant majority in Terai-Madhes has further aggravated the situation… read more:

Manushi Yami Bhattarai was in a jeep up in Gharwal on Saturday afternoon when she got a call from her father, the Maoist ideologue and Nepal’s former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai. He told her did not want her to get a shock after hearing from other sources - and broke the news. He would, in a few hours, quit the Maoist party and resign from parliament. Manushi was stunned. The Maoist party was not just a regular party for the Bhattarai family - it was their life. The family was underground through the years of the Maoist insurgency, moving around small towns and big cities in India and sporadically spending time in base areas in Nepal, living separately to avoid to being spotted. Her mother, Hisila Yami, was a prominent leader and a former minister. Manushi herself took on other identities when she went to small schools in the Indian hills, and college in Delhi and had been active in student politics. This was a big moment.

Bhattarai called a press conference on Saturday afternoon and announced he was quitting the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), a force he had helped build, as well as resigning from Parliament. He said an era had ended with the constitution, but he was deeply regretful that Madhesi and Tharu concerns had not been addressed. A constitution through the CA had been a political line he had pushed but the fact that half the country was not celebrating the promulgation had dampened the occasion.

An academic revolutionary: Bhattarai is one of the most striking figures of Nepali politics; his story is the story of the last twenty years of Nepali history. Bhattarai got increasingly radicalised during his time in India, while studying in Chandigarh and later in Delhi’s JNU, when he saw the state of Nepali workers in India. He organised the students and working class, got involved with Nepali extreme left platforms back home against an autocratic monarchy, even as he finished a PhD on Nepal’s under-development in the 80s.

While Bhattarai participated in the 1990 movement for the restoration of democracy, he and his then party objected to the constitution that emerged as a compromise between the king and democratic parties. Instead, they demanded that the constitution must be drafted by a Constituent Assembly and monarchy be given no space. Subsequently, Bhattarai joined another radical left party led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. The two men together decided to launch a People’s War in 1996. Its political and economic rationale was laid out by Bhattarai in a seminal text where he documented how Nepal was ‘semi colonial’- under the political and economic grip of India - and ‘semi feudal’, and only a revolution could liberate the oppressed.

Such a political project was dismissed as a fantasy in a post Cold War World but it came rather close to fruition. Prachanda was undoubtedly the mass charismatic figure, the organisation builder, the supreme leader and the man who commanded the loyalty of the Maoist fighters on the ground. But Bhattarai was the political mind who drew up the party documents, conceived of the need to expand the party base by including the issues of oppressed ‘nationalities’ or ethnic minorities and Madhes, and build relationships with those outside the party fold in the media, civil society and international community. The two men had more than their share of tensions, but recognised they complemented each other.

The party grew, but Bhattarai was the first to recognise that a traditional style communist republic was not feasible, and war alone would not lead to the republican political transformation he sought in Nepal. Even as large sections of his party, including Prachanda, flirted with the idea of allying with an autocratic monarch, Bhattarai pushed the line of a ‘democratic republic’ - the party would give up the war, adopt constitution through a CA as its primary line and republic as its core goal. In this quest, he deepened relations with other parliamentary parties and India.

When the king took over absolute power, and Maoist suffered a military setback, Prachanda came around to this view. And the roots of a peace process were planted. This much can be said with reasonable certainty. If Nepal was able to arrive at a peace settlement and manage a respectable political deal to end the conflict, Bhattarai deserved a large path of the credit for conceiving it.

Turbulent peace: A new phase began as the party emerged overground. Bhattarai was now key to building relations with the international community. He helped draft the peace accord and the interim constitution of 2007. In 2008, Maoists won a surprise victory and Bhattarai became the finance minister and won accolades for his performance.

But there was another ideological battle to wage. One section of the Maoists may have entered the peace process, but still entertained hopes of a ‘people’s revolt’ and mass uprising to establish hegemonic rule. They saw India as the main enemy and adopted ultra nationalist rhetoric. They wanted to get rid of the CA and engineer a regime crisis or a regime takeover. Prachanda often flirted with this school of thought - and his attempt to sack the army chief in 2009, which led to the collapse of the Maoist government, was an attempt to cater to this constituency.

But Bhattarai could see the pitfalls of this approach. He disagreed with the ultranationalist line - for he saw the future of Nepal in good ties with India. He was committed to peace an constitution line - for he saw this as the way to create an inclusive political order and then work on economic prosperity with equity. For a substantial part of the last decade, Bhattarai fought the adventurists in his own party - and tried to get Prachanda on board.

Eventually, he succeeded and even became the Prime Minister with the support of the Madhesi parties. The peace process - integration and rehabilitation of former combatants - was concluded under him. But the CA failed to draft a constitution and he resigned to pave the way for a neutral election government.

The resentment and future: The Maoists did badly in the second CA elections. But Bhattarai managed to become the chair of the critical CA committee on political dialogue, with all top leaders as members. This was a unique vantage point to manage the constitutional process. The constitutional debates in Nepal deepened over the past year on both process - issues like form of government and federalism - and substance - whether to go consensually or two third majority. The Maoists and Madhesis were in an alliance and pushed the consensus route. But a deadlock persisted.

The earthquake changed everything. Prachanda used the tragedy to alter his politics, broke the alliance with the Madhesi parties and signed on to a political deal where the question of federal demarcation was postponed. Bhattarai too was an active part of this deal. He later claimed in a conversation with HT that he had held out till the end, and wanted to bring the Madhesi parties on board - but was overruled. The fear that the constitution itself would get jeopardised prevented him from pushing harder.

In fact, this has been Bhattarai’s argument for the past month. As the constitutional process moved forward, he - as the head of the key CA political committee - actively participated in it. Yet, he expressed reservations at the nature of the constitution which entrenched elite rule and discriminated against Tharus, Madhesis, women, Dalits and other groups.

I asked him repeatedly in this period why he was not asserting himself vocally. Bhattarai felt that as someone who had pushed the CA line, he could not be seen as preventing its success or walk out at the climax. The fear that he would be held responsible if something went wrong may have also weighed on him, since he was at the helm when the CA-1 had failed. He also thought it was important to institutionalise the republic and secularism. Marginalised groups did not buy the argument.

Bhattarai did not celebrate when the constitution was promulgated even though Prachanda said it was Deepawali. He told HT on Wednesday many mistakes had been committed - including by his party for not standing up for the agenda of the marginalised as strongly as it should have. Bhattarai wanted to visit Janakpur in Madhes to express solidarity but Madhesi parties told him he would be greeted with deep hostility, for he was seen as a part of the bloc of leaders which had signed the constitution and even pushed its adoption, the regrets notwithstanding. If he wanted to come, he should quit the party. Bhattarai’s support base also comes from the Madhesi MPs in his party who were angry at Prachanda’s stance.

The immediate crisis has of course come in the backdrop of Bhattarai’s long running tensions with Prachanda - who last week told an interview only he knew how he had ‘tolerated’ Bhattarai for 30 years. Prachanda appeared to view Bhattarai as someone with a superiority complex because of his education but little political weight; the latter viewed Prachanda as a petty pragmatist an opportunist with no ideological spine. But both also needed each other. And it was a remarkable competitive-collaborative partnership as long as it lasted.

It also comes in the backdrop of Bhattarai floating a debate about the need for a ‘new force’ - for he strongly feels that the relevance of the Maoists as it exists is now over, especially with the end of the CA. Inclusive democracy and economic prosperity are his new slogans. During a recent visit to Delhi, Bhattarai made it a point to meet Arvind Kejriwal to think of ways of doing alternative politics.

Bhattarai’s decision also comes in the backdrop of a fresh debate on nationalism in Nepal, on the question of relations with India. Bhattarai believes in resisting Indian overreach, and at the press conference, criticised any unannounced blockade by Delhi to push its views on the constitution. But he is also committed to ‘progressive nationalism’ rather than jingoistic and hypocritical nationalism that pervades much of Nepali polity where politicians abuse India in public and seek favors in private.

Quitting a party and setting afresh is not easy for any leader. Bhattarai’s decision is also at a time when Nepali politics and society is deeply polarised - and it is both a challenge and opportunity for him to become a bridge. But the real historical significance of Bhattarai’s decision is that an era has ended in Nepali politics. The Maoist party, as we have known, is over.

I don’t know when I realized I wasn’t equal to my brother. My mother was a medical doctor, my father a PhD; there was never any question that my sister and I would have the same educational and professional opportunities as my brother. When we were old enough to understand such things—I may have been nine or ten—my parents explained that when the time came, they’d will their property to us evenly. My sister and I were promised that we were, in all ways, equal. But by that time I already knew that the rule of our family wasn’t the law of the land. I understood that outside the shelter of our exceptionally socially liberal family, in Nepal, my brother was more valued than I.

Concepts such as rights come later in life, but the feeling of our lesser worth is inculcated early in Nepali girls. Is it when we’re praised more for our looks than our achievements? Is it when the expectations of us are shaped, violently, to make us fit an impossible ideal? Is it when we’re reminded, over and over, to behave demurely, to be pleasing, to agree, to smile? The messages come from all directions, all the time. We’re taught early in life that we’re just girls.

I’m in my forties now, and living, for the moment, in Canada. I’ve successfully eluded the impossible ideal of Nepali womanhood. I haven’t married, I don’t have children, my family life is happily unorthodox. My mother didn’t make my sister and me spend our menarche hidden away, as girls of our caste were expected to do; we’ve never been considered untouchable when menstruating. I don’t defer to my partner; I don’t defer to men in general. From the age of fourteen I’ve identified as a feminist. But by law I’m a Nepali woman, and therefore, by law, lesser than a Nepali man. Though I’ve lived in the US and Canada for half my life, I have, against the advice of well-wishers, and with some abiding, perhaps misguided, loyalty, retained Nepali citizenship.

And so the Nepali constitution governs me, as does Nepali law. It’s widely acknowledged, and not just by feminists, that Nepal’s civil code has been guided by Hindu law, which sees women as the property of either their fathers or husbands. There’s a Nepali adage—“Women have no caste”—which goes to the heart of the Hindu patriarchal devaluation of women. Our identities are defined by men; we have no essence, no identity, of our own. The laws resulting from such negation have always been abhorrent. When I first became politically aware—in my early teens—Nepal’s civil code was so hateful it assigned punishment for rape according to whether the victim was a virgin, married, or a prostitute, because her worth relied on her sexual purity. Women couldn’t inherit parental property. Abortion was illegal. There were only one or two women in government at any given time; often there were none. There was no concept of affirmative action to correct that.

As for constitutions, Nepal has had four in my lifetime. These were supposed to be broader documents than the laws, but they too have always devalued women—so much so that Nepali citizenship has always passed on to children primarily through men, not women.
The adage, “Women have no caste,” has been interpreted by constitution after Nepali constitution as, “Women have no nationality.” Our bodies are considered mere vessels for men to pass on their nationality, be that foreign or Nepali.

My very being as a Nepali woman is constructed out of a hatred of women. When I turned eighteen I obtained my own citizenship through my father, not my mother. If I’d had children I wouldn’t be able to confer citizenship to them. I’ve never in my life been an equal citizen of Nepal, because I’m just a girl, just a woman.

We thought, of course, that Nepal’s new constitution would change this, it being 2015. No other country in South Asia discriminates between men and women’s citizenship rights; only 26 countries worldwide do. Nepal long ago ratified the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. A young generation of Nepalis is forward-looking, progressive, embracing of social liberalism. So we really believed things would finally change.

By “we,” I mean Nepali feminists. As the drafting of Nepal’s new constitution got underway in earnest, a formidable team coalesced around lawyers such as Sapana Pradhan Malla and victims such as Deepti Pratibha Gurung. A network of non-government organizations, independent activists, and civic-minded individuals came together to form a feminist movement. They led the charge for equality. Likeminded Nepalis like me supported them.

Everyone knew that resistance to women’s equality would be stiff: all of Nepal’s major political parties, be they conservative, liberal, leftist, or radical, have consistently been united on one point: that equal citizenship rights for women threatens Nepali sovereignty. For—in the mind of the Hindu patriarch—since women have no caste/nationality, their bodies are possibly traitorous, hosts to foreign babies, and—given Nepal’s open border with India—specifically to Indian babies. These traitorous female bodies have to be controlled for the sake of the nation; women must not be able to confer Nepali citizenship independently of men.

In the past few years Nepal’s feminist movement did everything short of taking up arms to change the minds of Hindu patriarchs. They put on demonstrations, rallies, and marches to the point of exhaustion. They sat at meetings with party leaders, with the president, the prime minister, the speaker of the house. They led awareness drives and media campaigns. They even went on hunger strike.

When all other arguments were exhausted, Hindu patriarchs returned to the same hateful argument: “It isn’t about women, it’s about the open border with India.” Nationalism beats, as a final refuge, in the hearts of Nepal’s Hindu patriarchs. Incredible as it sounds, they are ruled by a deep-seated xenophobia, a fear that Indian men will marry Nepali women, and the children—born of Indian seed!—will populate Nepal. Nepal will then no longer be Nepali; it will be Indian. “We agree with you,” Nepali feminists have been told. “But you have to consider our national identity.” If women are to be loyal to Nepal, we must accept unequal citizenship rights.

The new constitution, voted on by the Constituent Assembly on September 16, ignored the feminist movement altogether, and endorsed the logic of the Hindu patriarch. Not only can women not confer citizenship to their children independently of men, the children of Nepali women and foreign men will be barred from high office. No such restriction applies to the children of Nepali men married to foreign women. And Nepali men can, as ever, confer citizenship to their children independently of women.

News of this vote felt violent, like a slap, a blow, a punch to the gut. I spent days reeling, in shock, raging and impotent, bewildered and ill, thinking: a country that betrays its women doesn’t deserve women’s loyalty.  “Anyways, why does it matter to you? You’re not affected by this.”

I heard this from friends and foes, and there’s truth in it. I’m not directly harmed by this constitution, as opposed to mothers like Deepti Pratibha Gurung, who have tried repeatedly, and failed repeatedly, to confer citizenship to their children. Unequal citizenship rights will leave more than four million stateless in Nepal. This means they’ll have no recourse to government services; the stateless are intensely vulnerable. It’s true that by sheer luck, neither I nor anyone in my immediate family is in this position. My objection to the new constitution is purely ideological.

And yet it feels deeply personal, as though I’ve been dealt a psychic wound that won’t ever heal now. Perhaps my shock is a post-traumatic response to having my worthlessness—just a girl, just a woman—reinforced every day for all of my life. As I’ve grown older, and more confident, I’ve come to feel that being a Nepali woman is akin to being in an abusive relationship. The relationship in this case is with a state that holds our paperwork captive, and uses its power to humiliate, demean, and demoralize women, to keep us down. 

I’m through with being abused by my own country. I can’t accept the constitution’s privileging of the male bloodline over the female, of semen over ova. I can’t accept the empowering of the male body and the negation of the female body, the erasure of women’s agency as full human beings.

It is not a matter of levity to burn the constitution of your country. For a writer, burning a text of any kind feels like sacrilege. In the days after the vote and before the formal promulgation of the constitution, I looked for arguments and counter-arguments for and against burning it. I read about B. R. Ambedkar burning the Manusmriti, the text that enshrines caste, and also gender, bigotry in Hinduism. After September 16, I followed the news of others in Nepal who were going to burn the constitution—in the Madhes, in Indigenous communities. I was hoping not to have to do so myself.

I was at the Jaipur Literature Festival at Boulder, Colorado, when, on September 20, President Ram Baran Yadav placed his final seal of approval on the constitution. There was a session on Nepal at the festival. I and the other panelists discussed the constitution.

Just beforehand, I’d gone to the banks of Boulder Creek and quietly, without ceremony, burned it. The act felt funereal rather than defiant. I was mournful rather than angry. Something in me—hope, perhaps, for a better future for Nepal—had died. My loyalty had faded. “Mann nai maryo,” were the only words I could speak. The fire flared, blazed briefly, and flickered out. My emotions toward my country burned away.


Dilip Simeon // Madhu Sarin (March 2006):
"...Friends, brutality operates in a cycle. The Army and police have been brutal, and the revolutionaries have also been brutal. How does it make any difference to the victims of cruelty that the State has killed 8000 people and the revolutionaries only 4000? Is the pain of their relatives lessened because they died while comrades fought for a good cause? So much accumulated tragedy and pain and tears! Do the Nepali people deserve so much suffering on top of all the tragic consequences of autocratic rule? Organised killing develops autocratic modes of thought and totalitarian politics. It destroys the human conscience, encourages lawlessness and disrespect for human life. The people who survive such a bloody revolution will be emotionally and psychologically damaged people. Precedents will have been set that will endanger the future of democracy..."