| March 21, 2019

Over 50 discriminatory clauses in constitution

Over 50 discriminatory clauses in constitution

The Federal Alliance comprised of Madheshi and Janajati parties recently made its 26-point charter of demands public. A series of protests are planned over the next few months over the 'discriminatory' provisions in the new constitution. What exactly do they have in mind? And how does the Oli government's impending exit affect their programs?

Ashok Rai, parliamentary party leader of the Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal, a key constituent of the alliance, shared his views with Biswas Baral and Mahabir Paudyal Wednesday morning.

Will it be right to say that the alliance protests have lost its momentum?

We have not given up on our agitation. We have only changed its form. We have 29 constituent parties in this alliance including Madheshi Morcha and various Tharu, Janajati and dalit groups.

Our Madhesh centric agitation could not get wider publicity, nor could it bring about a desired outcome. This is why we have broadened the sphere of our agitation. We are starting fresh protests from Kathmandu from May 14. The rest depends on how the government reacts to our demands. We have already made our 26-point demands public.

What kinds of constitutional amendments do you have in mind?

There are more than 50 discriminatory provisions in this constitution. They all need to be corrected. But we have raised only most pressing issues this time. We believe that if those essential concerns are addressed this constitution can be made workable. Rest of the issues can be corrected later. Like the ruling parties, we also believe this constitution is not something etched in stone. It can change with the changing times. But we need to make it workable, at least.

But don't Janajati groups and Madheshi forces have contradictory demands on province demarcation?

Let there be no illusion. There is no contradiction among the constituents of Federal Alliance. We all agree that this constitution needs to be corrected. We want judiciary to be reformed in line with federal model, end all sorts of discriminatory provisions on language and form a separate Language Commission. We all agree on making provinces fully autonomous with greater powers than conferred by the current constitution and we want assurance of inclusive and proportional representation of all communities. We have common concerns.

We have demanded that the 14-province federal model proposed by the State Reconstructing Committee of first Constituent Assembly and the 11-province model recommended by the high-level State Reconstructing Commission should be made a basis for redrawing provincial boundaries. This is our common stand.

Janajati communities in eastern Nepal are against inclusion of Jhapa and Morang in Madhesh provinces, but that is what Madheshi forces want.

We have to have a kind of understanding over these disputed districts. The outstanding issues will be resolved when the government agrees to address our legitimate concerns. Like I said, the ruling parties only have to take reports of first CA in good faith and make them starting point of discussion.

So the decisions taken in the second CA are unacceptable for you?

The state restructuring provisions in the new constitution constitute a deliberate attempt to undermine identity-based federalism. So we have been asking ruling parties to find solutions based on those reports and agreements past governments signed with various Madheshi and Janajati groups. We are in favor of resolving the crisis early. We are not for prolonging the dispute. Again, we are not undermining the role of the second CA either. In fact, first and second CAs are complementary. The second CA owned up works of the first CA. In a way, second CA was continuation of first CA. So what is the harm in making reports of first CA a baseline for resolving boundary issues?

Earlier you mentioned past agreements with Madheshi forces. These agreements are silent on the number and boundary of federal provinces.

You have to understand that the Interim Constitution had accommodated those agreements. Article 138 (1) (a) of the interim statute derives from those agreements. It says: "Recognizing the desire of the indigenous peoples and of the people of backward and other area including Madheshi people towards autonomous provinces Nepal shall be a federal democratic republican state. Provinces shall be autonomous and vested with full authority. The boundaries, number, names and structures, as well as full details of the lists, of autonomous provinces and the center and allocation of means, resources and powers shall be determined by the Constituent Assembly." The major parties swept this recommendation under the carpet when they had the so-called 16-point deal in June 2015. The indigenous and marginalized people are agitating. Shouldn't their aspirations be addressed?

Interim constitution also gives the CA power to decide on disputed issues. But you walked out if it while constitution making was gaining momentum.

A constitution should be understood in terms of its letter and spirit. You have to look into whether the CA provided solution to political problems or whether it made those problems worse. Technically, the constitution was endorsed by majority of CA members. That's a procedural part. We do not really have reservation on this. But what was its end result? Did we get the constitution that would be acceptable to the majority of people? The constitution had to accommodate at least bare minimum concerns of as many people as possible. But the new constitution has failed to do so.

But your alliance has also raised such issues of public concern like good governance, rule of law, meritocracy and black-marketing.

Those issues are vital. We have not raised them only to impress people. But unless you make state institutions inclusive, and restructure state boundaries in line with aspirations of people, addressing governance and corruption related issues will only bring temporary respite. It won't solve these problems permanently. This is why we have raised these vital concerns as well as the issue of identity-based federalism. Like I said, our focus will be on both. Unless the constitution is corrected, there will be no lasting solution to these problems. You have to understand these issues as two sides of the same coin.

What is your reservation on citizenship provisions?

We believe not everything should be left to federal laws. We need to make things clear in the constitution itself, as far as possible. Our misgiving is that they have left vital issues to federal laws despite our fierce opposition in the CA. Who knows if they will make federal laws amenable to marginalized communities! There is room to doubt their intention. This suspicion stems from rigid stand of ruling parties on citizenship. The agitating parties therefore want to resolve those contentions through the constitution itself. There is issue of unequal provision on citizenship for men and women. This needs to be addressed. All that we need is clarity in the constitution and an assurance that all citizens will be treated equally.

Parties have started homework on government change. Do you think the next government will be more favorable to your concerns?

Federal Alliance is not in the game of government change. Our attention is on making our protests vigorous. We want major parties to internalize the urgency of correcting flaws in the constitution. All top leaders should realize this. The constitution should be amended based on the concerns of all stakeholders. Ruling parties must heed this call. Government change alone will be meaningless for us. It will be meaningful only if it addresses our concerns. Only then there will be peace and prosperity in the country.

Are you suggesting that big parties can't address the country's problems?

There is a Nepali proverb, halo adkaune, goru chutne (getting the plow stuck on the ground and then caning the oxen to move forward). Current Prime Minister K P Oli epitomizes this proverb the best. He never has alternatives. He holds onto whatever he feels is right and calls it his adaan (stand). This is what he has been doing since Jhapa Revolution.

He cannot change himself as per the needs of the time. I don't mean Nepali Congress is more willing to address our concerns. Late Sushil Koirala was not in our favor. He did not demonstrate any sympathy and sensibility to Madhesh even when two dozens of people had been killed there. Nor was UCPN (Maoist) willing to hear us out.

We have our stands and we advocate our agendas. We can reach a meeting point only when we put all our agendas on negotiating table and discuss them seriously. Frankly, there was not a single instance in which we seriously discussed resolution of crisis in more than three dozen rounds of talks, except in one.

Which meeting was it? Will you elaborate on it?

This was a meeting held by High Level Political Committee headed by Prachanda, before Prime Minister Oli left for India. We had discussed all issues seriously. We had almost reached a consensus as well. But then the leaders dithered at the last moment. Bhim Rawal said he had to take approval from the first man of the party (Mr Oli). And Oli reportedly rejected that consensus deal. That was the only meeting which had discussed disputed issues rationally and seriously. All other talks were meant for public consumption.

Wouldn't your agendas have gotten better hearing if you had stayed in the UML party?

I was a vice-chairperson in UML. I had been elected with the largest number of votes. I was aware about the enormous opportunities ahead of me if I stayed in UML. But I was also aware that the direction UML was taking would ultimately lead this country to a serious ethnic conflict. When you raise issue of equality for all ethnic communities, UML interprets it as communal politics. I realized I would not be able to change the narrow mindset of UML leaders. Then I realized that rather than spend all my energy to reform UML, I would be able to push my agenda more effectively if I formed a party of my own. I have no regrets. UML was in progressive role until the country was declared a republic. Since, it has become a regressive party. The new constitution is proof of this.