Dawn of a New Nepal

By N. Gunasekaran

Nepal, at last, has become the world’s newest republic. On May 28, the newly elected Constituent Assembly took this historic decision. Fulfilling the democratic aspirations of millions of Nepalese people, it declared Nepal as “a secular, federal, democratic, republic nation” and announced the end of the monarchy and, with it, the 240-year-old Shah dynasty.

All kinds of fears were expressed that the King and his supporters from feudal Hindu orthodoxy might challenge the decision and indulge in violence. But the deposed king, Gyanendra Shah, vacated the Narayanhiti Palace peacefully and handed over his crown, scepter and other heirlooms to the government. The royal palace was officially converted into the Museum. The government removed the king as head of the Nepalese Army, dropped the word “royal” from the name of the national airline and adopted a new national anthem that doesn’t express allegiance to the throne.

This ancient Himalayan society was once a colony of Britain. Since independence, it had a painful experience in the practice of parliamentary rule with years of wrangling between king and parliament. With the dissolution of partial democratic experiment in 1959, a “party-less” absolute monarchy ruled until 1989. A strong movement of the people led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) forced the king to accept constitutional reforms. The Maoist rebellion with the participation of downtrodden poor started in 1996 and the resulting brutal repression claimed 14,000 victims. In 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra apparently killed all of his own royal family members, including King Birendra, and he shot himself and died. This unexpected development led Gyanendra, King Birendra’s surviving brother, to take over the throne. Gyanendra was unable to suppress the Maoist movement. The Maoist insurgency, a natural offshoot of Nepal’s feudal economy and social structure, reflected the people’s aspiration for an inclusive, democratic Nepal.

The Maoists, through a peace accord in November 2006, entered into political mainstream. The parliamentary elections in April elected a new Constituent assembly (CA) to write the new constitution. The Maoists got a spectacular victory, winning 220 seats out of the total 601. The Nepalese Congress, the oldest political party, won 110 seats, while two other parties claimed 155. For the first time, an avowedly Maoist party came to power at the helm of a coalition government

The Prime Minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, recently announced his resignation. The Maoists, having about 37% of the members with 29% of the popular vote, will hold the prime-ministerial post and significant ministries, such as home affairs, finance and defense. But opportunistic battles have begun for presidency. Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress wants to be the first president of the republic. The Maoists want to make the presidency a ceremonial post and wants to hand it over either to a Left leader from the southern plains or to an ethnic woman. The other parties want a president who could act as a counterweight to the power of the Maoists. So, the Maoist chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a.k.a. Prachanda, as the prime minister would have the onerous task of finding solutions to all problems through consensus.

Still, the Constituent Assembly was unable to focus on the important issue of writing the new constitution. The people desire a new constitution proclaiming an inclusive republic that guarantees economic, political and social rights to all. Also many important issues, such as the integration of the 19,000 Maoist People’s Liberation Army with the Nepal Army, are pending. The government has to create a democratic and accountable military culture eliminating the authoritarian feudal practices. Several other thorny issues like the demands of some ethnic groups have also to be resolved. In the recent CA meeting, the members of CA from Madhesi parties raised an unreasonable demand for a single Madhes federal state constituted of plains areas adjoining India.

The external influences, including the dubious role of the US, is one of reasons for the confusions prevailing in Nepal, today. The US wished for the continuance of the monarchy. Even now, the US has not yet recognized the Maoist victory and not removed the Maoist party from its list of terrorist organizations. It has an influence on factions of the Nepali Congress. Interference of any country in the internal affairs of Nepal would lead to the subversion of the people’s mandate and effect destructive consequences. It would affect not only Nepal but also neighboring India.

Nepal, with 28 million people, is one of the world’s poorest countries. Income per capita is about $1,100, and one-third of its citizens live below the poverty line. So the people’s mandate in the elections is clearly for peace, stability and self-reliant growth. The building of a new Nepal with a constitution, representing the interests of hitherto marginalized poor is the need of the hour.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2008

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