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Nepal’s Constitution: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire?

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The Pulse

Nepal’s Constitution: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire?

Amid intense protests and severe riots, Nepal has gone forward with its newest constitution.

Nepal’s Constitution: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire?

Nepali police forces block demonstrators during a protest near the Constituent Assembly on January 21, 2015 in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Credit: Omar Havana for The Diplomat

After eight years under an interim constitution, and a marathon vote that started early Sunday and continued until 11:45 pm Wednesday, Nepal has ratified its newest constitution. Erupting in cheers, the Constituent Assembly rejoiced as Speaker Subash Nembang officially announced the adoption of the country’s seventh constitution since 1948.

In a message over Twitter, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala commemorated the historic moment, declaring, “[I]t is an issue of pride for all Nepalis that the people’s constitution has been passed from the Constituent Assembly.” The Nepali private sector, from tourism to the poultry industry, took it a step further and expressed elation over the new constitution, expressing the hope that the end of political gridlock will bring an economic boom.

Yet despite 507 of the 598 lawmakers – a decisive 85 percent — voting in favor of the new constitution, not all is well in the Himalayan nation. There were warning signs before the vote: 82 legislators formally withdrew from the constitution-making process altogether.

Opposition centered on the internal rearrangement from 14 administrative zones into seven provinces. By consolidating its administrative zones from 14 to seven, the Kathmandu elites have upset the Madhesi and Tharu ethnic minorities that mainly inhabit Nepal’s southern plains. Historically marginalized, these groups previously enjoyed control of four out of 14 zones. Under the new constitution, they’ve mostly been grouped together. This was done under the guise of identity-based federalism, designed to decentralize power from the Kathmandu, but resulted in severely diminishing these groups’ political clout.

Protests and rioting in southern Nepal, home to large groups of Madhesi and Tharu, regarding the then-proposed constitution has resulted in over 40 deaths. Large swathes of the south were shut down by the protests: “20 of the 22 Terai [Southern] districts look like war zones,” notes Dr. S. Chandrasekharan of South Asia Analysis Group.

Work on a new national constitution began two years after the end of the Maoist insurgency, a decade-long conflict that claimed over 13,246 lives. The post-2006 peace culminated in yesterday’s constitution, which the Maoist party played a major role in shaping. But with similar motives of political disenfranchisement already at play, will Nepal’s south produce another insurgency?

“We have called them [lawmakers from the southern Terai region] for talks again and again, but they have not responded positively,” said senior leader of the ruling Nepali Congress, Bhim Rawal. “Regardless of their response, the process will not stop. Their demands can be met after the constitution is announced.”

With the constitution to be promulgated this Sunday, it’s time to see if the demands of the constitution’s critics are, in fact, addressed. If not, there could be yet more violence in Nepal’s future.

Alexandre Dor is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.