Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lessons from Kailali

Federalizing a unitary country is a tricky business everywhere. In Nepal, the task was fraught with more intense challenges because our demographic and geographical realities are not only different but are also far more complex than the countries which have undergone such experience in the recent decades –comparison with the established federations is only a waste of time.

Nepal's federalism debate has been marred by false rhetoric from the beginning. The political parties demanding federalism are not clear about why they prefer the system over a unitary state and what they expect out of it. This prevents Nepal from nuanced discussion on the specifics of the federal governance, and as a result, the whole federalism debate has been stuck on the names and boundaries of provinces. The lack of clarity over the essence of federal governance coupled with the lack of interest in learning from other people's experiences from around the world has made our constitution writing a faux pas.

However, it would be misleading to assume that increasing cases of violent scuffles like the one we are seeing in Kailalai are rooted in federalism debate alone.

Faulty Constitution-Making Process

The scuffles under the pretext of the names and boundaries of provinces need to be understood as the result of a faulty constitution-writing process of Nepal during the entire course of the two constituent assemblies. Nepal made a joke out of the participatory constitution-making by limiting the whole responsibility of constitution-writing to a handful of haggard political leaders in the name of sahamati (consensus). This exclusionary, opaque and undemocratic approach to the constitution-writing reduced the constituent assembly to an appendage and thereby prevented a broad-based dialogue on important issues of the future constitution. 

Had Nepal abided by the norms of the participatory constitution-making and followed the formal procedures of the Constituent Assembly, the constitution-writing process would have become more transparent and inclusive, which would enhance ownership and acceptance across social groups and communities. The party-led closed-door negotiations, which were fruitlessly aimed at appeasing one another, have led to closed-door mass mobilization and sponsored violence we are experiencing today.

Poorly Managed Peace Process

Nepal had limited success in managing its political transition after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Our politicos insisted on 'Nepali style' peace process ignoring international norms, standards and experiences. This led to an extremely painful and erroneous process of demobilization and re-integration of former Maoist combatants. The UN led process was so much of a farce that Nepal today is replete with small arms many of which are in the hands of 'disqualified combatants'. Some of the political parties have been openly utilizing these leftovers with the motive to spread terror and destabilize the constitution-making process. The vestiges of the armed conflict of the past are vivid in the present day violent scuffles in many parts of the country. At the systemic level, this has fueled the criminalization of politics.


Equally important but little discussed source of violent activities in different parts of the country is factionalism within political parties. The prolonged and poorly managed transition has led to the debasement of political culture. Political leaders today seem less disciplined and more ambitious than ever before. They are intent on mobilizing the masses in their assumed constituencies on shallow, populist rhetoric which they consider as the short-cut to power. Populist rhetoric is fueling resentment and anxieties in different communities and regions. The whole demand for Akhanda Sudurpashchim or Tharu Swayatta Pradesh are the ripple effects of political factionalism which reflect the fact that political leaders are less aligned to the vision and programs of their political parties and are more interested in consolidating their own political future. In addition, these shallow and confusing jargon sloganeering has moved Nepal's federalism debate farther away from substance and sanity.

Who is to Blame?

Kailali incident is a sad reflection of our complex challenges in constitution-writing and federalization which stem from Nepal's poorly managed peace process and political transition. Lack of appropriate awareness in communities on federal governance and poor law and order situation is to blame rather than the federal system, which is still a mystery for many Nepalese people. The communal hatred and cases of violent demonstrations we are seeing today are partly the results of the reluctance of our politicians to engage with communities for open dialogue on the aspects of future constitution. And to a great extent, they are the result of the criminalization of politics which is flourishing under the pretext of federalism, autonomy and rights.

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