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Ke Nepal Bachla (Will Nepal Survive?)" reads a slogan painted on many walls in Kathmandu. Almost every caste and ethnic group
demanding a province for themselves and the resultant social divide are now pushing the country, once known for social and religious amity, towards an uncertain future. On Monday, journalists — mainly Hindu and upper caste — protested and asked Ang Kazi Sherpa, an influential leader of the Nepal
Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), to "get out" when he alleged media bias against indigenous people. "We know, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists — that is the group of Brahmin and Chhetri — is going to organise a protest against our bandh, and if that happens, we will not spare you," Sherpa yelled at a media forum.
Sherpa had to be rescued by the police. The incident shows the deep division in Nepali society along caste and ethnic lines. The NEFIN, an outfit supported financially by the Department for International
Development for over a decade now, organised a three-day bandh beginning May 20 that physically
targeted journalists. Their main demand is the creation of at least 14 provinces in Nepal, most of them along "indigenous" caste and ethnic lines, with prior rights to executive power.
Prachanda, chief of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M), recently assured a delegation of the Madhesi political parties, which are in alliance with indigenous groups on this issue, that the provinces have to be created on the "basis of identity or ethnic lines". His assurance came barely two days after the heads of three major parties, including Prachanda himself, had signed an agreement that the country would be federated into 11 provinces, and that their names and boundaries would be decided by the Federal Commission to be formed. Indigenous groups had reacted sharply to the agreement as it showed no commitment to ethnicity-based provinces.
Demands against the ethnicity-based federation are as common, and strong, now. Brahmin, Chhetri, Dalit and Dasnami — Hindu groups which together constitute more than a third of the population — look to the street chanting slogans that the country should not be divided into caste- and ethnicity-based provinces. They also demanded that they be recognised among the "original settlers" of Nepal, a demand that the government conceded to later. Similarly, far-west Nepal, a stretch hit by poverty, rose up in opposition to ethnicity-based federalism and, at the same time, demanded that its nine districts be declared an integrated province. The meeting was called off following a positive assurance from the high-powered official team.
All these demands and agitations were natural as the protagonists wanted their space reserved and rights guaranteed in the constitution that political parties had promised to deliver by the May 27 deadline fixed by the Supreme Court. But on May 22, the cabinet decided to extend the deadline by another three months, with a clear message that the Supreme Court was not that supreme in political and legislative matters. The Nepali Congress (NC) was overruled by the Maoists, and a new kind of showdown appears to be in the offing.
The state remains without authority and political bigwigs stand discredited. The government hardly disappoints any group; it simply assures them that their concerns will be addressed in the constitution. The big four parties and an all-party coalition government amended the constitution, dispensing with the normal procedures applied during constitution-making. There will be no debate, no clause-by-clause discussion, no time for soliciting public opinion. But the House will only be involved when the draft is put up for vote. In essence, it is going to be an off-the-record process with no records available.
While the government was trying to hide contentious issues like federalism under the carpet and to promulgate the constitution, there are more people and groups warning that they will reject it from day one.
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai as well as the Maoist party were weighing several options, including imposing an Emergency, ignoring the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the NC by striking alliances with the Madhesi parties and indigenous groups, and using street fury and the deadline pressure to bring the NC and CPN-UML around, as in the past. But as nothing seemed to work, and contentious issues remained far from settled, the Maoist-led government resorted to extending the House tenure. Bhattarai has also instructed the army and police chiefs to remain vigilant and suppress any movement against the government. The Maoists still believe that the former king and "regressive forces" are capable of derailing the constitution-making process. Clearly, the Maoists and the big parties have belied the residual hope for a workable and acceptable constitution, pushing the country towards possible chaos.
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