Pointless to argue that you can’t break VDCs, municipalities, districts
JUL 06 – On June 8, four major parties—the Nepali Congress (NC), CPN-UML, UCPN (Maoist) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Loktantrik—signed a 16-point agreement paving way for the promulgation of the new constitution. Among others, the deal agreed to postpone naming and delienating the eight provinces agreed upon by the four parties. Ruling in favour of the writ filed against the agreement, which was defined as being contradictory to the Interim Constitution, the Supreme Court has asked the parties not to implement the pact for now. Nepali Congress leader and Minister for Physical Infrastructure and Transport, Bimalendra Nidhi , welcomed the Court’s stay order. Now that parties are on their way to bring out the draft constitution into public discussion, Nidhi spoke to Dewan Rai and Darshan Karki about the need to respect the Court’s decision, contentious citizenship and federalism provisions and ways to resolve outstanding issues.
Your party, along with three others, inked the 16-point agreement. But you have expressed reservations about it.
To be clear, I am not against the 16-point agreement. The main thrust of the deal is that there should be no more delays in promulgating the constitution. The first Constituent Assembly (CA) was not able to draft the constitution. The second CA could also not complete the constitution within a year as planned. Now, it is not only the wish of the people to see the constitution being promulgated as soon as possible, but also the need of the country.
The deal, however, also mentions that there will be eight provinces, 165 constituencies and that there will be 275 members in Parliament. A federal commission has been tasked with deciding the names and boundaries of the provinces within six months. The final decision on this matter will be taken by the Legislature-Parliament. My argument is, since we have agreed to fast track the constitution, let us speed up the delienation of provinces as well. Let the federal commission decide on the names and boundaries of provinces and then the CA should have the final say.
So you agree with the Supreme Court’s stay order?
The Supreme Court order does not encroach upon the rights of the CA but rather validates them. It says that it is the duty of the CA to take the final decision on the names and boundaries of the federal states. So it gives parties an opportunity to correct the mistakes they made in the 16-point agreement. Second, it is the duty of political parties to respect any Supreme Court decision, whether the verdict is for or against them.
Your views seem to be more in tune with what marginalised groups and Madhesi parties are saying.
The suggestion to fast track federalism through the commission and then have the CA decide on it instead of the proposed Legislature-Parliament. Further, it will also help address the concern of marginalised groups including the Madhesis.
I would like to stress that to ask for the CA to be allowed to decide on federalism is not a criminal demand. It is not an ill-intentioned demand. Nor is it a regressive one. It is about allowing the CA to do its duty, which is mentioned in the Interim Constitution.
Suppose the four parties continue to disregard the Supreme Court ruling, will you still root for this demand as Madhesi parties are doing?
The reason I am raising this issue is not because I am a Madhesi. Of course I am a Madhesi and a Nepali. But I am not engaged in regional politics. I have raised this issue because I am an aware citizen who is for federalism and because I believe that the constitution should incorporate progressive changes. It is also because I believe in federalism, republicanism, inclusion and democracy. And these are the fundamental elements of the constitution too.
Do you think that your opinion will help bring the dissenting Madhesi parties on board?
Yes, many CA members and those within the Nepali Congress have also begun to echo my sentiments. In addition, I see many civil society members advocating for this along with opinion makers in various newspapers. I think my opinion has also drawn the attention of the UML and UCPN (Maoist) leaders.
What about the citizenship provision?
In the CA meetings, I repeatedly argued, let us leave provisions on citizenship as it in the Interim Constitution. Let us make it more liberal, if possible, but not edit it. Moreover, the draft written by the first CA had already mentioned it—citizenship through descent, marriage and naturalised citizenship. The Interim Constitution even mentions that citizenship can be obtained through either the mother or the father.
Civil society members have also pointed out that Article 282, which says that only citizens by descent will be entitled to hold the posts of president, vice-president, speaker, chair of Upper House , chief of province, chief minister, speaker of province assembly and chiefs of security agencies, is problematic.
Yes, this article could prohibit a large number of people from holding political rights in the long run. On the one hand, we are being so liberal as to allow dual citizenship, which is good. We have a provision to provide citizenships to Non-Resident Nepalis. We want to give them economic, cultural and social rights. On the other hand, we are curtailing the rights of many citizens by saying that only citizens by descent can occupy positions of power. This is against the backdrop where many people in Nepal are set to receive naturalised citizenships and not citizenship by descent.
Would you argue that this new provision in the constitution targets the Madhesi population, that it seeks to curtail their rights.
I do not know if this provision is targeted at the Madhesis or not. But this provision will not just affect the Madhesi population. Many women from the bordering states of India, like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and West Bengal, marry Nepali men not just from the Madhes but also from elsewhere in the country like the hills of the Far-West. In the Madhes, it is of course widely practiced. So this law will not only affect the Madhesis but also Janajatis and hill castes. Many men go abroad to work and then marry foreign women. There are more hill castes working in India than the Madhesis.
If a child born to naturalised citizens does not qualify for citizenship by descent, then there will be many generations in a family who are naturalised citizens. Such people will be deprived of the opportunity to get into influential positions. This is against the notion of power sharing among the people.
Would suggest any other provisions that need to be changed?
Even before the first CA election took place, the need to have electoral constituencies in accordance to population had been raised—that is the number of constituencies in the Madhes needs to be increased. So, in the Interim Constitution, it was mentioned that the number of electoral constituencies in the Madhes, Pahad and Himal would reflect the population of those regions. No one ever opposed this provision. Now, all of a sudden, it has been removed and the draft only says that there will be 165 constituencies based on geography and population.
There is one provision in the constitution that says that five representatives from each province will be elected to the Upper House. The fear is, in case there are two provinces in the Madhes, the region will be under-represented at the centre.
I have put forth my differences with those who proclaim to be Madhesbadis. I have been expressing disagreement with the ‘One Madhes, One Pradesh’ demand from the very beginning. When I opposed this agenda, members of my party, the Nepali Congress, and the UML were happy for a different reason. But the Madeshbadi parties opposed me and even pelted stones at my house.
I believe that the number of provinces in the Madhes and in the Pahad should be equal. As we have agreed on eight provinces, there should be four provinces in the Madhes and four in the hills. Even if we go by the argument of Madhesbadi parties and the fact that Madhes has a larger population, they should be demanding more provinces. Isn’t it ironical that they are demanding more constituencies in the Madhes but fewer provinces?
If we cannot have four provinces in both the Pahad and the Madhes, let us go for five and three each. I have heard that the disagreement regarding Kailali and Kanchanpur can be resolved. In the east, we can form a new province consisting of Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari.
You think this will resolve this stalemate on federalism?
If we are to do things my way, let us just think of the international borders of Nepal and forget all other existing administrative boundaries: Village Development Committees (VDCs), municipalities, districts, zones and development regions. Then, as we have agreed upon eight provinces and 165 constituencies, let us divide 165 by eight. Then there will be 20 constituencies in each province. The remaining five constituencies can be divided realistically. So, five provinces will have 21 constituencies while the remaining three will have 20.The argument made by leaders who say that they don’t want to break VDCs, municipalities, districts is pointless. It either means that they don’t know what federalism is or they do not want it.
Even so, the constitution is a document of compromise. So just because my way of federalism does not materialise, one cannot say that there should be no federalism at all. We can always revise the provisions.
So when can we expect the final draft of the constitution?
It will perhaps take one-and-a- half months or two months. If the demarcation of the provinces is to be included in the constitution, then it could take longer.