Why Nepal’s constitution should be celebrated

A decade in the making, Nepal’s new constitution embraces principles of federalism, secularism and inclusion.

By: /
October 5, 2015
People cheer as they gather during a celebration a day after the first democratic constitution was announced in Kathmandu, Nepal September 21, 2015. Nepal adopted its first full democratic constitution on Sunday, a historic step for a nation that has witnessed war, a palace massacre and devastating earthquakes since a campaign to create a modern state began more than 65 years ago. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

On Sept. 20, after nearly a decade of disagreements, Nepal finally replaced its Interim Constitution with a formal one.

While some concerns have been raised, especially by neighbouring India, many are celebrating the constitution as a stepping-stone towards development, unity, and political stability. This is, after all, the first constitution to formalize Nepal as a democracy, following the dismantling of the monarchy in 2008.

Some Nepalese are concerned however that the new constitution will not allow for full representation of every ethnic group — a concern officials have noted and which has resulted in protest in some areas. While those concerns need to be addressed going forward, the new constitution deserves to be celebrated, and here’s why.

1. It satisfies the Peace Agreement

In 1996, Maoist rebels instigated a civil war in Nepal against the monarchy after being denied participation in national elections. In 2006, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government of Nepal and the Maoists was signed to establish the ‘end’ of the people’s fight for democracy by re-instating parliament.

The Maoist uprising was part of a long history of Nepalese groups fighting against monarchy rule and for a democratic system. For the past 60 years or more, the people and the monarchy have played tug-of-war — waves of protests followed by waves of leadership relinquishing and regaining power. The ongoing pressure finally paid off in 1990. The monarchy agreed to a new democratic constitution, but not without mass arrests and deaths in the process. Violent clashes continued as promised reforms failed to appear, leading to the Nepalese Civil War.

The resulting peace agreement, as well as Nepal’s Interim Constitution of 2007, held that a new constitution needed to be put in place. Nine years later, one has finally been adopted. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal called the moment “a victory of the dreams of the thousands of martyrs and disappeared fighters.”

2. It provides more opportunities for representation

The new constitution separates the country into seven states, with three levels of government: federal, provincial, and local. It aims to present more opportunities for representation in parliament and government, especially for minority groups that feel marginalized or deprived of political power.

“For the first time in history, Nepalese are sovereign in the true sense of the term,” political analyst Sanjeev Pokharel told CNN, referring to the fact that up until now, the constitutions in Nepal usually held the interests of the monarchy and army above everyone else.

The electoral process will still work as a proportional representation system, based on the new state borders. It presents opportunities for women, indigenous groups, and those from the southern plains to be included. The constitution states: “women should account for at least one third of total members elected from each party in Federal Parliament.”

Although some have asked for the borders to be based on ethnicities, this is regarded as nearly impossible because Nepal is home to over 100 ethnicities. Dividing states in this manner would also work against the constitution’s goal of “having multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-cultural characteristics with common aspirations of people living in diverse geographical regions.”

It should be noted, however, that the Madhesi and Tharu people from the flat, southern region of Nepal have been vocal about being at an even bigger disadvantage with the new borders. They say the boundaries may place them in states where they will be outnumbered by majority ethnicities, thus not allowing them to be proportionately represented.

3. It maintains Nepal as a secular, federal democratic republic

The Nepalese parliament declared the country to be a secular state in 2006. This new constitution maintains Nepal as a secular democratic republic while respecting the majority religion, Hinduism, defining secularism as “religious and cultural freedom including protection of religion and culture prevalent since ancient time.”

This acknowledgement is important for the Nepalese, as Nepal used to be a Hindu nation, and more than 80 percent of the population follows Hinduism. Initially, Hindu protesters were asking for the word secular to be removed altogether from the constitution, because they thought it did not allow for religious freedom. The constitution’s definition reassures that it does.

4. It is more inclusive

All citizens shall be equal before law. No person shall be denied the equal protection of law,” the new constitution states. Although common of many constitutions, this provision, for the first time in Nepal, guarantees this right for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. This includes the right to employment in state structures and public service. The new constitution also asserts that no resident can be denied the right to citizenship.

5. It is open to change

This constitution is not final. The governing political parties have already announced that amendments can be made and that they are open to dialogue with those who are opposed to any parts of the document.

“I request all those who are opposing this process to come together and revise the new constitution through constitution amendments. It is not a religious document and can be modified,” said Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal.