In the process of implementing the new constitution promulgated on September 20, 2015, the government of Nepal decided to hold local elections of Village Councils and municipalities on May 14, 2017. Ever since the announcement of date for the local elections, the government and other major political parties seem to have made adequate preparations to conduct local elections. But the United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF), an alliance of seven mainstream Madhesh-based political parties, have determined to thwart any attempt by the government to hold elections in Terai region, which largely borders Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
There has not been local body election in Nepal over last twenty years. As such, at the surface level the justification for holding local election in the country cannot be undermined. But the Madheshi people take the local elections as an attempt to give continuity to discrimination as it is being imposed on them without giving any consideration to their demands for change in constitution through its necessary amendments.
Now only five weeks time is left for holding the elections. But the nation is in disarray not certain whether the elections will really be held or not. Of the three major cluster ethnic groups in Nepal, only the Khas Arya group constituting Bahun and Chhetri castes of people who have been at the helm of affairs in state mechanism are in support of local elections. But over two-thirds of the the Madheshis and hill Janajati people in the country are opposed to it.
One of the fundamental reasons for which the Madheshi people have been boycotting local elections is that their share in Village Councils and municipalities is only 34 per cent. Since the Madhesh region accounts for over 51 per cent of Nepal’s total population, the people in this region want at least half of the total 744 of such units in proportion to their population.
Moreover, the Madheshis hold the view that local elections are under the jurisdiction of provincial and not the central government. So they want the issue of demarcation of provincial boundaries to be settled first before holding parliamentary, provincial and local elections.
Unfortunately though, the present constitution proved more controversial than any of the constitutions that were promulgated in the country in the past. A section of the society support the constitution for it gives continuity to centuries old feudal rule. On the other hand, the other section of the society treats the constitution as most regressive for its failure to address their concerns. Therefore, there was jubilation in one part of the country on the day the constitution was promulgated; while in the other part people observed the event as ‘black day.’
In order to pressurize the government to address their grievances, the UDMF had launched general strike in the Terai region in 2015-16 in which all the industries, agriculture activities, shops, educational institutions and hospitals remained closed for months together. Also, the region faced acute scarcity of goods, particularly the LPG Gas and petroleum products during the five-month long economic blockade at the main custom points, including at Birgunj-Raxaul along Indo-Nepal border. Over and above, nearly sixty protesters of UDMF were killed and thousands of them were injured during the excesses committed by the security forces. Human rights violations crossed all the limits during that period.
Subsequently, before becoming Prime Minister in August 2016, Pushpa Kamal Dahal signed three-point agreement with UDMF leaders to make the constitution inclusive. Towards this end, the government introduced a bill in the parliament for re-drawing of the provincial boundaries through the amendment of the constitution. But to the dismay of UDMF leaders, the government later on kept the issue of amendment of constitution on hold and announced the date for holding the local election in its bid to distract people’s attention from the core issues of Madheshis and other dissatisfied groups.
Also, to add fuel to the flame of discontentment among the Madheshi people, KP Sharma Oli, former Prime Minister and leader of Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), launched Mechi-Mahakali tour in the Madhesh region to prepare ground for imposing local elections. Unfortunately, when Oli tried to play with the sentiments of the local people in Rajbiraj, one of the important townships in eastern Madhesh region, people made peaceful demonstrations on March 6 in which five UDMF activists were brutally killed and many more were injured.
Ever since the Rajbiraj incident, the UDMF is engaged in protest programmes to foil any attempt of the government to hold local elections. In this regard, the Madheshi people have been padlocking government offices and organizing protest rallies in different districts in the region.
Now there is a growing pressure on the lawmakers of Madhesh-based political parties to resign from the parliament. Those political parties have only 45 lawmakers in the 595-member parliament and so they are weak there. Nevertheless, they are quite strong on the roads of Madhesh.
At a time confrontation between the Madheshi agitating groups and the government seems unavoidable on local election issue, the ultra-radical groups in Madhesh who are in favour of independence of this region are becoming more vocal. Youth between the age group of 18 and 25 years are getting more and more radicalized. On account of the failure of the mainstream Madhesh-based political parties to secure rightful place for the Madheshis in the constitution, the radical forces have intensified advocacy for the independence of the region.
However, the radicalization of Madhesh is not in the interest of India. It is likely to invite greater turmoil in Madhesh region, which might affect India’s security. Therefore, before holding elections at local, provincial or central levels, India needs to play active role in bringing all the parties on board through the amendment of the constitution for which it is committed. Nepal’s constitution cannot be implemented effectively and peace and stability cannot be maintained in Terai region in particular and Nepal in general until the demands of the dissatisfied groups are addressed.
(Professor Hari Bansh Jha is Executive Director of Centre for Economic and Technical Studies in Nepal)