Kathmandu celebrated with fireworks when millions in the southern Nepal mourned the dead. More than 45 people were killed in the protests for equality. The Human Rights Commission of Nepal and New York based Human Rights Watch found that the police shot many protesters in their heads and chest. A four year and a fourteen year old were shot in their homes. Police brutality and racist remarks from leading politicians turned the protests violent. Prime Minister Oli humiliated an 11 hundred kilometer long peaceful human chain by saying it a swarm of flies.
Royal house of Nepal endorsed male Khas-Arya, because of their religious, lingual and geographical proximity. They are upper caste ethnicities from hill region, also widely known as Bahun and Chhetris. This trend continued since the 18th century making them political and bureaucratic elites. They have exclusively been heads of state and even now chair a whopping 83% of the local administrative bodies. In fact, Khas-Aryas of northwest Nepal are also disadvantaged. This means, only a small group of people rule the nation with nepotism and whips. The circle of rulers has indeed widened since the absolute powers of the past, but only minimally. This leaves a large number of people unrepresented and oppressed. Madhesis, the southern Nepal natives, sum up at 4% in local administration. Their presence in the Police force and Nepal Army is close to negligible (2%). Until 1958, Madhesis were required to obtain a visa to enter Kathmandu. Even now over a third of Madhesi natives are deprived of citizenship. Despite the so-called democracy, it remained, a weird combination of nepotism, oligarchy and populism.
After centuries of monarchy and Rana oligarchy, the republic was well overdue. Unfortunately, the movement for the republic was hijacked to benefit only a few.
Madhesis are particularly alarmed because potentially half of their next generation can become second-class citizens. The new constitution requires citizenship of the mother and father to be Nepalese and birthplace of their child Nepal as conditions for citizenship of that child (§§11(3), 11(7)). The problem is that half of the marriages in the southern plains occur across the borders. Such social exchange has been a norm for centuries before modern Nepal or India came to existence. The region was first occupied by Nepal and later split and ceded to Nepal in 1816 and 1860 treaties with British India. Keeping this in mind, previous constitutions had“naturalized through marriage” clause, which is now removed. Some Madhesis choose to give birth in India, due to better health facilities. The children of such parents can only become naturalized citizens and will eventually be barred from a series of constitutional designations. Hence, a ‘second class’ citizen despite being an offspring of a Nepalese. Current charter denies a woman’s right to independently pass her citizenship to her children (§11(5,6)). Supporters of the constitution attribute the restrictions to an influx of people from southern neighbor. No such trend has been observed for eight years since the interim constitution of 2007. Based solely on delusion, the new constitution alienates its own citizens and may force women to give birth in substandard conditions.
‘Unity in diversity’ is often a catchphrase in the multi-ethnic Nepal. Unity in diversity works when diversities are respected and have equal opportunities. A look into national designations shows a massive gap. The agreements and amendments in the Interim Constitution 2007 attempted to fill this gap by means of proportional inclusion. Current leadership dismissed the agreements unitarily.
The proportional seats were reduced to 40% and divided the seats into more than 10 groups. Ruling class Khas-Arya is specifically defined and inserted within the oppressed ethnicities (§§84(1b), 84(2), 176(6), 259(1a) and 42(1)). Electoral districts are kept intact which means a certain win on 60% of the direct seats and a fair claim from the remaining 40% of the proportional seats. The clauses set up to bring the long oppressed people in the front-line of national affairs are rendered meaningless. It became de facto a free competition, where the ground is not flat. The status quo will continue because the amendments to the flawed clauses would be numerically impossible. The pursuit of equality is thus purged.
The oppressed should compete freely within the rampant nepotism. This is similar to being an egalitarian and not a feminist where there is a massive gender gap.
Madhesis have been voicing for equality for over 60 years. In 2006, when the king was ousted, Nepal became a republic. An assembly to draft a fair constitution was formed. The charter was supposed to bring women, indigenous people, non-Hindus, Madhesis, and impoverished from all regions of Nepal to national front-line. Statistics show a clear division between Khas-Arya and everyone else in the country. Any voice against this divide comes with the tag, of ‘Traitor’, ‘Indian agent’ or a hefty amount of social and racial abuse from a layman to top leaders of Nepal. A little investigation for who was behind all the asymmetric treaties of Nepal may channel that layman anger in right direction. Democracy fails where disagreements are seen as outright treason.
Violence escalated when protest against flawed constitution was suppressed using excessive force. Public citing of racist and derogatory remarks by former Prime Ministers J. N. Khanal, S. B. Deuba and Prime Minister K. P. Oli polarized people. After police killed 11 civilians over a period of two weeks, an angry mob killed 7 policemen. Nepal Human Rights Commission reported that the protesters retaliated when police opened fire on them. Instantly, the movement for equality was branded an act of terrorism.
This is not an attempt to justify violence; perpetrators from protestors as well as in the uniform should be brought to justice. A criminal act is a criminal act. Its not heroic if police does it either. It is a plea to focus on the causality.
Political and media elites presented the civilians as savages and their killings heroic. Like police, civilians also had personal stories; they also had children, grandchildren, wife, mother and love as strong as that of police. Instead, leaders kept infuriating people with spree of humiliating remarks. Intimidation and bloodshed instead of reconciliation widened the gap further.
Kathmandu failed to see that they are celebrating unfair citizenship, semi-oligarchic federal structure, non-inclusiveness, inequality to women and curtailed press freedom (§19). A responsible pressure group for a fair and peaceful resolution became polarized by ultranationalist rhetoric. Main leaders diluted the fact that the Madhesi vote got them the majority and they betrayed their election manifesto. People are losing hope after fighting for decades against the inequality through the political process. A lot of optimism was invested in the new constitution. The progress made due process is dismissed. A call for credibility enforcing agreements is overlapped by proxies, ethnic violence or ceremonial president.
Recently, the triumph of having a woman president hides the fact she is against women’s rights. She is the one saying that ‘a woman should be submissive to a man’, nevertheless many consider her an emblem of gender equality. Our ‘as long as you support the status quo you are one of us’ democracy put us in dangerous waters.
A call for negotiations at the time when national security forces commit racially motivated attacks is clearly a deceit. Before the gap widens irreversibly, a serious negotiation for the pursuit of universal equality is compulsory. Shooting and burning as recently as today in Birgunj is not a path to reconciliation but a deliberate attempt to push the new republic into yet another civil war where the voices are dim and consequences grave.
(The author acknowledges Sawan, Pankaj, Roshan, Pirjo, Puru and Khushbu for their constructive comments and supplements)