Bipin Adhikari
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Agenda for peace

Bipin Adhikari
The Kathmandu Post
19 September, 2011

It is time for the Prime Minister to quell his internal irritations first. This will set the stage for negotiations with the Madhesi coalition partners.

There is again a new coalition in power. The coalition government of the Maoists and the Madhesi Morcha has superseded the coalition government led by Communist Party of Nepal - UML. While this change has put frontline parties seeking robust change in the country in the driver's seat, other mainstream parties including the Nepali Congress and the UML have refused to join the government. Meanwhile, the four-point understanding that the Maoists signed with the Madhesi parties to obtain their support has raised more issues rather than helped to settle the backlog of problems.

The four-point understanding, which was made public at a joint press conference at the International Convention Centre just before the prime ministerial polls on Aug 28, is not a surprise. It shows, in the context of the peace process, the determination of the government to settle the issue of integration of Maoist combatants by keeping the Madhesi parties in good faith. It announced the withdrawal of cases related to the movements of the Maoists and Madhesis, among others, and the commitment to begin the process of amnesty. Bringing an inclusive bill in parliament within 15 days and beginning the process of recruiting Madhesis in a separate unit in the Nepal Army are also included in the understanding. It noted that priority would be given to improve relations with the neighbouring countries (which, in the psyche of the signatories, basically means India).

It will not be out of place here to recall that sixteen years ago, on February 4 1996, Bhattarai— Chairman of Central Committee of the United People's Front Nepal at the time, had submitted a 40-point demand to the coalition government then, giving it a two-week ultimatum to take steps to fulfill the demands, or face what developed later as the Maoist People's War. The demands on the frontline were: abrogation of all discriminatory treaties, including the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty; cancellation of the Integrated Mahakali Treaty finalised with India in 1996, regulation of the open border between Nepal and India, closure of the Gorkha Recruitment Centres, and the introduction of a 'work permit' system for Indian immigrants. These priorities have not been heard of again since the Maoists joined mainstream politics. And even in the seven page speech that Bhattarai readout to the Constituent Assembly on September 16 a few days ago, there was no mention of these demands. Nepal has by now, already been restructured into a client state. The country will never be able to raise nationalist slogans in the foreseeable future, in its own capacity.

Even though the government has been quickly formed, the constitution-drafting process remains stalled after the opposition parties—the Nepali Congress (NC) and the UML— remained staunch on their stance that there can't be any progress on constitution writing until the peace process reaches an 'irreversible' point. During the meeting of the Constitutional Committee on September 13, for example, NC leader Ram Chandra Poudel and UML leader Agni Kharel states that momentum of the peace process is integral to the constitution-drafting process and the former said concrete steps would be necessary. Earlier this month, the NC and the UML decided that a package deal on the contentious issues regarding integration of Maoist fighters is a precondition for furthering constitution writing.

In the Constitutional Committee meeting, Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who also heads the sub-committee formed under the Constitutional Committee to resolve contentious issues, presented a report on the progress made by the sub-panel. In fact, no progress has really been made.

The Congress-UML perspective on the peace process looks something like this: Integration of Maoist fighters in the range of only four to five thousand at best; the leadership of the proposed army directorate to be given to the Nepal Army officers alone; integration should only be done on an individual basis; the Nepal Army standards can be relaxed only on education, marital status and age; those fighters qualifying on the basis of merit should also not be offered any position above 'Major'—the entry level officer rank; and training and deployment of the integrated fighters can only be in areas falling under civil-military or non-essential army functions. They aren't driving a hard bargain on resettlement and voluntary exit schemes. However, Bhattarai has already accused the Congress and UML of posturing, and displaying old parliamentary habits.

As it stands today, the parties seem closer to consensus on issues like the election system, forms of governance and state restructuring. NC has agreed, in principle, to form an expert panel instead of a State Restructuring Commission under Article 138 (1) of the Interim Constitution to resolve related disputes. NC has made it clear that recommendations by the CA Committee on State Restructuring and Division of Power is not acceptable. And it is not ready to form such a panel unless the peace process stands finished.

The three month extension given to the Constituent Assembly this time falls in the festive season. This puts a significant limitation on the working days of the house. Tihaar will follow Dashain, and Chhath will follow afterwards. The indications are then, that the house will be given extension after extension, turning it into what came to be known as the Long Parliament of England in 1640. Through an Act of Parliament, the body could only be dissolved with the agreement of the members, and those members did not agree to its dissolution until after the English Civil War. It sat from 1640 until 1648. This is how the Interim Constitution is being interpreted in Nepal. On the top of all this, the Supreme Court has unnecessarily gratified the house by laying down the doctrine of necessity, which has the effect of minimising constitutional checks on the exercise of power by the functionaries of the state.

The situation of Prime Minister Bhattarai to lead the process is somewhat limited despite the popular support that he has in some corners of mainstream politics and society. The Prime Minister has avoided sounding harsh, and urged the NC, UML and other fringe parties not to place any precondition on constitution writing. While the row over the Maoist-Madhesi alliance has not been resolved, Bhattarai is under pressure from the hardliners (both hardcore Maoists and nationalists) of his party to further both the processes simultaneously. The undercurrents are no more secret.

It is time for the Prime Minister to quell his internal irritations first. This will set the stage for negotiations with the Madhesi coalition partners. What the opposition wants is very much clear by now. The Prime Minister needs to make clear what he can do now. This will also help the people at large to debate whether there is a necessity for a fresh mandate and elections, or not.

(Adhikari is a constitutional expert).

Copyright @ Bipin Adhikari,