Statute Amendment Bill Under Scanner
Ritu Raj Subedi
Amidst the deepening rift between the ruling and opposition parties, the government is pushing through the constitution amendment Bill in the parliament in a bid to end a long-running stalemate involving the Terai-based and mainstream forces. The Madhes-based parties, particularly the Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal, have been demanding for the passage of amendment Bill as a precondition to ensure their participation in the elections. But, now the RJP-N is ready to accept the result of the voting on the Bill after Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj instructed them to do so. The change of tack seen both in the policy of India towards Madhes as well as posture of Madhesi parties is a new development triggered by a geopolitical tension in the region.
The diplomatic cognoscenti note that India’s political priority has changed in Nepal in the wake of Doklam standoff near China-Bhutan border. India fears that with China’s vigorous push for massive infrastructure development up to the strategic border area, the region’s status quo will undergo a drastic shift in favour of its arch rival. So the Indian establishment has attached more importance to the current Nepali Congress-UCPN-Maoist Centre coalition than the RJP-N that has lost political direction owing to lack of its own original domestic agenda. This is a reason why Swaraj showered praise on Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Maoist Centre’s chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda for their alliance in the government. While admiring Prachanda for his honesty in passing the baton to Deuba, she also said that Deuba-Prachanda bonhomie was essential for Nepal’s democracy, an assertion that may underrate KP Sharma Oli, whose party, CPN-UML, has emerged the winner from the two phases of local elections, and at the same time UML’s support is crucial in endorsing the amendment Bill which it derides as anti-nationalist and anti-Madhesi.
While India seems to try to secure Nepal’s support over its military entanglement with China, the latter is simply satisfied with Nepal’s neutral position. Unlike Indian External Affairs Minister’s political activism during her recent visit to Nepal, Vice Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Yang, abstained himself from the tricky internal matters of Nepal and only focused on the bilateral agenda of development, investment and connectivity during his recent visit here. He appreciated Nepal’s non-alignment and One-China policy and expected that it will continue with neutral stand on the simmering tension in Doklam.
Against this backdrop, India refused to bet on the so-called Madhesi issues for the time being and pontificated about putting the amendment proposal to a vote in the parliament. But, the UML argues that the Bill smacks of ambiguities and is a grand design to weaken the local languages, cultures, demographic balance and representation of Madhes. Here this writer attempts to cast a critical glance at the amendment Bill.
As per the provision of Nepal’s new constitution, the provinces have the right to choose two main regional languages for the official purpose. But the amendment Bill seeks to form a language commission, which will recommend to the government to recognize the local languages as official ones. It is for listing all languages in the Schedule of constitution with the government having the upper hand over the matter. This will obviously force the provinces to forfeit their constitutional rights before they find their feet. If the Madhes-based parties really want to promote the local languages such as Maithali, Tharu, Abadhi and Bhojpuri, the existing constitution does not pose obstacles to them. The critics claim that the amendment Bill conspires to make Hindi an official language. Around 0.37 per cent of population speaks Hindi in Nepal. In India, there are over 400 languages but only 22 have been added to the Schedule of the Constitution.
Nepal’s constitution is highly liberal in the entire SAARC region when it comes to granting citizenship to foreign women married to the Nepali nationals. Any foreign woman can obtain Nepali citizenship within 24 hours of marriage with a Nepali. In India, a foreign woman has to wait for seven years to get citizenship after marrying an Indian national. In Bhutan, foreign woman is granted the citizenship only after their children get the citizenship certificates. In the Maldives, the foreign women should spend 12 years and then have to adopt Muslim religion to get the citizenship. Nepal is located in a sensitive geography but it has adopted such a flexible provision in regard to citizenship. Still, the Madhes-based parties kick up a fuss about it.
Nowhere in the world is the population the single basis for fixing the number of electoral constituencies. Still, Nepal’s constitution has made population as the main basis for representation of elected officials in view of Madhes-based demand since long. For example, Province No 3 has a population of around 550,0000 and its number of local level units stands at 119. In Province No 2, there is a population of around 540,0000 and has 127 local units. Dolpa is the biggest district but it has only one representative at the federal parliament. Kapilvastu and Jhapa have five and seven constituencies respectively but Taplejung has only two. Let’s compare this with the population-seat ration in India’s Lok Sabha. Lakshadweep is India’s one of the smallest union territories with a population of 64,429 and sends one lawmaker to the centre. But a lawmaker represents a population of 25.95 lakh in Bihar, 24.91 lakh in Uttar Pradesh and 25.03 lakh in Madhya Pradesh. Sikkim has only one seat for a population of over 6.07 lakh. In West Bengal, one member of Lok Sabha represents 21.75 lakh people. Should the Madhes-based parties take their cue from India, which has a long experience of parliamentary democracy with federalism?
Local units’ rights threatened
Likewise, the amendment Bill seeks to keep the local units under the provinces and deprive the right of local elected representatives from electing the members of Upper House and President. This mocks the slogan of devolving the rights of Singha Durbar to the villages. Likewise, the proposal has envisaged a commission to demarcate the provinces, which will have negative implication for the territorial integrity and social cohesion. As per the constitution, the federal parliament has to win permission of the concerned provinces to fix their boundary before endorsing the proposal related to the provincial boundary with two-thirds majority.
Risk of a backlash
The proposers and backers of the statute amendment Bill insist that it is for broadening the acceptance of new charter. But, the amendment bid does not seem to meet such a high goal as several parties, including main opposition UML have stood against it, citing that both the contents and timing of the amendment goes against the spirit of the statute considered to be the most inclusive and democratic in the region. In the name of appeasing around 10 per cent lawmakers, the amendment risks alienating over 36 per cent representatives of the parliament, let alone make the constitution all-acceptable.