More than half a century in the making: Nepal enshrines new constitution

Story highlights

Nepal tries to put decades of political strife behind it with the enshrinement of its new constitution

An overwhelming majority of its lawmaking body supports the document

Vocal minority groups say they were excluded from the process, and that the constitution will work against their interests

CNN  — 

Nepalis, shaken by two devastating earthquakes this year, and against a backdrop of more than half a century of political strife now have something major to cherish: the South Asian nation has put the world’s newest constitution into effect.

As an editorial in one of the leading Nepali newspapers put it, “Nepalis are now truly sovereign citizens.”

What has changed?

The Himalayan nation was never colonized and has always remained a sovereign state. So, what is new? “The previous constitutions were made at the ruler’s disposal and overshadowed by the interests of the monarchy and the army,” political analyst Sanjeev Pokharel tells CNN.

“For the first time in history, Nepalis are sovereign in the true sense of the term.”

The long fight of Nepalis to have a constitution written by representatives of the people is over. The fight that lasted 65 years, saw a civil war and multiple major revolutions – along with a century-old monarchy toppled in the process.

The new constitution, which took more than seven years to draft, was overwhelmingly endorsed in the constitutional assembly – a constitution-making body comprised of 601 elected lawmakers. The three prominent parties – Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – collaborated for the majority while few other smaller opposing parties either voted against, or boycotted the process.

“Matter of pride”

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala tweeted “it is a matter of pride for all Nepalis that the constitutional assembly has approved the people’s constitution.”

The civil war, instigated by Maoist rebels, lasted for 10 years, from 1996 to 2006 and claimed more than 15,000 lives. With the signing of the constituton, it is also now officially over. “This constitution can also be hailed as a peaceful resolution to the Maoist insurgency,” according to Pokharel.

The country which is greater than 80% of the population Hindu – the largest Hindu majority in the world – will remain secular as per the new constitution.

Vocal, fierce opposition

But not everyone is celebrating. A handful of groups representing a number of ethnic minorities have denounced the new constitution.

The smaller opposition parties representing the Madhesi and Tharu indigenous groups have been the most vocal opponents of the new constitution, and the past few weeks have seen violent protests and multiple resultant deaths. Lawmakers from the parties boycotted the final voting process.

The Madhesi and Tharu mainly live in the southernmost part of Nepal, an area known as Terai. Terai accounts for about a fifth of Nepal’s land area but is home to slightly more than half of its population, with the two ethnic groups making up just over a quarter of this.

Their main demand: representation equal to their population and federal redistricting that maintains Madhesh and Tharu provinces – which would guarantee the groups a bigger representation in parliament.

“The protesting parties see the current design of federal demarcation plan in the new constitution as a way to minimize their demographic power, and lessen their political bargaining capacity,” said Dipendra Jha, a lawyer at the Supreme Court and a Madhesi practicing in Kathmandu.

“This is gerrymandering.”

Proponents: Fair result of democratic process

Those in favor of the new constitution disagree, describing the outcome as the result of democratic process that all parties must learn to accept.

“We want them to be part of the process, but it can’t be done without compromise on their side,” said Minendra Rijal, Nepal’s Information and Communication minister and a leader in one of Nepal’s major political parties.

The new constitution can be amended in the future, and the government has called for dialogue to appeal multiple times, but the Madhesi and Tharu representatives say the government hasn’t created a suitable environment for talks.

So their leaders took their demands to the streets, where they felt their voices could be heard. Instead it ignited violence.

Clashes, deaths

Emotions running high, clashes between protesters and police led to the death of at least 40 people in Terai since August – including 11 police officials, one of them dragged out of an ambulance and beaten to death. The remainder – protestors and civilians. Most recently a 4-year-old boy died after being shot with rubber bullets by police.

Dozens of Madhesi and Tharu leaders have been arrested under charges of disturbing peace and security.

In an effort to calm tensions, on Saturday Minister Rijal announced the decision to compensate the families of protesters and security officials killed, and the release of those found to be innocent.

The U.S., UK, India, China and Japan have all welcomed the new constitution but have also expressed concerns that the disgruntled minority groups were not fully engaged in the process.

Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and is still coming to terms with the devastating earthquakes that wracked its urban and rural populations several months ago, and remains politically volatile.

But while its latest move remains contentious for minority groups, political analysts say Nepal has taken a significant step in the right direction.