On the morning of September 18, 2018, three years after the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli tweeted “On the joyous occasion of the Constitution Day, I extend my congratulations and best wishes to all Nepali brothers and sisters living in the country and abroad.” He added, “I also call on all political party leaders and citizens of the country to get involved, with a cooperative mindset, in achieving our national goals of development and prosperity.”
The “joyous occasion” was marked by many in the Kathmandu valley and beyond with much fanfare: balloons, singing, salutes and all. But many others saw it as a day of mourning—a somber reminder of the fact that decades of democratic movements that many had lost their lives in had culminated in a document that thwarted the aspirations of marginalized communities to see a system of governance that was of, by and for them.
For many Madhesis across the country, Asoj 3 is not Constitution Day, but “black day,” a day to mark the fact that framers of the new constitution in the country think them to be not Nepali enough. The specifics of what Madhesis are unhappy with in the constitution have been discussed over the past three years—citizenship clause that discriminates against women, the gerrymandering at the heart of the federal structure, and a general commitment to the most exclusionary form of Brahmanism that is manifest in quotas for Khas Arya.
Efforts to subvert the narrative of a single, sovereign, Nepal united by the “most democratic, best Constitution in the world” are aplenty, and Asoj 3 this year was marked by some commemorative events that were anything but celebratory. There was a well attended “black day” rally organized by Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) in Janakpur, a silent protest in Maitighar Mandala in Kathmandu where multiple people were arrested, and a two-day discussion program jointly organized by the Center for Social Inclusion & Federalism, Sano Paila, and Yuwa Sashakti Sangh Nepal in Birgunj.
Views that speakers expressed at the event in Birgunj encapsulated many of the debates that continue to be had about the viability of the constitution. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Daman Nath Dhungana asserted that despite its problems, there was enough worth preserving in the constitution that campaigning for amendments was the way forward, while political analyst CK Lal [disclaimer: he is my father] likened the document as it stands to a dead cow taken to the veterinarian. Doctors looking at individual parts might point to poor cardiovascular health, bad lung functioning, pallid skin, and any number of things that might be wrong. Ultimately, however, a corpse is a corpse, and no matter how diligent and well-intentioned efforts to salvage the body may be—the dead cow will remain dead. For Lal, a complete rewriting was the only option left.
Speakers also discussed the legacy of the Madhesh Andolan in great detail, and it was clear that wounds from three years ago remain fresh for those who took part in the protests. Lal Babu Patel, a Parsa native who was shot by a police officer while protesting in Birgunj, expressed great disappointment in the political developments post 2015. He was not only angry at the government for refusing to make substantial changes despite people losing their lives for the cause, but also, Madhesi politicians who had encouraged thousands of people to put their lives on the line, only to sell-out and participate in the discriminatory system by joining the government.
Portrayals of Madhesis in mainstream Nepali media were critiqued, with speakers talking about how apathetic and sometimes downright cruel media coverage of the protests had been in 2015. Journalist Dewan Rai pointed to how difficult it was to get perspectives from minority ethnic groups in newsrooms when the newsrooms were filled with upper-caste, Khas-Arya journalists, many of whom misunderstood the issues that were being raised. Speakers raised the point that newsrooms needed to become more diverse in order for media coverage of events to become more balanced.
Luminaries ranging from litterateur Khagendra Sangraula to political thinker Pradip Giri and and RJPN leader Mahant Thakur to scholar-activist Bhaskar Gautam, among a host of other activists, scholars, journalists and politicos expressed concern at the divisive state of Nepali politics today. While some were optimistic about the possibility of reconciliation, many speakers expressed concern about Madhesi anger simmering silently—when it might erupt again is anybody’s guess.
For those who understand the constitution to be a reification of the status quo and a hoarding of political, economic and social power by historically privileged Khas-Arya groups, it isn’t just that there are specific issues in the constitution that are unfair to Madhesis, Janjatis, Dalits, religious minorities and women.
The whole document reeks of an ideological commitment to the preservation of a social order that is okay with completely depriving many for some to continue to enjoy disproportionate advantages.
When the Prime Minister talks about how “movements for democracy have already achieved their desired goals” and “the country can’t be made a ‘guinea pig’ in the name of rights,” what Madhesis hear is a simple but resounding “This country is ours, you don’t matter.” Till substantial changes make the perception of the constitution change for those who feel excluded, it appears as though Asoj 3 will continue to be “black day” for a significant portion of the Nepali population.