| September 22, 2020

Some forces don’t want a sovereign Nepal

Some forces don’t want  a sovereign Nepal Bijay Gajmer/Republica
UCPN (Maoist) Vice-chairman Narayan Kaji Shrestha is an active participant in the ongoing inter-party negotiations. On the central constitutional agenda of federalism, there has been no agreement even as the central Tarai, the Mid-West and the Far-West have erupted in violent protests. Collective appeal for calm from four party leaders has not helped. Is the situation spinning out of control? How can the province demarcation disputes be resolved? Mahabir Paudyal and Ashok Dahal caught up with Shrestha for some answers.

How do you view the wave of violent protests right across the country?

Political parties must act wisely and work to immediately address genuine concerns of the people. The situation can still be brought under control. But if you act indifferent, like nothing serious has happened, or if you believe suppression is the only good response to protests, this could lead us to a real crisis. The major parties still have time not to let the situation slip out of their hands.

Four party leaders had made an appeal. It did not help.

It is not like people don't trust four party leaders. People had expected them to take constitution process to a logical end by resolving the demarcation dispute. Since the leaders have failed, people are slowly losing trust in them and one after another demand is being made. Even more seriously, the parties do not seem to be following any agreed principles while demarcating states. They are concerned more about whether their constituencies or strongholds are within this or that province. When people saw through this, they became agitated. But like I said, it's not too late.

What should they do then?

First, four parties need to be ready to address people's genuine demands. Some concerns being raised on the streets are indeed genuine. Second, there are forces that want to fish in the muddy waters in Nepal; they want to destabilize Nepali politics; see Constituent Assembly fail yet again; and to take the country back on a regressive path. This anarchic element has infiltrated the protests. The leaders need to take this seriously.

Are you suggesting there are foreign elements involved?

It's clear who are in it. We have a force that wants to reinstate monarchy and not let the republic take root even within the Constituent Assembly. They must be fuelling protests outside on the ground as well. Second, there are those who want to politicize sensitive issue of religion to serve their vested interests. Third, we have a political faction which has been trying to foil constitution through CA. They are determined to burn the constitution and fuel unrest, irrespective of what's written in the constitution. Four, there are forces which don't want to see Nepal as a sovereign country, who are opposed to our stability and prosperity and who are bent on weakening national integrity. The protests should be understood as cumulative effect of all these factors. But this is not what Nepali people want. They want a constitution that institutionalizes achievements of past struggles. Leaders should consider what people want, not what anti-constitution elements say. People are asking the leaders to correct the shortcomings in the draft constitution. Leaders should heed them.

Some protestors are for undivided regions, others are for north-south demarcation, yet others are opposed to all options.

Protests are inevitable at this stage. This happens everywhere a new constitution is being written because people want their aspirations reflected in the constitution. So I don't take protests negatively. But we must identify which concerns are genuine and can be addressed now, which are genuine but can be addressed only in due course of time, and which are meant exclusively for obstructing constitution process. We should consider only first two. Demand of Karnali folks is genuine. They fear that Karnali may be marginalized and remain impoverished. So there is a need to declare Karnali special autonomous zone. Tharus from Kailali and Kanchanpur also have a point. Tharus are among the most marginalized groups. All political deals of the past have agreed to a Tharuhat state. We cannot backtrack from it now. Likewise, we need to look into the demands of Surkhet residents. Even Madheshi leaders have started lobbying for linking Madhesh with hill districts. Earlier when we reminded them of this reality, they did not listen. I personally talked to Upendra Yadav and asked him to reconsider 'only-Madhesh' province demand. He would not listen. Now some Madheshi leaders seem to be having a rethink. Their new concern should also be addressed by including some hill districts in Madhesh province. The four party leaders should sit for talks with these forces immediately.

Protests are not so intense in provinces touching both northern and southern borders. How do you explain this?

Only province two and five do not border both India and China. The remaining four do. But it would not be right to interpret current protest as favoring the status quo. There has been misunderstanding among votaries of federalism regarding identity and capability. Some of us focused only on identity while others clamored for capability. We had to demarcate provinces amid these competing claims. I still believe some modifications in the six-province model can address the agitators' demand.

Can you elaborate on those modifications?

We are discussing a number of options. Province one is likely to remain as it is. I see no problem with province one and province three. We can address Madheshi concern by adding some hill districts to province two. Province four could see some modifications with Rolpa put into it. Karnali can be declared special autonomous zone. There can be Tharuhat in Far-west with access to Far-west hills via Kailali district.

It is said parties are also debating turning the five development regions into five federal provinces. Is that the case?

Yes, some leaders are floating this option as well. There was Narayan Man Bijukchhe who once called for converting 14 zones into 14 provinces. I ask you not to run after such lighthearted comments. We will never agree to five-province model. I understand a large mass of people have would like to see the development regions as new federal provinces. But this is not because they are opposed to federalism as such. Such views are expression of people's frustration with top leaders who only focused on retaining their constituencies during province demarcation. When people saw leaders demarcating provinces to suit their interests, they began to air such views. This is an expression of irritation and impatience with top leaders. Yet I must admit that in the last eight years we have failed to discuss how hill, mountain and plains could be accommodated into each federal province.

Would it be right to see ongoing protests as a sign that the federal project is doomed?

I do not see it that way, even though Nepal's federal course is both unique and challenging. Ours is not 'coming together' model. Federalism is not for bringing together the loose units here. Nor is it for holding together the states that are in disunity or on the verge of collapse. We needed federalism here to address diverse aspirations of diverse communities and to decentralize development from Kathmandu to the grassroots. The problem started when some leaders tried to present it as a panacea for all ills, which it is not. It became complicated when pro-federalism parties started to offer mutually exclusive views on capability and identity.

Wouldn't it be a better idea to take federalism to a referendum?

The debate is not about whether to adopt a federal model. The problem is how to manage it and implement it. Various interest groups are interpreting it to suit their interests. Each group wants federalism to serve their interests, which has made it look like a complicated process. The situation calls for astute political leadership. At the moment, there is no demand for going back on federalism or taking it to a referendum. But if it is not settled soon, it may take us to an unimagined situation.

What in your view should the four party leaders do now?

First, they should give up the illusion that they are all-powerful and their decision is final. They need to take ongoing agitation seriously and express their commitment to resolve outstanding issues. They need to bring clear a roadmap to solve problems. Meanwhile, the state should exercise maximum restraint in this hour. Suppression and use of force should be avoided. Above all, we should not give regressive forces a free hand; nor should we let the forces that want to destabilize the country and sow instability prevail. And finally, there should be collective commitment to safeguard the achievements of past struggles.

When do you expect a final settlement?

There is not a moment to lose. We need to settle all issues right now.