One of the major grievances of agitating Madheshi parties against ruling CPN-UML has been that the second largest party is not bothered about their concerns and that Prime Minister KP Oli has been strongly opposing measures to bring agitating Madheshi forces on board. What is the truth? UML General Secretary Ishwar Pokhrel, a close confidante of PM Oli, shared his views with Mahabir Paudyal on Tuesday evening.
Madheshi leaders have joined a broader federal alliance and announced fresh protests. Why is UML government so indifferent to their concerns?
In a democracy any political party or individual is free to express their views and push their agenda. In this light, I take the formation of the federal alliance as a normal outcome. But a democracy also requires that such protests be peaceful and do not harm the public. No one will object to peaceful protests. But if their activities are directed at encouraging violence, disrupting social harmony and weakening national unity, both the government as well as our party will take these issues seriously and deal with them accordingly. I have a hunch that this alliance could be a design against the country.
What makes you say so?
What’s wrong with this constitution? The parties who believe in democracy should accept the result of 2013 CA elections. It is the fresh verdict of people. More than 90 percent of people’s representatives elected from this election endorsed this statute.
Besides, these parties have participated in the process of electing Prime Minister and President under this constitution. On one hand, they take part in election of executive heads under this constitution and on the other they vow not to abide by this constitution. How do you explain this double standard? They are free to reject this constitution. But should they not register their differences in line with the provisions of the constitution? The constitution has clearly defined the process for its amendment. They can table amendment proposals in the parliament. But they don’t do so. They are bent on establishing their agenda by force. This is unacceptable.
But there has also been no talk between Madheshi parties and the government since February.
Many rounds of talks have been held. The government in February formed a political mechanism to address Madhesh issues. It appealed to the Madheshi forces to join the mechanism. They did not. One wonders if they are waiting for a directive of some power center. The prime minister addressed the nation and called for fresh talks. But Madheshi parties responded that so and so preconditions must be fulfilled before the talks. Sometimes I wonder what they really want.
They have said umpteenth times that redrawing provincial boundaries is their bottom line.
Even if that is the issue, should not the people of respective districts or their chosen representatives from these regions have their say on boundary issue? Some elites declare that such and such districts must not be included in such and such province. Leaders from Sarlahi and Mahottari dictate where Jhapa and Sunsari should be accommodated, verdicts of people be damned.
The other concern is that the government is least bothered about independent investigation of violence during Madhesh agitation. Human rights organizations and international community also have expressed similar concerns.
Who is opposed to independent investigation? Cases of murder by the state side and those committed by Madheshi forces should be investigated. We are not opposed to this. As for human rights organization’s concern, with due respect, let me make one thing clear here. National Human Rights Commission that we have is not an NGO sustained by dollars of donors and INGOs. The constitutional body is a part of the state that is empowered by the constitution to function independently. If this body feels that the activities of the government are flawed and they need to be corrected, it can offer advice and warn the government. This is its first duty.Instead its members go to Geneva and bash its own government. This matter should be investigated. Besides, the Commission is obliged to present report from the period between 2010 and 2014. But in Geneva the most recent and controversial cases were raised. NHRC cannot behave like an INGO. The way the rights bodies are working, one feels they are part of regional and global strategy to isolate this popular government. I have heard that some members of NHRC condemned the constitution from Geneva. This is shameful. It is unfortunate that members or representatives of our constitutional bodies condemn the statute that was passed by overwhelming majority of people’s representatives.
Let’s get back to Madhesh. Apart from boundary issue, they have serious reservation on citizenship provisions.
Even the most democratic nations in the world and even those in this region do not have as liberal provisions on citizenship as we do. There is constitutional provision for a child to acquire citizenship through his/her father’s or mother’s identification. The foreigner woman married to Nepali citizen can initiate process of acquiring citizenship right after her marriage. That’s not the case in India. Such a woman has to renounce the citizenship of her native country and can acquire Indian citizenship only after five years. There is no bar for naturalized citizens to hold political and public offices here. Some of the naturalized citizens have become parliamentarians and even ministers in Nepal. Yes, they are barred from heading constitutional bodies. But this is the norm everywhere.
As for the boundaries, we have also been saying that current boundaries are not etched in stone. But any change should be justified by existing practice, experiences and relevance. We can alter the current boundaries either through a political understanding or a constitutional process. How will this be possible when the very first condition of the agitators is to condemn and burn this constitution?
If so, why don’t you categorically tell the protesting parties that their demands are unjust?
We cannot dismiss their agenda like that. We can say which of their demands are relevant and which are irreverent and why. We have been saying all along that some of their demands are irrelevant. Rejecting their agenda as unjust might invite acrimony. People are ultimate arbiters in a democracy. They will judge how just or unjust a particular agenda is. Like I said, the Madheshi demands sometimes seem a part of a bigger design to weaken national unity.
How so? Will you elaborate on it?
We have been hearing statements like ‘who cares whether or not there will be Nepal, but there will always be Madhesh.’ They are talking about two nationalities, Nepali nationality and Madheshi nationality. Some of them demand Madhesh as a separate nation. What does this mean? You expect such remarks only from traitors. Colonial Britain raised the issue of two nationalities and that led to India’s partition in 1947. Similar strategy was used to split Bangladesh from Pakistan. They tried to do the same in Sri Lanka. Thankfully the country survived. So when you hear people talk about two nations and two nationalities, you need to take it seriously. The new constitution has an elaborate definition of nation and nationality. This definition was reached unanimously. And now they talk about a separate nation!
Madheshi leaders say they are demanding a separate Madhesh province, not a separate country.
Nepal is sustained by geographical interdependence. Our mountains and hills are sustained by Tarai plains. Our mountains are the pride of hill and Tarai plains. Likewise, people of mountains and hills have some right over the Tarai, and vice-versa. Break this interdependence and we will be lost. No one will accept this.
Is this why UML has never put pressure on the government to address Madheshi demands?
Not really. UML took over government reins when there was a heap of challenges ahead. It has not been able to work as per people’s expectations. But it has also overcome many challenges. Think of the five-month-long Indian blockade and government’s efforts at balancing our two neighbors. We are emerging from those challenges slowly.
Our sixth central committee meeting has drawn the attention of the government to take all possible measures for constitution implementation, post-earthquake reconstruction and service delivery. The government has been directed to formulate plans and policies for this. The government is unveiling its budget on May 28th. I ask the people to judge this government on the basis of what kind of policies and programs it will bring for them.
There is a speculation that this coalition is going to be replaced after Sher Bahadur Deuba returns from New Delhi.
The current coalition is a coalition among forces in favor of this constitution, who put national pride, sovereignty and national independence above everything else, and who advocate for balanced relation between the two giant neighbors. This is a coalition of necessity. Coalition members realize this. So far they have stood together and they have prevailed. I don’t believe any party in this coalition will walk out and jeopardize vital national interests. Doing so will neither serve their interest nor the broader national interest. So far major parties have common stand on fundamental issues of this constitution and on broader national interests. I don’t see a possibility of this unity breaking down any time soon.
New Delhi seems to have taken the transit treaty with China as an instance of Nepal playing the proverbial China card.
We always give special importance to Nepal’s friendship with India. Our relation with India is linked with nature. Thus it is a part of our natural and national life. It has its basis on common geography, culture and customs. The founding fathers of this country maintained this special relation. Our duty is to carry that legacy. Nobody has a right to spoil this relation. What happened in the last few months was unfortunate.
We are not in favor of pitting one neighbor against other. Playing China card against India and vice versa is neither right nor just. But we want to make our relation with neighbors balanced. Frankly, our relation with one neighbor was skewed. This was the case for many years. We are a landlocked country but we became India-locked in practice. This government has tried, for the first time, to remind people that country is land-locked, not India-locked. So our transit treaty with China does not in any way undermine our relation with India. India should take this in the same spirit.
International community including India has been issuing one after other statement urging the government for inclusive settlement of current crisis.
There is something positive about these statements. Somewhere they mention that all forces should act in line with the constitution. We have been saying the same. That said, I also want to urge our international friends to comment on Nepal’s constitution only after reading it.
They should understand that it is up to people’s chosen representatives to decide what is best for their people. Nepal is a democracy not a dictatorial regime. If big powers unnecessarily comment on our constitution which was endorsed by overwhelming majority of lawmakers, such act will only belittle their stature. The world knows what is happening in Modi’s Gujarat and what is happening in Kashmir. We have never commented on those issues. We have always been saying that this is India’s internal affair. Nowadays I hear people ask uncomfortable questions: What if Kathmandu also starts raising Kashmir issue on international forums? We do not want to be irresponsible in dealing with our international friends. We hope for similar reciprocity.