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Inclusive Democracy in Nepal: Wider Representation for the Marginalised

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The debate on inclusive democracy in Nepal has generated a lot of political heat as a large number of unrepresented communities have started mobilising for greater participation in the decision-making process. While the country prepares for holding the election to the Constituent Assembly on 22 November 2007, the claim for an inclusive democracy will be tested on the ground in the months ahead.
The Peoples Movement-II in Nepal in April 2006 not only disposed the monarchy but heralded a new era for the country, a new secular and democratic Nepal that can be a truly independent and democratic system of governance with equitable participation of different communities, women, Dalits, Indigenous peoples and Madhesis. How inclusive it will be in reality remains to be seen. The Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) signed the peace agreement, creating a provisional government headed by Mr. Girija Prasad Koirala that has been at the helm of affairs. The institutional requirements for a democratic set up are being put in place at different levels.

A new constitution is to be drafted and for that purpose a new Constituent Assembly (CA) will be elected by the people of Nepal on 22 November 2007.  There has been  a  growing debate among civil society organisations and different political parties about the fate of the “new” Nepal. It ranges from the country being declared a republic to a federal state to a proportionate representation system. The most significant debate is regarding the concept of inclusive democracy.

There is a fear, not entirely unfounded, that the majority of people in Nepal are not aware of the actual meaning of political jargon that has been super-imposed in public discourse. However, the best outcome of the Peoples Movement-II has been the growing awareness among people of their rights. Any inclusive democratic set up must safeguard rights in the constitution in order to ensure the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights including the right to development, conforming to international standards.

The Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) must ensure equitable, proportionate and compulsory representation of Dalits, women, Indigenous people, Madhesis and other minority groups in the CA, interim government and all other state institutions. The CDC should also enact a comprehensive and stringent law to eradicate practices of untouchability and all other kinds of discrimination that are prevalent while ensuring the right to dignity for all. The CDC should make provisions to ensure equitable and proportional representation of Dalits and other non-represented groups in all public institutions i.e. the executive, the legislative, the judiciary and in all the privately-owned enterprises and institutions.

Nepal continues to be in the midst of a charged atmosphere with international attention. It is not only the UN that set up a country mission in Nepal, but a host of international organisations and also international dignitaries have been visiting and holding consultations with the government and different civil society groups in order to prepare the grounds for the CA Election. Various measures have been initiated by the government in the recent past such as the abolition of untouchability, reservations for women, proportionate representation to Dalits, women, Indigenous groups, and Madhesis for the forthcoming CA Election. All these measures will be tested on the ground in the near future once the full fledged political process starts functioning.

It is very difficult to assess how inclusive the new set up will be. Though Nepal has been declared a secular state, the dominant Brahmanical Hindu traditions continue to prevail. As per the new law, different communities have been given proportionate representation. The CA will have 497 members. It has accepted a mixed electoral system for the election to the CA. 240 members will be elected through the first-past-the-post system. 240 members will be elected through proportionate representation (PR) and the remaining 17 members will be nominated from among the prominent personalities. There is a provision for 50 percent reservation for women in all the 240 seats allocated for PR based election in terms of total seats. Correspondingly, for Madhesi men and women, 15.6 percent has been set aside. For Dalit men and women, 6.5 percent each have been allocated and for ethnic Janajati men and women 18.9 percent each have been set aside. Two percent has been allocated for men and women, respectively, of backward regions and 15.1 percent each have been earmarked for men and women from the “other” category. The PR-based elections will follow the closed (list) system model.

There is a growing demand for wider representation for marginalised groups while a new Nepal is created. It is a crude reality that a large number of people have remained on the margins owing to different cultural, religious and social norms or customs. Discrimination and exclusion leads to denial of equal opportunity in the social, economic and political spheres. It is no wonder then that all the prominent positions of power and responsibility in the political, executive, judicial and even other fields are held by members of certain high caste groups thereby legitimising exclusion and discrimination.

Mere granting of special provisions to Dalits and other disadvantaged groups may not be enough to remove the age-old discriminatory and exclusionary practices that are well entrenched in the cultural and social norms and customs. It requires a socio-cultural transformation and economic emancipation along with the political revolution that is now under way. Any political democracy remains meaningless without a real social and economic democracy.  Will the vision of a new and a truly democratic republic of Nepal stand the test of time and ensure a real inclusive democracy? It will definitely depend on the sagacity of the Nepalese leadership, civil society and the support the international community lends in achieving this goal.