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Nepal Unveils New Constitution Amid Celebrations, Protests

Nepalese lawmakers attend the constituent assembly session for the proclamation announcement of the adoption of the nation's new constitution in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sep 20, 2015.

Nepal has a new constitution -- the nation's first since the abolition of the long-ruling Hindu monarchy in 2008.

Political squabbling in the Himalayan country had prevented the adoption of a new constitution until now. While setting off celebrations in the capital, Kathmandu, the moment was marred by deadly clashes that killed one person and raised fears of ethnic conflict in the country.

Firecrackers went off in Kathmandu as President Ram Baran Yadav signed the new charter, which reaffirms Nepal as a secular republic.

Top politicians of the country’s three mainstream parties hailed the document, saying it meets the aspirations of the people.

'Historical achievement'

Pointing out that all previous constitutions were written under the shadow of the monarchy, Arjuna Narasingha, a senior leader of the Nepali Congress, called it a proud moment for Nepal.

“Actually speaking, it is a really historical achievement for Nepalese people. We are going to declare today for the first time, our own constitution written by the people," Narasingha said.

In the capital, citizens came out to celebrate despite a curfew.

They heaved a sigh of relief that political parties had set aside years of wrangling to complete a process that missed several deadlines since 2008, when the monarchy was abolished following the end of a civil war.

The politicians were goaded into action by the deadly earthquake in April that killed 9,000 people.

Copies of the newly adopted constitution lie bundled together for distribution to lawmakers at the constituent assembly hall in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sep 20, 2015.
Copies of the newly adopted constitution lie bundled together for distribution to lawmakers at the constituent assembly hall in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sep 20, 2015.

But hopes that the new constitution will put behind years of political strife in the poor, Himalayan country of 28 million people have not materialized.

In the southern town of Birgunj, one person died when police fired into a crowd of protesters who defied a curfew.

Recent protests

These were the latest in a series of protests in recent weeks by ethnic minorities called the Tharu and Madehsi, who said the new constitution has left them underrepresented in both parliament and government.

More than 40 people have been killed in the clashes in recent weeks.
Lawmakers representing these groups boycotted the final voting process.

The Madhesis and Tharus mainly inhabit the plains in the south of the country and have long complained of being marginalized by old ruling elites who inhabit the hill regions.

They support the new federal structure but say the country’s seven new states have been drawn in such a way that six of them will still be dominated by entrenched ruling parties. They want more states and representation equal to their population.

Hridayesh Tripathi of the Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party said the “population we have in the Terai, 51.7 percent, but the seats we are getting, only 40 percent. There is institutional discrimination since a long time, and in the new constitution we hoped that there will be equality, but the same discrimination is carried by new constitution. It must be amended.”

The government has appealed to the detractors to give up their protests and join a dialogue, saying the new constitution can be amended. But the ethnic minorities have vowed to intensify their stir.

'Dangerous' new conflict

Former Election Commission Chairman Bhojraj Pokharel fears that the new constitution has sown the seeds of a “dangerous” new conflict that is not based on political ideology but on ethnicity.

“Historically, they feel that they have not been treated as equal citizens. This constitution making process, there was genuine expectation that this opportunity will create that space that all the people of Nepal will feel they are the proud citizens of Nepal," Pokharel said.

"The Madhesi community they feel true federalism is the way to bring them in the limelight. They were looking for stronger federalism," he added.

For Nepal, which has a long history of political violence, the controversy has marred the prospect of the new constitution ushering in much-needed political stability.

Other issues have also upset both ethnic minorities and women, who say the constitution discriminates against them in terms of passing on citizenship to those who marry foreigners.

Pokharel said, “It is impossible to make 100 percent ownership. However, if the major communities of the country would have welcomed this day, if we had seen that all the country was united, it would have another dynamics for this country.”

Indeed, Nepal’s political parties will have their work cut out for them in the following months to bring about political consensus and maintain peace.

Still, political analysts said there is reason to celebrate.

The charter sets Nepal on the path of being a modern state and marks the end of a long period of political turbulence that saw the country grapple with a violent Maoist rebellion and abolish its 239-year-old monarchy.