29 April 2006

Parliament meets in Nepal as movement for democracy enters new phase

Kathmandu: Resolution on constituent assembly, ceasefire with Maoists has been tabled; debate, vote on Sunday.

29 April 2006
The Hindu

Parliament meets in Nepal

Siddharth Varadarajan

Kathmandu: As thousands of people kept up a noisy vigil outside the handsome, white-washed gates of the Singha Darbar, seat of Nepal's government, parliamentarians meeting on Friday for the first time in four years loudly applauded the tabling of a resolution calling for elections to a constituent assembly.

The resolution — which took the form of a letter written by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala — was read out by Deputy Speaker Chitra Lekha Yadav as Mr. Koirala was unable to attend the session due to an infection of bronchitis. His illness also meant the Grand Old Man of the Nepali Congress could not formally be sworn in Prime Minister. His nephew, Shekhar Koirala, said Mr. Koirala was expected to recover in time for the next sitting of Parliament on Sunday. "He will also be sworn in Prime Minister on that day."

In his message, Mr. Koirala proposed that Parliament commit itself to the election of a constituent assembly, in keeping with the demands of the janandolan, or people's movement as well as the 12-point agreement reached with the Maoists last November. He also proposed that the terrorist tag be removed from the Maoists and that a ceasefire be declared by the government in order to facilitate the peace process with the rebels. As Ms. Yadav read out each of these proposals, MPs loudly thumped their desks in approval. One MP who conspicuously did not applaud was Budhiman Tamang, a former Minister in King Gyanendra's Cabinet.

In a major semantic shift that was symbolic of the changed political circumstances, Ms. Yadav in her remarks ditched the old word for democracy — prajatantra — in favour of "loktantra." The message, of course, being that the Nepalese were no longer subjects but citizens.

Mr. Koirala's proposals were seconded formally by Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and other leaders of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA). The House was then adjourned till 4 p.m. on Sunday.

The proposals themselves will be discussed on that day before being formally approved.

"The idea is not so much to pass a Bill as for Parliament to commit itself to elections for a constituent assembly," Jhala Nath Khanal, a senior leader of the CPN (UML) told The Hindu . "Parliament will set the direction for government, which must then fix the date for elections and also work out the modalities."

Prominent among the demonstrators outside the Singha Darbar were representatives of Nepal's different ethnic and tribal groups such as the Newars, Magars, Sherpas and Gurungs, most of whom are marginalised by the current political system. Marching under the banner of the Nepal Magar Mahila Sangh, for example, Kavita Alemagar, a famous singer, said Nepal's janajatis were in favour of a constituent assembly that would protect their rights.

“All Nepalis have suffered a lot these past few years but now we are conscious and alert and will not give up the struggle till there is a new constitution.” Asked about specific changes, Ms Alemagar said Nepal should not remain a Hindu nation. “People of all religions live in Nepal. There are Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and others. That is why the state must be secular.”

The demand for a “dharmanipeksh”, or secular, state figured prominently in the placards and slogans of the demonstrators Friday. People also demanded that the ‘Royal Nepal Army” be converted into a Nepal National Army. But the janajatis were not the only marginalized groups to converge on Parliament to make sure their voices were heard. Among the crowds which assembled were Dalit activists as well as three wheel-chair bound representatives of the Disabled Peoples’ Struggle and Self-respect committee. “The new constitution must be inclusive in every way, and recognize the rights of the disabled too,” said Bhojraj Shrestha, convener of the committee.

Gagan Thapa, a prominent student leader of the Nepali Congress, said it was remarkable how quickly the political mood in the country had changed. A convinced republican, Mr Thapa had been reprimanded two years ago by the NC high command simply for talking about a constituent assembly. “I still remember how I was summoned to the party office to explain myself,” he said. “But things have changed now.” Asked whether he was still apprehensive about the possibilities of real change, Mr Thapa said that more than the King, he was skeptical about the political will of the parties. “If the situation on the streets becomes more normal, they may try to make the constituent assembly conditional, or reach a deal with the palace. That is why we are here, to tell the parties the people are watching you.”

Less than a kilometer away, the student front of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) held a large meeting calling for an unconditional constituent assembly and a republic. Thousands of people attended the rally, which took place at the same park as the SPA programme a day earlier. Leaflets bearing a message from Maoist leader Prachanda were distributed and the speakers who spoke from the dais – including a prominent student leader, Lekh Nath Neupane, who is wanted by the police – warned the SPA not to betray peoples’ expectations. Though a working relationship of sorts between the Maoists and the SPA is looking increasingly likely, the abduction of 22 RNA soldiers by Maoist insurgents on the day Prachanda declared a three-month ceasefire has taken observers here by surprise. Human rights groups have demanded that the trainee soldiers, who were unarmed when abducted, be released immediately.

Thanks to Mr Koirala’s indisposition, there is still some debate about how exactly he should be sworn in as Prime Minister. “Ultimately, this is up to the will of the individual leader, isn’t it?”, Mr Khanal said when asked how his party would react if Mr Koirala is sworn in by King Gyanendra. “If Girija babu decides to chart a new course for Nepal, he can insist that the swearing-in ceremony be conducted before the public, by the Chief Justice, or even in Parliament.”

Acting on their own, MPs on Friday did rid the House of some if its royalist trappings. Most of the UML representatives, for example, flouted the requirement that they wear national dress.

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