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     Volume 7 Issue 12 | March 21, 2008 |

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Signs of Separation

Shreedhar Gautam

Nepalese Prime Minister and President of the Nepali Congress Girija Prasad Koirala (C) along with other
leaders. AFP PHOTO

With the recently reached agreement between the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) and the Nepali government, people now feel more assured about the constituent assembly polls being held. The news of the compromise gained widespread coverage, and it was hailed as a milestone on the road to the CA election. We all want the CA polls to bring stability, but we cannot be oblivious to some serious questions raised by the pact, especially the provision that promises autonomy to Madhes, southern Nepal, and other proposed states.

Experts on conflict management are never unanimous about the effectiveness of autonomy as a device for resolving problems. In some countries, autonomy arrangements have been considered merely as an interim solution, fearing that outright autonomy may be used to separate people instead of bringing them together. The promise of autonomy to Madhes and other states is a worrisome issue as it is closely linked to the question of self-determination. It is a perilous development also because the 2006 political movement was launched to establish a republic and transfer power from the king to the people, not to divide the country into several autonomous states.

Ironically, the present government--a product of the April 2006 movement--has been instrumental in pushing the country towards separation and disintegration. Traditionally, self-determination was external in character and applied to a situation of colonial domination or racist regimes in the form of independence. Husrt Hannum, a leading expert on international law, argued in the early 1990s that no colonial people "had yet acquired the right to self-determination in international law".

Another expert Daniele Archibugi writes that following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, demands for self-determination reached a new high. He further writes that in the process, different and often contradictory aspirations are grouped under the single banner of self-determination.

As autonomy remains a fiercely contested concept, experts on international law view that the right to self-determination requires a cosmopolitan legal order in order to play a progressive role in the global community and to avoid the risk of entertaining particularistic and chauvinistic demands contrary to fundamental human rights. In our case, the discrimination against and suppression of the tarai (southern Nepal) people--and of indigenous communities and minorities--is the result of the age-old feudal political system that has been nurtured by equally autocratic rulers beginning before the Rana regime and lasting to date.

The tarai and indigenous people will receive the support and solidarity of all right-thinking people in their struggle to root out the feudal system that has deprived them of their fundamentals rights. However, it would be a mistake to think that the present agreement will free the real victims of the tarai from the manacles of exploitation and the chains of discrimination.

The accord between the UDMF and the government does not envision the liberation of the landless, labourers and small-scale farmers who have suffered the most under the exploitative system. It has rather opened the possibility of fragmentation of national sovereignty and integrity. At one point during the tarai movement, the prime minister and the seven party alliance (SPA) leaders had said that they were opposed to self-determination and an autonomous Madhes state. But they later changed their stand and succumbed to the irrational pressure for one Madhes state. This concept needs to be clarified and defined in order to avoid complications as reflected in the sentiments of the Tharu community, indigenous group living in the tarai, which is opposed to the idea of one Madhes state.

A Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) supporter shows a victory sign. AFP PHOTO

With the agreement getting international recognition, especially of India and the US, the nation has started feeling the repercussions of politics based on regionalism and communalism. No political party, big or small, will remain untouched by such politics as shown by the transfer of half a dozen NC members to the Madhesi People's Rights Forum (MPRF).

The agreement has opened Pandora's Box, and now it will be difficult to prevent the emergence of other caste and region-based parties in other parts of the country. Sadly, all such developments have taken place at a time when the nation is going to hold the CA polls for the first time.

Normally, it would have been logical to wait till the formation of the Constituent Assembly before making drastic and historical changes to the socio-political system. But the SPA government has made a mockery of all legal norms by making frequent amendments to the Interim Constitution, which has been made a hostage to their whims and ambitions. The country is bound to face unprecedented complexities if the politics of pressure and imposition overshadows the politics of reason.

At this juncture, all right-thinking people and intellectuals should play a vital role during the CA polls, rising above party lines to educate the people to cast their votes in favour of establishing a republic and then safeguarding national integrity. If the Constituent Assembly is turned into a rubber stamp to endorse provisions in the pact that conflicts with national interests, the very objective of the CA polls will be defeated. We should understand our duty to lead the nation through the transition culminating in the transfer of sovereignty to the people without endangering the nation's territorial integrity.

In all countries, the contribution of intellectuals has been vital at times of socio-political developments. The people's opinion is moulded to a great extent by these academics' perceptions and responses. In Nepal, the present situation demands that our intellectuals make use of their analytical and perceptive minds to see that the goal of a republic is realised and that the Constituent Assembly is not made the puppet of a few parties. If the intellectuals act enthusiastically, the political parties will have to mend their manners and outlooks. These precautions are vital now because of growing foreign interference in our internal matters to turn Nepal into a failed state. The country can be prevented from being turned into a playground of outside powers only with our constant vigilance and courage to expose government actions and decisions taken under coercion in the guise of people's politics.

This article was first published in The Kathmandu Post. Reprinted with permission.

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