Sense of proportion

The turmoil in several districts of eastern Terai should not be merely taken as a law-and-order situation. Though it certainly is, its political dimension is too important to be ignored. The protests started two weeks ago with the promulgation of the interim constitution, which was burned by activists of the Madhesi People’s Right Forum, also backed by two small armed outfits which claim to work for the rights of the people of the Terai. The top leaders of all three had once worked for the CPN-Maoist, but for varied reasons, they later formed their own groups. Normal life in those parts has come to a standstill with bandhs, protests, violence, vandalism, scuffles with the police, and curfews. Though allegations by top leaders in the eight-party alliance of massive infiltration into the protests by internal foes of constituent assembly and their possible links to certain outside groups are too serious to be brushed aside lightly, yet there is the pressing need for the government to address those of the demands which are genuine from the standpoints of equality, equity, and democratic principles.

Two of the central demands of the forum are a federal system of governance and fully proportional representation system, and both demands had already been pushed by most of the eight parties, with the major exception of the Nepali Congress headed by PM Girija Prasad Koirala. Indeed, the Maoists are the effective originators of these demands in the Nepali context and most of the other parties too adopted them later, but in the compromises that gave birth to the interim constitution, the electoral system for the CA polls became half first-past-the-post and half proportional representation. As things stand now, the issue of federalism is to be decided by the CA.

The leaders of the eight parties have rightly stressed the need to deal with the problem seriously and politically, and Koirala has said he will call an eight-party meeting for the purpose. Full proportional representation can be easily adopted for the CA if the Congress agrees and this will be a sensible decision too, particularly for the CA, because it makes possible the widest possible participation. But nobody can guarantee its continuation beyond the CA, which is free to choose an electoral system for the future. Even on whether to keep the unitary structure or adopt a federal one, the CA will be free to decide; no group can force the elected body’s hand on the issue. However, any individual, group or political party is free to go to the people to win support for its preference. There is another democratic way of settling such fundamental issues — by asking the Nepali voters directly to indicate their choice through a referendum. If fundamental issues are to be decided in the interim, the question arises as to what rationale will remain for holding the CA polls. While the government should set about dealing with the Terai issues in all earnestness, it needs at the same time to take all administrative measures within reasonable bounds to keep the peace in case of violence.