Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Loktantric Sambaad (Democracy Dialogues)

Over the weekend, I travelled outside of Pokhara to see some of our Democracy Dialogues, the civil society component of the UNDP Constitution Building project that I've established with my colleagues. Since the original small grants were given to 18 Nepali NGOs (representing the 'historically marginalized' communities) in March, after I left for the States and Dad's subsequent death, I hadn't had the opportunity to see this community-based, grassroots process yet in person.

So, with our new Communications Officer, Christian Clark, and two colleagues, Surendra Chaudhary, the Grant Manager (who worked with me at SC/US), and Kalpana Sarkar, our UNDP Program Officer, we flew to Pokhara on Saturday morning and came back today (Monday). We spent Saturday & Sunday out in isolated, rural villages on the ridges of Syanga and Tanahun districts.

We were all incredibly impressed by the local community interest to participate in the drafting of a new Nepali constitution. There were 40 to 70 villagers at each of the Loktantric Sambaad (Democracy Dialogue) sessions, men, women, grandparents, teenagers and children. Of course, since these were indigenous villagers, Magar people, who live in the hills around Western Nepal, the events were preceded by an hour of delightful and joyful dancing & singing -- not to mention the garlanding of us, the 'honored' guests.

Even after ten years of a civil conflict which has torn at the fabric of Nepali society, these two days showed us how much the local culture and pride of Nepal is alive in these villages. There was an immense sense of honor by the Nepal Magar Association in hosting these day-long constitution building events. It was clear in the speeches by the local leaders and women's associations that they take their responsibilities seriously and are exceptionally eager to participate in drafting a new constitution for what everyone refers to as the "New Nepal".

The process itself takes anywhere from four to six hours, at least, depending on the amount of debate, discussion and facilitation. Although, of course, with the introductory culture show and mid-course breaks for snacks or food, the whole process can easily take a full day.

After all of the individual comments had been gathered by the facilitator and assistants, with names noted for each comment, these recommendations were written on public pages of newsprint for all to see, read aloud, and vote upon by voices of consensus.

Afterwards each person in attendance came up and either signed the newsprint themselves or, for those not literate enough to write their names, to put their John Hancock-like finger print on the sheet in dark, cobalt ink.

As you can imagine, this was an amazing, inspiring process in a dusty, dissicated village high above the wide Himalayan river valleys below. Yet, no matter how remote, these communities are eager to engage in the writing the new Nepali constitution, especially as the years of civil conflict, recent multi-party elections and Maoist political education have more than alerted them to their rights and opportunities.

These days, among many rural Nepali citizens, there is a palpable sense of urgency to recreate the identity of the Nepali state to be a more inclusive, more equitable and more representative nation. Although no one is trying to make constitutional scholars out of the 27 million Nepalis, there are certain values, priorities and needs that seem to run the gamut of people who are aware of the drafting of the new Nepali constitution.

Since the UNDP Civil Society Outreach initiative aims to reach the 'historically marginalized' communities in our first iteration of the Loktantric Sambaad (Democracy Dialogues) process, these events was organized by the Nepal Magar Association, who represent one of the largest indigenous communities in Nepal (with just over 7% of the nation's population). The head of this NGO, Nabin Rokka Magar, is an extremely energetic and organized individual from Rolpa district (considered the heartland of the Maoist movement during the conflict). Nabin led the village-based process we observed in both Syanja and Tanahun districts.

Many of the issues that were identified and highlighted during the day-long process had to do with fundamental rights of the people, e.g. women's rights, children's right to education, the rule of law and people's own sense of security, as well as language rights (right to be taught in one's own mother tongue), religious rights (freedom of religious worship), as well ethnic rights (as described in the ILO Convention 169), including self-determination and the federal restructuring of Nepal based on a combination of ethnic, geographic and linguistic lines.

Significantly, the Magar Association leadership reiterated and reinforced the idea that no matter which federal state that the Magar people will live in, and they are strongly advocating for a Magar Autonomous State (Magarat), ALL Nepali citizens will have equal rights in that state, no matter their caste, ethnicity, religion et al. The new states would respect the historical/cultural lineage of the people who have inhabited that region, but the fundamental rights would be the same for everyone. That level of political maturity, in itself, is a remarkably hopeful sign for the future of the country.

So, although not exactly Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sitting around a candlelite table in the 18 C., but, actually, something similar might have taken place in the towns of Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Hampshire, if there has been a community process supporting the Founding Fathers when the American colonies were drafting a new constitution after separating from the British empire.

At least I'd like to think so...

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