Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dalit Discussions on a Draft Nepal Constitution

The mist encloses this isolated hotel on the backside of Nagarkot.  It’s been raining steadily for four days within the Kathmandu Valley.   Yesterday I came to attend a three-day workshop on constitutional issues with Dalit leaders from the major political parties and associated NGOs.  The clouds keep our concentration on the issues at hand, instead of gazing out the picture windows at the snow-capped Himalaya to the north.

As Nepal moves closer (we hope...) to a draft constitution before the November 30th deadline, there is a rush among interest groups to clarify the minimum common demands they wish to include in the final draft constitution.   Among these communities, the splits that have divided them by party or ideology or class are being diminished to ensure they are better able to influence their party leaders and those few who will most likely have a greater say on the final draft.

Among the Dalits, the previously ‘untouchable’ castes, these internal schisms have been as severe as among any other identity group in Nepal.  As the psychiatrists and social historians advise us, painful family problems and political divisions often internally rive groups that have been harshly discriminated against within their larger society.  Such troubles have been apparent among the Dalit communities, as well, as they seek unified strategies, programs and policies that would support their enhanced economic, social and political rights in a 21st C. Nepal free from past discrimination and degradation.

Now, after two years of on-going discussions among these Dalit leaders, this latest SPCBN/UNDP workshop brought the best and brightest of the Maoist, Congress and UML parties together with their colleagues from the constitutional National Dalit Commission and related NGOs. 

Over the past two+ days, they have eagerly and openly debated the major outstanding constitutional issues, with special emphasis on fundamental rights, forms of government, the election system and state restructuring.  The actual constitutional language on these issues, perforce, will have a major impact on their historically disadvantaged Dalit community.  Each proposed constitutional provision will either further encourage improved opportunities for their community or continue their isolatation from the mainstream of Nepali society, with future potential economic growth and political leadership limited for their children and grandchildren in the years to come.

Yet, in all such gatherings, it’s not possible to completely take the person out of their party, even when they all belong to the same historically suppressed Dalit community.  At times, some of these leaders go off on justifications of their own party’s perspective on these national issues.  But they quickly lose their audience as other Dalit leaders start to complain or openly ask how long they will keep talking off the actual topic. 

But, by and large, these conversations have been extremely mature, thoughtful and dispassionate.  Some of the women leaders have been as articulate and forthright as their male colleagues.  In particular, it’s obvious to see how the Maoist party has cultivated some of these younger women in positions where they have gained greater exposure on issues related to caste, class and political empowerment.

On fundamental rights, naturally, there have been detailed discussions on Dalit rights, especially how best to ensure that the new constitution is even more proscriptive in eliminating the remains of caste discrimination.  Although the Government of Nepal has ratified many international conventions (ICCPR, CERD, CEDAW et al) over the decades and new laws been introduced to further restrict the traditional discrimination against Dalits, the sad reality is that such racial discrimination still exists within Nepali society, as does racial discrimination in most countries.

On state restructuring, the workshop discussion revolved around how Dalits can gain greater political authority and rights under the new Federal Republic of Nepal.   However, unlike the Indigenous communities, who are advocating for their own plurality states, or at least states named after their cultural and geographic histories, the Dalit population is so widespread in Nepal that there is no area of the country that would logically support a contiguous or representative Dalit state. 

Therefore, some Dalits advocated a non-territorial federalism for the Dalit community where they would be joined within a political structure that would recognize their identity and unite them even as they remain dispersed across the country.  But this is a muted demand and most Dalit leaders acknowledge that federalism in and of itself will not systemically improve their situation in Nepal.

For that reason, much of the conversation revolved around the proposed election system.  They discussed how a new electoral structure will best support the enhancement of Dalit leaders and representation in future parliament-legislatures.  Currently, the debate revolves around how to balance a first past the post (FPP) system where the winner takes all with a proportional representation (PR) system whereby a pre-arranged number of seats are allocated to representatives of historically disadvantaged communities based on a national constituency, i.e. the total number of votes each party gains throughout the nation.   

Because the Constituent Assembly election in 2008 included more PR seats than FPP, this 601 member CA has 50 Dalit representatives – much more than any previous parliamentary election in Nepal; including, for the first time, Dalits who remarkably won their own constituency elections through the FPP system (all Maoist candidates).

The drafters of the new constitution will have to decide how to best to balance the seats allocated for the FPP and PR, i.e. what number and percentage of th seats will be FPP or PR.  Historically, until 2008, the FPP seats were won by the traditional elite communities -- never the Dalits.

Similarly, Dalits will have to observe carefully how the PR seats are categorized – e.g. how strictly will the rules be drafted so that specific minorities are ensured representation on the PR lists.  For example, under the women quota, will there be a Dalit or IP women's quota or will most of the women's quota go to the traditionally politically well-connected women?

Also, will the Dalits be given additional compensatory seats to adjust for their historical discrimination or will they be given an exact percentage of seats (relative to their population).  In 2008, they were allocated a proportion of seats less than their national population percentage.  How exact will be the effort to ensure proportional reprsentation, as committed in the 2007 Interim Constitution?

Some CA MPs, nonetheless, made a case that the Dalits should also be prepared to compete for FPP seats, as well, to show their imcreased capabilities and individually prove their abilities and worth in an open election compared to any other Nepalin. 

On the form of government, where the primary national discourse revolves around either a presidential system (favored by the Maoists) or a Westminster system with a prime minister selected by the largest party in the parliament (favored by the Congress party).  However a third option has been mooted that is a French-style mixed (semi-presidential) model where state powers are shared between the prime minister chosen by the parliament and a directly elected president. 

For the Dalits, there seemed to be less emphasis on this debate, as they don’t imagine that they will have the opportunity to hold either position in the near future.  One person did recommend that if there is an honorary presidential system (with a ruling prime minister), then the president should rotate among the various ethnic and caste communities in Nepal, thereby permitting a nationally respected Dalit to hold that ceremonial post in the future.

As the workshop ended, there were many voices of appreciation for the accomplishments over these few days, with the understanding that there is more work to be done in writing up the conclusions over the upcoming Desain holidays, meeting with constituents to discuss these issues and further discussions later in October to refine the agreements.  

At that time, they will need to formalize the actual language and then sit with their own party top leaders to gain their consent to include clauses in the new constitution that directly benefit the Dalit community.

If even part of this is achieved in a new constitution, then these three September days will have been well-spent and meaningful here on the misty side of Nagarkot.  

Jai Nepal!

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