Historic First Step on a Long Road Ahead in Nepal

Nepal, a small landlocked country nestled between India and Tibet, has conventionally been known as the land of Buddha and Mount Everest, or a peaceful "Shangri-La." Due to the events of the last decade, Nepal now conjures images of a bloody royal massacre, an intractable civil war, and an autocratic takeover. Exhausted with the status quo, Nepalis took to the streets in 2006 and demonstrated in massive numbers to demand a restoration of democracy and peace under a shared leadership between the Seven Party Alliance, a collection of Nepal's largest political parties and the Maoists. This populist mobilization brought an end to the Maoist insurgency and the government counterinsurgency that had already killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands. It also reinstated Nepal's parliament, which had been dissolved by King Gyanendra in 2002, and gave it the mandate to hold constituent assembly elections.

The date, April 10, 2008, has been set for electing a constituent assembly responsible for drafting a new constitution for the country. However, this is the third date that has been proposed for elections. The first, scheduled for June, 2007, was postponed because the Election Commission was not ready. The second, November 2007, was suspended because the Maoists demanded an announcement of a "republic" through interim parliament as well as a proportional representative election system. The Nepali Congress, Nepal's largest political party, rejected both proposals which led to another postponement. In early November, a compromise was reached to adopt a fully proportional system and declare Nepal a "republic" only after elections are held. Nepal has since been declared a republic, though this designation is pending confirmation by the constituent assembly. Despite this compromise, the constituent assembly election scheduled for April will still be a mix of proportional representation and first-past-the-poll.

Postponement setbacks and all, the upcoming constituent assembly election has the potential to be historic. For the first time, smaller political parties have a chance to gain a seat at the decision-making table through proportional representation. Nepal's population has become more politicized and socially aware than ever before as a result of the women's movement, self-determination movements of different ethnic groups, and the decade-long Maoist insurgency. This grassroots populist mobilization is a by-product of the civil war that is often forgotten amidst the talks of its ruinous impact on Nepali lives and livelihoods. The upcoming April election will also include an entirely new generation of young people, ages 18 to 25, who will be voting for the very first time.

While all the political parties and international agencies seem positive (officially, at least), there are still roadblocks that could derail the current momentum, including the growing janajati (indigenous nationalities) militancy and the unresolved Terai issue. The Terai, also known as Madhes, is the southern belt of Nepal adjoining India. The Madhesis have been marginalized both politically and culturally despite their high levels of productivity. As a result, Madhesis have been advocating for equal representation and recently started demanding an autonomous state. The April election has the potential to bring about much-awaited peace, stability, and real democracy to Nepal.

But, the successful completion of a constituent assembly election in itself will not be a victory for the Nepalis, even if it is "free and fair." The constituent assembly is just a means to an end and we can celebrate only if the new assembly drafts a progressive constitution. Abolishing the monarchy would be a nice touch, but that on its own is not going to solve Nepal's deep-rooted problems. For the mandate of the 2006 grassroots movement to be met, Nepal needs a new constitution that truly reflects the people's demands for equal rights and the right to self-determination.

Given the realities on the ground, I do not dare to dream too large. After all, we still have the same old guards in control who have been oppressing other groups and exploiting the country's resources for centuries. We have a prime minister who, in spite of his old age and declining health, clings to power and appoints his own daughter as a minister without portfolio. We have the Maoists who have been fighting for change, yet in spite of having a significant number of women and different ethnicities among their cadres, are still led by men, predominantly Bahuns (the "highest" caste) who have historically controlled the country. We have an army and an elite group that have benefited greatly by aligning themselves with the monarchy.

Even in the best of the situations, millions of Nepalis will still be disenfranchised. Significant numbers of Dalits and Madhesis lack citizenship identification documents and will not be able to vote in the upcoming election. Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis who have been internally displaced will be unable to return to their homes and vote. We also have hundreds of thousands more of migrant workers in India, East Asia, Middle East, Europe, and the United States who will definitely not have their voices heard.

The Nepali election has captivated international audiences due to the prospect for Maoist participation in mainstream politics. For India, a Maoist victory in Nepal will bolster counterparts in India which the Indian government does not want to see. And the United States government still designates the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist as a "terrorist organization." We cannot rule out the possibility of international meddling if the Maoists manage to gain significant number of votes. Furthermore, the diaspora community is abuzz with rumors of a possible royal intervention.

Electoral politics is never going to be enough to redress the injuries of centuries' worth of oppression and inequality in Nepal or anywhere else. We, who are from the historically marginalized groups, will need to continue organizing ourselves, collaborating with each other, and putting pressure on the politicians and our community leaders to be accountable to us before, during, and after the constituent assembly.

After all, as we say in Nepali: adhikaar maagera hoina khosera paainchha. Roughly translated, "We have to grab our rights, not beg for them."

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