The government has deferred the second phase election in a bid to make Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) take part. Yet the RJPN, formed with the unity of six small Madhesi parties, has not softened its anti-election stand. Why is RJPN so adamant on boycotting and disrupting the second phase? Can there be no meeting point now? Manish Suman, a General Secretary of RJPN, shared his views with Mahabir Paudyal on Wednesday afternoon.
Why has RJPN been hardening its stand even as the government has been rather flexible in trying to accommodate them?
Had the government been honest about local election, we would not have walked out. Election is the beauty of a democracy. And we as a party that believes in democracy would never oppose election. We are aware that our democracy is suffering in the absence of periodic elections. But the current election is not just about local level. It is directly linked to the implementation of the constitution, and we have many reservations with this constitution.
This constitution is a document that the vast majority of Madhesi people have rejected. The constitution was promulgated amid a bloodbath in Madhes. Madhes was under curfew and people were being killed. Even before its promulgation, we had been demanding that the statute be based on agreements the state had signed with us in the past. We were asking the government to make the constitution more inclusive and broadly acceptable. But the three major parties pushed ahead with the flawed constitution. Our cries fell on deaf ears.
This constitution is not in the interest of Madhesis and Janajatis. For example, it does not include definition of Madhesis and Janajatis but clearly defines Khas Arya. If you look at the preamble, it does not mention any ‘Madhes movement’. There are many such flaws.
They drafted the constitution in an ad hoc manner and imposed it as arbitrarily. The only way to correct those flaws is through amendment, for which there is a bill pending in the parliament. Deliberations on the bill are now complete. So if the bill is now cleared, all those dissatisfied with the constitution will be ready for election.
The government knows that it will be difficult, even impossible, to hold election in Madhes without the participation of RJPN. This is why it has repeatedly deferred polls. If changing of election date is aimed at addressing our demands, we welcome it. But it seems that this is a strategy to fool us.
What are your conditions for taking part in the second phase of local election?
Constitution amendment, withdrawal of false cases filed against Madhesi protestors, compensation to the victims, declaration of martyrdom to remaining 21 people who were killed during Madhes movement, and increment of local level units across Tarai plains on population basis. This is our bottom-line.
Why do you keep insisting that there should be amendment when the ruling parties simply do not have the votes for such an amendment?
There are two sides to our demands. Some of our demands can be addressed via government decisions, only the amendment proposal requires parliament approval. Even though the government of Pushpa Kamal Dahal wanted to address some demands, such as compensation for victims and increasing local units, it appeared unwilling to address our remaining demands. For example, the government directed the Ministry of Law to withdraw false cases. But not a single such case has been withdrawn yet. As for amendment, I understand the technicality of two-third majority. But the issue here is making Madhesi people see their faces in the constitution. This should be done through whichever way is possible.
In recent times, UML has also been positive about amendment as the current bill proposes to settle federal boundary through the Federal Commission. If they are positive, why can’t the amendment bill be passed? Besides, the government can garner two-third majority even without UML. RPP, for example, has announced that it will vote in favor of amendment, even though it has withdrawn support to the current government. So our reading is that if the government so wants, constitution amendment is possible. It has not been amended because the government doesn’t want to do it.
You say you are in favor of amending the constitution through a parliamentary vote. Yet you also say that you won’t accept it if the vote goes against your favor. You seem to have double standards.
You need to understand that amendment is not just about four or five top RJPN leaders. It has got to do with making Madhesi people own up the constitution. If this does not happen, Madhesi people might tilt towards the separatists. Thus even if some RJPN leaders come to a compromise as they are under the pressure of national and international forces, people won’t accept it. They will seek other alternatives. The day that happens, it will be the worst day in Nepali history.
Could RJPN leaders also side with separatists if constitution amendment bill fails?
Let me be clear. Some state actors in Kathmandu may be willing to split this country and may even be scheming for this. But neither our leaders nor the vast majority of Madhesi people will let this happen. They will not side with separatists. They will work and even fight to keep the country a united whole. Sometimes it feels like state actors want us to take that route by alienating us in every possible way. This is why we are seeking constitutional accommodation.
Most Madhesi people appear eager to vote. Will it be right of you to deprive them of their democratic right?
First of all, election process is going in reverse gear. Federal parliament election should have been held first, followed by provincial and local elections. The government is taking the opposite route. Three major parties are going for local polls only to expand their support base. So the intention here does not seem to be constitution implementation. But now we are even ready to go to local election. So why not pass the amendment bill before the second phase of local election?
Even UML has said amendment issue will be resolved after the second phase. Post-election, our parliamentary arithmetic is not going to change. So why put it off while it can be done now? This is our concern. We are not opposed to election per se. We as political parties conduct our activities at the grassroots level by keeping election in mind. Our demand is that there should be timely election, but before that the constitution should be amended.
Suppose that the parliament rejects the amendment bill. What will you do?
We will obstruct and boycott every initiative to implement this constitution. We will boycott the parliament election for prime minister. We will boycott and foil all elections.
But you cannot deprive others of their voting right even if you do not participate in the polls, can you?
We are a mass-based party. We have followers who are ready to sacrifice their lives for their rights. This was also evident in the 2015/16 Madhes Movement. So when we boycott the polls, our cadres won’t stay inside their homes with folded arms. They will come out to the streets and they will protest. As I say this, let me remind you we are not against election. We are ready to face election on any date provided that the constitution is amended and other demands are addressed. If the government does this today, we will go to election tomorrow itself. So it all depends on how willing the government is to take us along.
Some of your demands are such that, if addressed, they could breach the election code of conduct.
I agree. But we have a solution for this problem as well. For example, we have advised the government that instead of deferring election dates time and again, it should declare election code null and void for a certain period. The government decision to defer polls to accommodate us has certainly sent good message among people in Tarai. But doing so repeatedly will raise question on the credibility of the government and the election commission. This is why we have advised the government to roll back the code of conduct for a certain period, so that it can address our demands. I am saying this so that the government can facilitate our participation in election. The government can then, through a cabinet decision, increase the number of local units in Tarai. And the matter won’t be raised in the court.
Your demands on language and citizenship sound vague at times. What do you really want on these two fronts?
On language, the constitution states that “Nepali language written in Devnagari script shall be the language of official business in Nepal.” We want a provision that recognizes all languages spoken in Nepal and which have their own script, literature and history as languages of official business. But then this is something to be determined by the Language Commission. When we talk about language, many raise the issue of Hindi. As per the latest census, around 6.4 percent people in Nepal speak Hindi. If the Language Commission decides that Hindi has its own history, script and literature and considers that it could be made language of official business, why should anyone oppose it? And if the Language Commission does not recommend official status to Hindi, we won’t object to it either. As for citizenship, Nepal has not only cultural and religious ties but also matrimonial ties with India. Around 2.2 million Madhesi chelis (daughters and sisters) are married into UP and Bihar and around 2.6 million Indian chelis from UP and Bihar are married into Madhes.
Let me explain this with my own example. My bhauju (sister in law) is from UP but since her marriage she has rarely visited her maternal home. In our culture once a woman is married, her relation with her birth family is cut off. She adopts her husband’s surname and follows the family tradition of her husband’s family. But the constitution recognizes her only as a ‘naturalized citizen by marriage.’ The constitution allows her to become a Defense Minister, but not the Army Chief who has to salute the Defense Minister. She can become Home Minister but not the Police Chief who is below the Home Minister. This is not acceptable. Our demand is that she should be provided ‘citizen through descent by marriage.’
Of late, international community, including India, seems to be pressuring RJPN to take part in local election. How do you respond to their concerns?
I won’t call it pressure. Nobody has put us under pressure. We had an interaction with the Indian ambassador recently. That does not mean he offered us advice or ordered us, as has been reported in the media. RJPN considers everyone’s advice and suggestion. It does not act as per anyone’s orders. RJPN takes orders only from the people it represents. Members of the international community like the EU, US, India and even China have lent their moral support to our movement for our rights. Not one of them has ever advised us to give up our political agenda and go to the election. Instead, they have suggested that our demands are legitimate and we should go to the election only after getting those demands fulfilled.
Finally, your adamant stand on amendment has raised doubt about second phase election. What do you say to those who are waiting to vote in the second phase?
We are as desperate for elections. We want elections to happen as soon as possible. Local election is taking place after 20 years. But whether the second phase takes place a day or two after the scheduled date makes no meaningful difference. The question before the country is whether to recognize the patriotic Madhesis who are proud Nepalis and who are ready to fight those advocating separatism. The question before the country is whether to make a Madhesi feel proud of his country, and create a climate for his happy participation in election. But these questions are related to the question of constitution amendment. For us amendment is as important as election.