The European Union (EU)’s statement that Nepal’s inclusion policy is flawed because it reserves quotas for Khas-Arya and needs to be revised to promote equality, has stirred a hornet’s nest from Kathmandu’s increasingly assertive ruling class.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) on Wednesday dubbed the statement ‘a direct challenge’ to constitutional provisions and warned the EU to refrain from making such ‘uncalled-for’ comments in future.
Many influential politicians took to Twitter to denounce the EU statement as interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. Even Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai weighed in against the EU. Some even went as far as to blame the EU for trying to stoke ethnic strife. Others, however, argued that well-represented clusters like Brahmin/Chhetri do not need quotas, it is the excluded groups that need affirmative action. But these voices are muted, and some activists previously known for aggressively backing greater representation of Madhesis and Janajatis have remained conspicuously silent.
This is not the first time Nepal has reacted strongly, but Kathmandu seems to have found a new assertiveness in the past few years in immediately countering statements from foreign powers that it thinks interferes with its domestic affairs.
The state is reacting to public intolerance of foreign advice on sensitive matters like inclusion, federalism and secularism in the constitution. In 2015, when European envoys met Madhesi activist CK Raut, MoFA sought clarification from the EU Ambassador Rensje Teerink. In 2014, British Ambassador Andrew Sparkes was abruptly recalled after saying Nepalis should have the right to change their religion.
Relations with India also hit rock bottom during and after the Blockade of 2015. New Delhi raised inclusion at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, and Nepal used unusually direct language to tell India that its Constitution was an internal matter.
All this could have been unimaginable a decade or so ago. Western countries or embassies used to routinely and openly talk about social justice, discrimination and human rights without raising hackles here.
Experts say that a part of the reason for the new firmness could be the decline of Western aid to Nepal, and hence its influence. The rise of China and India on the global stage also reduced their clout. But the real backlash came with UNMIN, and what was seen as its slanted support of the Maoist agenda of republicanism and secularism.
The decline of the Maoist party and the rise of conservative forces also seem to have emboldened Nepal’s politicians and the bureaucrats to confront foreign powers on the issue of social inclusion, decentralisation, human rights and transitional justice. Many in Kathmandu’s corridors of power thought this would reduce their power and privileges, and started openly challenging the UN and western embassies.
Although the federal and republican constitution is now a fait accompli, there is much more open resistance now to secularism and pressure from western donors towards more inclusion of the marginalised. The EU statement this week was just the latest.
Says Madhesi activist Tula Naryan Sah: “After the Maoists surrendered to the NC-UML cohort, Madhesi parties were the only ones pushing the progressive agenda, but even they have now surrendered by supporting the K P Oli government. This has emboldened conservative forces.”
EU EOM statement, 22 March 2018
On 20 March 2018, Zeljana Zovko, Chief Observer of the EU EOM, presented the final report on the House of Representatives and provincial assembly elections. The EU EOM concluded in its report that the legal framework for the elections offers a good basis for the conduct of elections. Despite some shortcomings identified in the process, the EU EOM also welcomed the efforts made by the Election Commission to organise the elections within a very tight time frame.
As it is standard practice for international election observation missions, the report offers recommendations which include the review of administrative practices, legislation and constitutions. In so doing, the EU EOM fully abided by its terms of reference and the Memorandum of Understanding signed with the authorities of Nepal. The assessment and recommendations in the EU EOMs final report are based on international and regional commitments for democratic elections to which Nepal is a signatory. The suggested recommendations were widely consulted and discussed at a roundtable on 28 December 2017.
All recommendations are offered by the EU EOM in a spirit of partnership, for the consideration of the host country. It remains up to the appreciation of the Nepalese authorities and people to decide on the terms of their Constitution and legislative framework. We look forward to further discussions with all stakeholders.
Baburam’s U-turn, Om Astha Rai