Farcical law

  • There is no reason to be alarmed by any political view, so long as there is no attempt to inflame violence
- Deepak Thapa
I only wish that everyone who saw the prohibitive clause on political parties problematic would take a stand now in favour of the RPP; only then can one hold the moral high ground

Mar 23, 2017-It might have slipped from public memory, but soon after the success of the 1990 People’s Movement, Girija Prasad Koirala, speaking at the rally held at Khula Manch in Kathmandu, had declared the outcome to be a victory for everyone, including the Panchas. Having just ousted a regime that had gratuitously proclaimed all Nepalis to be Panchas (and all Panchas to be Nepalis), that was the last thing people wanted to hear, and they jeered Koirala no end.

Neither was Koirala the most sophisticated thinker, nor did he have any such pretensions. But there was no doubt that he had been schooled in democratic ideals, and notwithstanding the numerous blunders during his many stints as prime minister, it becomes clear upon hindsight that it was a rather profound statement he had made that day in 1990. Whereas the Panchayat system demanded loyalty to the king and the regime, democracy by definition allowed everyone a space, the Panchas included.

Five years later, Koirala’s Nepali Congress completed the political rehabilitation of the ex-Panchas in their reincarnation as the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) by bringing them on board in a coalition government. Yet, the erstwhile Panchas’ relationship with democracy remained ambiguous, since their self-preservation demanded that they pay at least lip service to democracy even as they retained their loyalty to the palace.

Fortunately for them, the two main factions of the RPPs did not have to equivocate any longer after King Gyanendra’s incremental takeover starting in October 2002. Not only did the king demand and receive the backing of the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Panchayat-era holdovers, Surya Bahadur Thapa and Lokendra Bahadur Chand, they also went on to serve as his prime ministers. Granted, Sher Bahadur Deuba also falls in that same dubious category for going on to serve at the king’s pleasure, as arguably does Madhav Kumar Nepal for ‘applying for the position of prime minister’, but that the RPPs did not oppose the February 2005 royal coup speaks volumes about where their preferences lay.

For their stance, the RPPs were booted out of the interim legislature-parliament, and it was only after the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections that they clawed back to legislative presence. To hark back to Koirala’s words, the 2006 re-restoration of democracy was indeed a victory of the RPP as well. The newly reunified RPP has the fourth largest presence in Parliament.

The EC clampdown

The RPP has lately been in the news for its standoff with the Election Commission (EC) over the latter’s rejection of its political platform advocating a monarchical, Hindu state. The EC has referred to the clause which prevents parties from inciting ‘caste/ethnicity-based or communal hatred or on any act which may undermine the harmonious relations between various castes, ethnicities, religions and communities…’ Likewise, another states that if ‘the name, objective, insignia or flag of a political party is of such a nature as to jeopardize the religious and communal unity of the country or to fragment the country, that party shall not be registered.’

The 2007 Interim Constitution had wording similar to the present one but, coming soon after the 2006 People’s Movement, it had another prohibition as well: ‘Political parties with objectives contrary to the spirit and norms of the preamble of this constitution shall not be considered qualified for party registration.’

These constitutional provisions have been passed down from the 1990 Constitution, which laid down: ‘The Election Commission shall not register any political organisation or party if any Nepali citizen is discriminated against in becoming a member on the basis of religion, caste, tribe, language or sex or if the name, objectives, insignia or flag is of such a nature that it is religious or communal or tends to fragment the country.’

Throughout the 1990s, activists from various minority groups objected to these clauses for preventing them from organising politically in support of their specific demands. Scholars of Nepal’s politics have generally tended to agree that those provisions are stacked against marginalised groups, particularly in a situation where the major parties feigned ignorance of or were deaf to their grievances. The framers of the 1990 Constitution probably had their reasons for introducing such a prohibition, and one has to assume that they were strongly influenced by the strong demands made during the drafting process for elements such as secularism, regional autonomy, and linguistic rights. As we have now realised after 10 years of an insurgency and another 10 years of this rocky political transition, Nepalis might have been better served if all the issues that have roiled the country could have been thrashed out openly at the political level, and without resort to violence.

After all, there is no reason to be scared of words even it comes from someone like CK Raut, so long as there is no attempt to incite violence. Peaceful demands for secession need to be met equally peacefully, and more so by a serious attempt to undercut the very grievances that feed such demands. Consider some examples from around the globe and how more mature democracies have dealt with similar 

situations. Following the Brexit vote that will also take Scotland out of the EU, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has been calling for another 

referendum on independence for Scotland, but no one in England is calling for her to be hauled off to jail. In 2014, the Spanish region of Catalonia organised an informal referendum on independence for Catalonia, and 80 percent of those who voted were for secession. Currently, Artur Mas, the former regional governor, is facing a court case—not for treason but for defying a Constitutional Court order against holding the referendum. An even older case is that of Quebec, which has held referenda on independence twice, and the secessionists lost both times. And life has gone back to normal.

The ass of a law

There is little reason to be afraid of the RPP either, for the party like everyone else has every right to take up any platform it wants, so long as the means to achieve that are peaceful. I never thought it would come to this, but as Voltaire might have said, I, too, will say to this retrograde strain of revanchist monarchists-cum-religious chauvinists called the RPP: I definitely don’t agree with what you believe in, but I will defend to the death your right to advocate it. I only wish that everyone who saw the prohibitive clause on political parties discussed above problematic would take a stand now in favour of the RPP. Only then can one hold the moral high ground.

The path we chose 27 years ago only serves to drive underground different kinds of political impulses that do not gel with the mainstream views current at any given time. Out of sight, such sentiments are likely to fester and burst into the open with a ferociousness that the state can sometimes handle and sometimes cannot. Either way, society at large is the loser. Of the present law, I can only resort once again to the memorable words of Charles Dickens: ‘If the law supposes that, the law is a ass.’

Published: 23-03-2017 08:13

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