Government scrambles to explain ‘jana abhimat’, a phrase in the agreement signed with CK Raut

  • After a barrage of questions, home minister tells lawmakers the term is nowhere close to referendum
- TIKA R PRADHAN, Kathmandu

Mar 11, 2019-

Two days after an 11-point agreement was signed between the government and CK Raut, a long-time ‘Free Madhes’ campaigner, the government was scrambling to explain the meaning of “jana abhimat”, a phrase in the second point of the deal.

At a Parliament meeting on Sunday, lawmakers, including those from the ruling Nepal Communist Party, asked Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa to clarify whether the government had agreed to hold a referendum on the fate of the Madhes, given the use of the phrase “jana abhimat” in the agreement. Opposition party lawmakers, including Gagan Thapa, Pushpa Bhusal and Bal Krishna Khand, and ruling party lawmakers asked Home Minister Thapa to explain what exactly “jana abhimat” meant.

Disagreements have arisen over the phrase “jana abhimat”, as it could be interpreted to mean a ‘referendum’ or just ‘people’s opinion’. The interpretation is particularly sensitive for both parties to Friday’s 11-point agreement, as Raut, for the last six years, has been leading a movement for a “sovereign Madhes” under the banner of the Alliance for Independent Madhes. Raut and his supporters, on social media, have said that the deal is a victory for them as it ensures a “referendum” in the Madhes. The government, on the other hand, has categorically denied that the phrase means a referendum.  

“The government has no intention of holding a referendum,” Home Minister Thapa said in response to a barrage of questions from lawmakers. “The wording in the deal has been carefully chosen—with due conscience.”

When Mahendra Raya Yadav, coordinator of the Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal, cautioned that another conflict could break out if ‘jana abhimat’ meant referendum, Thapa said that any interpretation towards that end from Raut could make the agreement null and void.  

“If the other party continues to interpret the wordings of the deal as a referendum, that would contravene the agreement, and things will roll back to the point where the deal was made,” said Thapa.

Friday’s 11-point agreement had come as a surprise to many, as Raut appeared alongside Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli at City Hall in Kathmandu—a day after he was released from judicial custody on the orders from the Supreme Court.

At the signing, Raut announced that he had given up his “separate Madhes state” agenda and agreed to abide by the constitution, a statute that he had long disputed.

“... We have agreed to follow democratic processes based on ‘jana abhimat’ to address the remaining dissatisfactions of people from different places, including those of the Tarai-Madhes, as per the constitutional rights of Nepal’s citizens,” reads the second point of the 11-point deal.

While many interpret the phrase “jana abhimat” as a vague translation of “people’s opinion”, others say it was chosen deliberately for its “creative ambiguity”.

“In difficult situations, ‘creative ambiguity’ is used in politics,” CK Lal, a political commentator and columnist, told the Post. “The phrase can have five meanings—periodic elections, opinion surveys, consultations with assemblies (local and other levels), referendum or plebiscite, or street protests. Since no specific meaning has been given, both parties are using the phrase to their convenience.”

The more important part concerns which interpretation of the phrase is legally binding, according to Lal. “For example, referendum comes from ‘reference’ and is only morally binding; plebiscite is the order of ‘plebians’, hence it is democratically binding,” he said.

At Sunday’s House meeting, ruling party lawmaker Janardan Sharma, a former home minister from the Maoist party, asked Home Minister Thapa whether the government intended to hold “elections” in the name of a “jana abhimat”.  Thapa chose not to answer.

Tula Narayan Shah, a political analyst who closely follows developments in the Madhes, said that it would be wise to be cautious about the interpretation, as there was not much to read in the phrase “jana abhimat”. “Raut, it seems, is interpreting the phrase ‘jana abhimat’ to save face, as he has to justify to his followers why he chose to give up his movement,” Shah told the Post. “I don’t think the content, process and spirit of the deal gives the message of a referendum, nor would the state accept a referendum on this issue.”

Published: 11-03-2019 10:15

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