Thursday, 9 December, 2021

Constitution Stands Firm Against Challenges


Narayan Upadhyay

Many Nepalis hold their federal democratic constitution, ratified on September 20, 2015 through the sovereign parliament, in high esteem as it has addressed their long-held ambitions, impulses and grievances against the state.
The charter, hailed as a complete document, has republicanism, federalism, secularism, inclusivity, socialism-oriented economy and justice as its key features. In addition, it has universally recognised clauses on freedom and people’s rights that a democratic constitution must offer to citizens. However, since its proclamation, the statute has experienced assaults and challenges from several quarters that have threatened to wreck the achievements attained through people's lengthy struggles.

A few months ago, the KP Sharma Oli-led government embarked on a political misadventure that undermined the fledgling constitution as he trampled over vital clauses incorporated in the national statute to impart stability to politics. After receiving severe blows from his party men and opposition parties, Oli chose the unconstitutional path of demolishing the House of Representatives twice within six months with a malevolent intent to cling to power. He disregarded a constitutional provision that did not allow any head of government to terminate parliament as long as it could designate a new PM. The members of the two constituent assemblies had included Article 76 (5) in the charter to prohibit any PM from choosing a whimsical step of dismissing the House at his will.

Power-hungry Oli tried all his tricks to remain in power by undermining the constitution and bringing ordinances to run government affairs. He neglected the constitution when he assigned many cronies and confidants to the constitutional bodies making a dent in the Constitutional Council-related regulations.

Oli drew widespread ire for bringing the Office of the President into disrepute. The President, regarded as a patron of the constitution, approved many of Oli's anti-constitutional moves when the latter encountered political troubles. She denied the opposition alliance to form the government, though the latter had submitted a bonafide application that carried genuine signatures of the majority HoR members as per Article 76 (5). She approved the Oli-headed cabinet's recommendation and dismissed the HoR on two consecutive occasions.

The constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, the sole legitimate interpreter of the constitution had to come forward to rescue the charter from Oli's unconstitutional overtures. The bench took a few weeks of hearings to quash the 'illegitimate steps. The apex court delivered a verdict paving the way for the current government under the premiership of Sher Bahadur Deuba to come to the helm. The top court's judgement not only saved the House from its premature demise but also restored constitutional superiority. Had Oli stayed in power any longer, he would have caused tremendous harm to the charter by disrespecting many of its clauses that would go against his desire to remain in power.

Oli also played his part in chipping away at federalism, a key feature of our constitution. During his tenure, many provincial governments became weaker even though six out of seven provinces had had the then Nepal Communist Party-led governments. During his term in office, he carried nothing concrete to strengthen federalism. His actions proved an affront to the nature, inked by sovereign people's representatives, taking seven years in two constituent assemblies.

Earlier, soon after its promulgation, the charter went through a testing time when the Madhesi protested against the charter over its provisions on the delineation of the Madhesh province and citizenship issue. The southern neighbour tried to push through the Madhesi cause, which climaxed in imposing a lengthy economic blockade on Nepal. The Indian authorities had asked our leaders to expunge provisions that the Madhesis protested against. This was the biggest jolt our charter had faced in its initial days. In recent times, there have been attempts to address Madhesh issues, chiefly the citizenship one, which has allayed the 'fear' of discrimination felt by the Madhesh constituencies.

Meanwhile, pro-royal groups have been making high-pitched demands for scrapping republicanism from the constitution so that the monarchy can return to the country. There are religious groups that are gunning to quash secularism to turn the nation into a Hindu state. In the meantime, a few underground groups were involved in so-called armed struggles, raising issues about several constitutional arrangements. Most of these outlawed outfits, such as CK Raut and the Biplab led groups, have now joined peaceful politics after failing to enforce their demands on the state. Our constitution, however, weathered these stiff tests it confronted soon after the country was declared a federal, secular democratic state based on the new charter.

A constitution, called the nation's highest legal document, functions well when all stakeholders accord the highest respect to it and adhere to its provisions in letters and spirit. When the time comes for necessary amendments to the charter, all stakeholders must forge consensus to amend or delete a few constitutional provisions to suit the demand of the shifting time. The democratic nation's charter is called a living document because it has to undergo several revisions as time goes by and its contents keep changing through amendments, additions and deletions.

Our constitution too requires timely changes and incorporation of new provisions or deletion of some existing ones to address the desires and aspirations of the citizenry. These requirements call for our leaders, constitutional experts, governments and all other stakeholders to forge a political consensus on making important alterations to our charter.
No one would deny that for our charter to become more dynamic, it must address the demands and fulfil the desires of the citizens hailing from different ethnicity, caste, gender, and regions. Should it fail to do so, it will draw people's ire and raise many doubts regarding its validity in contemporary society.

Strengthening Charter
The stakeholders must show their readiness to embrace the statutory arrangements to institutionalise all salient features of our constitution such as republicanism, federalism, inclusivity, secularism and social justice. This is necessary to foil any future attempts to harm them. They should also work in tandem to strengthen the constitution by delivering on socialism, equality among all citizens and pave the way for the people to get equal access to state facilities of a welfare state like ours. The state and government would do a massive service to the people should they work sincerely to deliver on the people-oriented services which are mentioned in the various clauses of the charter.

Leaders who have played a vital role in the preparation and promulgation of our federal democratic constitution sometimes raise the spectre of domestic and foreign power centres hatching conspiracies against our constitution. We too sometime feel the constitution has indeed stared at many challenges stemming from several vested groups and quarters. The only way to take on these challenges and predicaments is- our leaders and citizens must remain united and committed to undertake collaborative actions in safeguarding our national charter so that no force or faction can ruin it.

(Upadhyay is managing editor at TRN.