The sanctity of the Nepal’s constitution has been breached.
The cracks in our young democracy became visible as the country prepares to stand up to India. It is in such times of national stress that the safeguards of democracy are truly tested.
Nepal’s democracy failed the test. Great danger lies ahead.
Lack of accountability
In mid-May, Nepalis woke to discover that India had unilaterally built a road in Lipulekh, an area that Nepal claims as its own. Nepal has publicly disputed India’s claim to this area and is on record seeking a resolution through dialogue. This border dispute has been a sensitive issue for many years, high on the radar of our government.
There are many things that the government could have done as India was building the road. It could have drawn public and media attention to the transgression as it was underway. It could have protested more visibly and forcefully. It could have demanded urgent talks. It could have created border army posts in the area, as it has now done. If all these failed, the constitution should have been changed as the road was being built.
Instead, the government did nothing as India built the road.
After India inaugurated it, Prime Minister Oli said he didn’t know India was building the road as no one had told him.
Stretching over several months in broad daylight, a foreign power built 80-km road through difficult terrain (involving lots of blasting) crossing into Nepal’s (or at least disputed) territory and the prime minister didn’t know? The foreign minister didn’t know? The home minister didn’t know? The army chief didn’t know?
As office holders pledged to protect Nepal’s constitution, the prime minister and his ministers have a moral responsibility to defend, or at least try to defend, Nepal’s territorial sovereignty as it is threatened. Shouldn’t they be held responsible and accountable for this failure?
The failure of responsibility was instead turned into a narrative about India’s belligerence. In response, we rushed to change our constitution but failed to hold the government to account. The parliament failed to hold the government accountable.
India has not responded to Nepal’s call for a dialogue. The world has not responded. Nobody will. The constitutional amendment alone is not an indicator of how passionately Nepalis feel about this. The real measure of our strength and determination will come if we, the people, can demonstrate that we have the power to hold our government accountable for failing us.
To bolster the value of our constitutional amendment, we must get the prime minister and his entire council of ministers to accept moral responsibility for failing to protect Nepal’s sovereignty. We must demand an independent enquiry about who knew what and when, and establish if there was any treason.
Without the prime minister and his council of ministers accepting moral responsibility for their failures, the constitutional amendment means nothing except a new emblem.
Constitution’s sanctity breached
The constitutional amendment passed easily and with amazing speed within days.
This was a constitutional amendment of symbolism. Why it didn’t happen earlier, or why India’s intrusion was needed to justify, isn’t clear. Constitutional amendments must be about us and who we are—it cannot be a symbol of retaliation.
There was no public debate. No stakeholder discussion. No assessment of the social, political, or economic implications. Parliamentarians spoke and voted (almost) unanimously in favor. A lone voice of dissent was barred from speaking, ridiculed for being anti-national and threatened with expulsion from her party.
Other institutions should have stepped in to provide counsel. The president could have spoken. The army could have spoken. Provinces could have spoken. Civil society could have spoken. The courts could have spoken. Instead of first demanding accountability, everyone applauded.
A government that had failed to protect national sovereignty legitimized its failure by a constitutional amendment. No other institution objected.
The safeguards of democracy in our constitution all failed. These weaknesses will be exploited again.
Tomorrow, another government will justify its failure to reduce poverty through a constitutional amendment that will nationalize all wealth that has been in a family’s ownership for more than a generation. Another government will justify its failure to bring prosperity through a constitutional amendment that will nationalize all private enterprises.
“Silly argument,” you say with a dismissive smirk. “Of course, we would never allow it.”
Look at what just happened. We showed how it will be done.