The reactionary right is getting all-righteous again. Their central argument has been that federalism and secularism are ‘imported’ concepts imposed on Nepal. The argument’s genesis goes back to 2005 and the signing of the 12-point agreement between the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance in New Delhi. It was the basis of the subsequent second Jana Andolan, the restoration of the dissolved House, the two Constituent Assembly elections, and the 2015 constitution. India, it is alleged, dictated the agreement and much of the subsequent developments in Nepal.
Then, in 2007, when the interim constitution was being written, secularism was added to the charter at the behest of conniving, free-spending Europeans. Federalism, likewise, found a mention in it because of outside pressure. Neither federalism nor secularism was the demand of the street during the second Jana Andolan. And so, as Nepali people were not consulted on these all-important issues, we either need a referendum on them or these provisions should be declared null and void.
But the question is, which part of the current political system is unique to Nepal? The idea of a constitution through an elected constituent assembly in Nepal was first proposed by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950. For various reasons, a constituent assembly could not be elected back then. Yet both the constitutions promulgated in the 1950s had heavy inputs from Indian constitutional experts.
The reason we have a parliamentary system is that India does so, and India does so because it inherited it from the British. Again, back in the 1950s, our monarch was seeking asylum in India even as our freedom fighters were waging a guerrilla war in Nepal, again from Indian soil. Just as in 2005, New Delhi in 1950 mediated talks between Nepali interlocutors: King Tribhuvan, Nepali political forces, chiefly Nepali Congress, and the Rana regime. If the 12-point understanding in 2005 had an Indian imprint, New Delhi virtually dictated the 1950 agreement that heralded democracy in Nepal.
Democratic governance is universal, characterized by periodic elections, check and balance, separation of powers and fundamental rights. We also borrowed all the governing principles of modern nation-states from abroad. Perhaps this is a simplistic argument. But then it is even more simplistic (and misleading) to argue that there is something uniquely Nepali about the institution of monarchy or the country’s erstwhile identification with a single religion.
We embraced the idea of constituent assembly as we thought it would be the best way to frame a democratic constitution. Similarly, we adopted federalism as the earlier unitary state failed to bring meaningful change to the lives of common Nepalis. It is also disingenuous to argue that federalism has failed even as power and resources continue to be centralized in Singha Durbar.
Likewise, all progressive nation-states are secular. Those who argue Evangelical Christianity has spread like wildfire in federal Nepal should listen to parliamentary debates from back in the 1950s when successive governments were accused of promoting religious conversion. Even before that, we have written a history of the coercive conversion of indigenous communities who worshipped various natural deities into Hinduism. Calling Nepal a secular state is thus only honoring its heterogeneous ethnic and religious make-up.
It was the popularly elected Constituent Assembly that abolished the monarchy. Its representatives framed the new charter, warts and all. But there was no mistake made in declaring Nepal a secular republic. Only a popular revolution of the kind we witnessed in 2006—an unlikely event—can change that.