Turning pages of the constitution

A civil code on the conduct of governance, foreign policy and nationalism

-This article was originally published by Sujan Regmi and Jai Venaik in The Himalayan Times on August 6, 2017.

In modern political science, a constitution lies at the heart of a nation, giving it energy, opportunity and most importantly, life. One of the earliest attempts to bind Nepal into a living organism of growth and development could be attributed to Prithvi Narayan Shah’s Divya Updesh—a civil code on the conduct of governance, foreign policy and nationalism.

The year 1948 (2004 BS) saw Nepal enact its first constitution—Government of Nepal Act—featuring codified laws of administration and justice on principles of western political thought. With absolute power resting with the Rana Prime Minister (Shree Teen Maharaj) and titular rule vested with the Shah Dynasty (Shree Panch Maharajdhiraj), the constitution defined roles, responsibilities and rules for the functioning government. The constitution also envisioned certain core fundamental rights common to all citizens. The right to personal liberty, freedom of speech and press, free elementary education, speedy justice and right to assembly and organisation were freedoms that one had. A division of subjects for local panchayats here shows an early sign of decentralization, and a local government approach. Decision-making power, in practice, however rested with the Shree Teen. A national language was officiated, and the document envisioned International Relations, elevating the sovereign status of Nepal.

The same period saw a marked change in the governance of entire South Asian region. End of colonisation ushered the more liberal movements of democracy. Nepal too, in 1951 (2007, BS) saw its first tryst with democracy with the signing of the Delhi Accord returning the Shah Dynasty to the helm of affairs after 104 years of Rana oligarchy. With the Interim Government of Nepal Act, 1951, King Tribhuvan reclaimed the power to rule with an interim government of his choosing. MP Koirala became the Prime Minster with the task of governing the country on lines of democratic principles. More civil liberties gained prominence with abolition of child labour, and establishment of cooperatives and industries.

A strenuous and conflicted approach among several factions did not yield any significant results and with the death of the King and crowning of the new King Mahendra, a new era of rule emerged in the country. Multi-party democracy did not even see a full revolution of the earth when the first democratically elected Prime Minister, BP Koirala was imprisoned and freedom of press curtailed. Following the failure of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal in 1959, King Mahendra seized absolute control, suspended the Constitution and Parliament and ushered the dawn of Panchayat.

The Constitution of Nepal, 1962 (2019 BS) introduced Panchayat. Proclaimed as a Hindu Monarchy with the King as the supreme leader, the system of government was based on a full panchayat system divided on the local and national level. Like the Rana regime, the king exercised absolute decision-making power. Fundamental rights and protection of private enterprise were entrenched in the constitution. A referendum in 1980 gave the citizens some say in deciding the government affairs but with a margin of 4.8% votes, the panchayat structure won against multi-party democracy. As a consolation, the King allowed direct elections to the legislature but without the banner of a political party. A dissent population began a civil disobedience movement under the leadership of the Nepali Congress which ultimately bore fruit with the promulgation of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990 (2047, BS).

At this point, King Birendra shared power in a constitutional monarchy run by a democratically elected parliamentary government. Sovereignty, for the first time, came to the people. A new wave of reforms ushering economic liberalisation brought in new fruits with the highest growth rate ever recorded in Nepalese history. The government was based on social inclusion, and gave opportunity to grow and prosper. The affairs were soon brought to a standstill with the Maoist Civil War commencing in 1996. This period is marked by loss of opportunity, terror and fragile governments. Wit the catalysing effect of the 2001 massacre, on-going civil war and absolute control by the new King Gyanendra in 2005, a new wave of movement began. Signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord following a 19-day People’s Movement marked the end of monarchy.

The failure of the first Constituent Assembly in 2012 ushered the re-emergence of the Nepali Congress and promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal, 2015. The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, for the first time, sheds its centralised structure to deploy the authority of governance right in the hands of its people.

This constitutional history sheds some important lessons for Nepal as we move into federalism. Nepal has always been subjected to a hard centralised control with very little emerging from its people. The decades of centralised power have provided us with multiple reasons of failure, and pose a number of important questions—how far have our civil liberties evolved?; have we taken necessary steps to encourage private enterprises for the common good?; how well have we, as a nation, managed diversity? It is thus important to take a systemic account of what liberties we had, and what should we work towards. Our seven constitutions teach us important lessons and as we move towards a new system, it ought to provide answers to these questions, and guide us through.