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Creating space for inclusion in Nepal: conversation with Minendra Rijal

In conversation with Deepak Thapa, Minendra Rijal, MP, one of the architects of the mixed electoral system in Nepal to promote social and gender diversity, asserts that at the end of the war, the Nepali state allowed the Maoist leaders to largely determine the content of the peace agreement so they could convince their cadres to engage with the process. Since then, violence has ended and there is broad political consensus on many major issues – so looking back, the compromises seem worth it. Rijal describes how efforts to promote inclusion can backfire, how quotas have primarily benefitted elites among marginalised communities, and that there has been too little focus on other forms of social empowerment through education and training: ‘it is easy to change anything politically, but it will take long time to change it socially’.

On the alliance with the Maoists and understanding inclusion

Initially, we were not too keen on the idea of joining hands with the Maoists. But after the king took power [in 2005], the Maoists also intensified their war. We realised that there was no other way out. At the same time, we began to engage with foreigners. We went on tours. We learnt about conflict management in Northern Ireland and at Harvard. We talked to people who had come from other countries. What we learnt from these interactions is that some kind of negotiated settlement is essential. We also slowly became interested in ideas about federalism, inclusion and republicanism.

I was in the Nepali Congress (Democratic) [at the time a breakaway faction of the Nepali Congress political party]. We had come around to the idea that, first, it is not the king who is indispensable but the monarchy; and second, that we had to go for federalism. We were the first national party to introduce reservations [quotas] for marginalised groups in our central committee.

On why the Comprehensive Peace Agreement reads like a Maoist document on inclusion

The language in the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement, 2006] definitely came from the Maoists. This is because [then-Prime Minister] Girija Prasad Koirala [of the Nepali Congress] had a lot of confidence in his ability to take things to their logical conclusion. And, that is what has happened ultimately – though he is now dead. He was not really interested in the language.

Krishna Prasad Sitaula [Koirala’s confidant and the main government negotiator] made another major contribution to this since his approach was to find immediate solutions to everything [and so he did not really care what went into the CPA so long as the Maoists were on board].

[Maoist leader] Baburam Bhattarai was the one who was fixated with the wording. But, we should remember that it was the Maoists who had given up their position [of armed revolution] and so it was essential for them to demonstrate to their cadres that they had not given up everything. We did not have to do that. Girija Prasad was not interested in what the CPA said. All he knew was that the Maoists had come into parliament. The Maoists renounced what they had stood for. The country did not go the way of the Maoists but moved along the path of democracy. That is why the agreement has language dictated by the Maoists.

And, what did we achieve by giving in? There is no insurgency in the country. There is more or less political consensus apart from a few issues with regard to Madhesis [people with origins in the southern Tarai plains]. Today, Nepal has a constitution, it has 761 elected institutions [one federal parliament, seven provincial assemblies, and 753 local bodies], it is more socially empowered, the country’s economic fundamentals are strong. In that sense, I guess it was worth compromising on what was written into the CPA.

On federalism

Federalism will make the country stronger. I think the country could disintegrate otherwise. For Nepal to stay together as a nation, there was no other option but federalism. There are some pending issues but I believe that we have self-correcting mechanisms.

The reason federalism was not included in the Interim Constitution was because Girija Prasad Koirala was not quite ready for it. There had to be consensus among Girija Prasad, [Maoist leader, Pushpa Kamala Dahal] Prachanda and [CPN-UML leader] Madhav Kumar Nepal. Each had veto power. Girija Prasad had the biggest veto, then Prachanda: Prachanda, because he was the leader of the insurgency; Girija Prasad because he had the backing of the rest. Without him, the process would not have moved forward. The monarchy would not have been eliminated only by two communist parties joining forces. They needed the Nepali Congress. The two communist parties working together would not have been able to introduce federalism either. The international reputation of the Nepali Congress was one factor. The other was the stature of Girija Prasad Koirala.

[Today] there is a small minority in favour of the monarchy. A larger proportion is against federalism. An even larger proportion is in favour of a Hindu state. What we are seeing is a conflation of all three to make them seem like one issue. That is nothing but the agenda of the old conservative establishment. But I do not foresee much of a danger from these old regressive forces.

On election quotas and the dispute

We should only provide reservations [in the proportional representation system] to those who manage to get less than 60 per cent representation in the first-past-the-post system compared to their share of the population in the last three elections. If that were to happen, many groups would not require reservations. [As someone from the already ‘included’ Khas Arya community] I don’t need reservations. Women are guaranteed 33 per cent reservation. This means that although they make up 50 per cent of the population, they are guaranteed a comparatively large proportion of representation nationally. We should follow the same principle for the others.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of misunderstanding over the issue. Let’s take the constitution of the Nepali Congress, for example. There are reservations for women and all the other clusters but not for Khas Arya. As we draft the new constitution, I’ve been arguing that we do not need reservations for Khas Arya [who are generally not marginalised] but others are insisting on it [and was adopted by the party’s general convention in December 2018]. I am not in favour because only those who cannot come through the regular election process need reservations.

If we are going in the right direction, a day should come when we should achieve inclusive results without mandatory inclusion.

On how inclusion can backfire

Everyone was in favour of having two women members at the ward level [in local governments]. But, we ended up with the requirement that one of the two be a Dalit [formerly ‘untouchable’] woman. That representation comes at the expense of non-Dalit women and also of Dalit men. Once we have a Dalit woman representative, there is no reason to find a Dalit man. Dalit men are not being selected for the remaining two seats because there is already a guaranteed seat for Dalit women. It was Dalit male leaders who insisted on this provision not realising it would come at their own expense.

At present, even small groups have been granted reservations. For instance, Muslims have been granted 4.4 per cent reservations [in parliament and provincial assemblies]. The result has been that not a single Muslim male could be elected through proportional representation for the Province 1 Assembly since we had to allocate the Muslim quota to Muslim women [to meet the 33% requirement]. If Muslims had been put together in the same cluster as Madhesis, Muslim males could also have been elected as well.

On the inclusion agenda

To be very honest, there has been a positive impact because of the Maoists. There were very vocal activists as well [who helped to push for inclusion]. We are now where we had to reach in terms of the inclusion agenda. If such a strong voice had not been raised, we would not have reached this point. But, had they pushed further, it would have led to social polarisation.

Reservations have benefitted only the elite among the marginalised whether in the political parties or in civil service. The benefits have not reached where they were intended to reach. It is protectionism but for only for the elites from these groups. This is only one mechanism that can pull people up, but we have not paid much heed to how they can be pushed upward through education, training, social empowerment. Until we are able to push everyone forward, this system will be able to empower only a few.

It is easy to change anything politically, but it will take long time to change things socially. Thus, it could be that the results so far have not been as progressive as hoped for, and so support for this may be not that great. A bit of backlash is only to be expected.

On inclusion promoting societal harmony

We’ve learnt since childhood about ‘unity in diversity’. We also learnt slogans like Hamro raja, ramro desh; Hamro bhasa, hamro bhesh [Our king and country; Our language and dress]. We now realise that this was ‘unity by force’. The language and dress was the language of the parbate [mainly Khas Arya]. It was not about Madhesis or about non-Nepali speakers. Inclusion has helped us understand that we were far from what ‘unity in diversity’ was supposed to mean.

Issue editor

Andy Carl


Andy Carl is an experienced peacebuilding practitioner with a career of leadership in the NGO sector. Andy currently works as an independent writer and advisor to individuals, groups and organisations engaged in working on peace, justice and social change processes. He helped establish International Alert in 1989 and in 1994 he co-founded Conciliation Resources where he was Executive Director for 22 years.