One major outcome of the 2006 People’s Movement was the revival of the parliament dissolved four years earlier, and it was this body that adopted the first formal measures towards building a more inclusive state. Through a historic declaration, the House of Representatives pledged to ‘establish inclusive governance’ through a ‘restructuring of the state’, granting citizenship papers to people deprived of them – mainly Madhesis (people with origins in the southern Tarai plains) – and making the Nepali Army inclusive. It also declared Nepal a secular state. Driving these changes was the SPA that had come to power after the reinstatement of parliament. Further reforms were enacted over time in conjunction with the Maoists, who had been the force mainly responsible for pushing inclusion to the fore of mainstream politics.
Although in the end they happened very quickly, these steps had actually been years in the making, in line with the gradual acknowledgement by both the state and the major political parties that one of the primary drivers of the Maoist insurgency was the wholesale exclusion experienced by large sections of society. The excluded groups, who make up close to 70 per cent of the population, are the broad social categories of Dalits (formerly, ‘untouchables’), Janajatis (indigenous peoples), Madhesis, and Muslims – as opposed to those who have historically formed the country’s social and political elite, the ‘upper-caste’ Hindus from the hills, now known as the Khas Arya.
Most of these excluded groups had been mobilising for decades, seeking a greater role in public life and the adoption of government policies to recognise, promote and preserve Nepal’s socio-cultural diversity. But it was only after the Maoist insurgency incorporated many of the demands of marginalised groups, thereby attracting them to their cause and contributing to rapid gains on the ground, that their aspirations – as well as those of the women’s movement – would move to the political centre-stage.
Around five years into the conflict, the first attempts were made by the government to push for structural changes, such as declaring untouchability a crime, and setting up commissions to protect the rights of women and Dalits. These limited efforts were not enough to put the brakes on a movement seeking a deeper structural transformation. Over time, political parties made increasingly significant commitments to ending exclusion, but because the parties were sidelined by the royal takeover in 2002, these remained nothing more than promises.
The first serious indication that the political parties would indeed follow through on these promises came when the SPA signed the 12-Point Agreement with the Maoists in November 2005, making common cause against the king. The agreement declared that ‘there is an imperative need for implementing the concept of full democracy through a forward-looking restructuring of the state to resolve the problems related to all sectors’.
Restructuring the state was thus the basis for a ‘New Nepal’, an idea that received a further boost through the increasingly positive discussions leading up to the CPA in November 2006. Accordingly, the SPA and the Maoists agreed that the state would be transformed into an ‘inclusive, democratic and progressive one’ with a view to ending discrimination along ‘class, ethnic, linguistic, gender, cultural, religious and regional’ dimensions. They also agreed on an electoral system that would ensure better representation of the marginalised groups, including women. The Interim Constitution enacted in January 2007, which remained in place until September 2015, was replete with language on how better inclusion could be achieved.
In the first couple of years after the 2006 People’s Movement the country moved at dizzying speed towards that goal. The declaration of a secular state undercut the legitimacy the monarchy had derived from the state religion, Hinduism, but also heeded a decades-long demand of the country’s religious minorities – and of myriad communist parties since the 1950s. Thereafter came a number of laws:
- The awkwardly titled Act to Amend Some Nepal Acts to Maintain Gender Equality 2006, with its preamble stating the need to amend the ‘discriminatory provisions between women and men in prevailing Nepal laws’, led to the amendment of scores of other acts.
- The Nepal Citizenship Act 2006 granted near-equal rights to men and women to pass on citizenship to their children.
- The Civil Service Act 1992 was amended to reserve 45 per cent of government jobs for women, Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis, the disabled, and those from ‘backward’ regions – consisting of nine districts in Nepal’s north-west.
- The ratification of the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the subsequent adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was symbolically important to Janajatis.
- The Constituent Assembly Election Act 2007 allocated 56 per cent of the seats on a basis of proportional representation (PR) and 44 per cent on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) or plurality vote. Quotas were also set for women, Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis, Khas Arya and residents of ‘backward regions’. Together with the proviso that women had to constitute at least 33 per cent of any party’s contingent in the CA, the body elected in 2008 provided for social and gender inclusion on an unprecedented scale.
Laws were also made to counter caste-based discrimination and to make domestic violence a criminal act. A new national anthem was adopted that reflected the mood of the country at the time and celebrated Nepal’s great diversity in all its forms.
It is an indication of where the country stood at the time that one of the clearest articulations of the concept of inclusion came from a government document, the Three-Year Interim Plan (2007–10):
Inclusion means to fulfil the physical, emotional and basic needs of all the people, groups or castes. It has to be achieved by respecting their dignity and their own culture and also reducing the disparities between excluded and advantaged groups and by reducing the gap in the existing opportunities and access. In addition to this, it is to help to build a just society by ensuring rightful sharing of power and resources for their active participation as a citizen.