No discrimination between people or difference in their lifestyles is found during the early epochs of human social development. As societies developed, divisions appeared between people. The human division that began initially on the basis of work and functions, necessary for the regulation of society, slowly transformed into exploitative and unequal relationships like upper class and lower class, lenders and borrowers, owners and slaves, upper-castes and untouchables, and rulers and subjects. Eventually, the resources and decision-making powers in a nation became concentrated among a certain caste or group. It is a travesty that this practice continues to find place in the present republican system of governance. Although sporadic voices of protest against discrimination were raised during the Panchayat and Rana regimes, such voices were oppressed and punished. Voices against inequality and discrimination united and organized especially along with the movement against the Panchayat regime.
Dwarika Devi Thakurani became the first woman to be elected to the parliament and appointed a deputy-minister in 1959, becoming the first woman occupy a high office in the state. For a long while, that remained the only achievement we could take pride in – but there has certainly been some progress since. After democracy was reinstated in 1990, women’s participation was ensured through a constitutional provision guaranteeing 5 percent participation for women. But the provision neglected the issue of inclusion of other groups long ignored by the mainstream of the state – the Dalits, indigenous ethnicities, Madhesis, etc.
A truly historical leap forward in terms of inclusion was made in the Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2007, which provided for 33 percent participation of women in the state structure, along with participation of other ethnic and geographic groups. In the 601 member, reinstated parliament of 2007, nearly 34 percent were women and other groups who had been excluded from the mainstream of the state, like Dalits, Madheshis, indigenous ethnicities, Muslims, and various regional groups. This was a truly exemplary instance of inclusion in Nepali history. This achievement was very significant in numerical terms. However, as the top party leadership always dominated the discussion on the content of the constitution and related decision-making processes, the exclusionary practices of the past could not be broken.
When the first Constituent Assembly failed to promulgate a constitution through the consensus of political parties and as directed by the Interim Constitution, the Constitution of Nepal 2015 was written through the second Constituent Assembly. Some salient features of this constitution are provisions like instituting a democratic republic, adopting a federal state structure featuring inclusion, and enlisting the fundamental rights of the citizens as inalienable rights. Two rounds of elections for the federal, provincial and local governments have been concluded in accordance with the Constitution of Nepal, 2015.
A total of 275 members of parliament have been elected in 2022 for the House of Representatives. Of these, 90 are women. However, only 6 women were elected through the first-past-the-post election process. This is a mere 2.18 percent of the total seats in the House of Representatives. Similarly, the inclusion status of Dalits is at 19 members of parliament, out of which only 3 or 1.09 percent were directly elected through the first-past-the-post process. The ratio of women has decreased from the 2008 figure, down to 32.7 percent.
The first elections for the provincial assemblies took place in 2013. A total of 330 members are elected through the first-past-the-post system while an additional 220 are elected through the proportional representation system. In the 2013 elections, 172 women were elected through the proportional representation system, while only 17 or 9 percent were elected through first-past-the-post system. The larger 5 political parties gave election tickets to only 55 women, or 5.88 percent of their candidates. This statistics shows that women have been confined to the proportional representation system, and they have been barred from entering direct elections. No woman or Dalit person was appointed as the chair of a provincial assembly or the chief minister of any provincial government.
The second elections for the local governments – now invested with constitutional authority – were conducted in 2022. In the elections held across 753 local levels and 6,743 wards, although 41 percent of ward members were women, including the constitutionally mandated 1 Dalit woman per ward, the number women elected to the post of mayor or chairperson through the first-past-the-post system did not climb beyond double digits. Once again, women were largely confined to being deputy-chairs or deputy-mayors.
The implementation of inclusion is not an issue limited to its deployment in the legislative assembly alone. The essence of inclusion can be achieved only if it is uniformly applied throughout the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive bodies of the state. But a glance at the executive or the judiciary makes one wonder if they are practicing a separate state structure or following a different constitution. Across civil service of Nepal, Dalits have a presence of 2.22 percent; in the police this figure is at 9.45 percent, and in Nepal Army it is at 8.14 percent. Only 45 percent of the total available positions are set aside for inclusive quotas, but the remaining 55 percent has been used as if designated for non-Dalits and men only. Although fifteen years have passed since the quota system was implemented in civil service, it is a tragedy that proportionate participation has not been implement – and this points to a great weakness on the state’s part. The participation of the Dalit community in the judiciary – which is tasked with implementing constitutional and legal provisions and guaranteeing justice and rights for the citizens – is a matter of grave concern. Only 1.09 percent of the judges are from the Dalit community. Between 2017 and 2020, only 4 percent of all the constitutional appointments made by Government of Nepal went to Dalit individuals.
The practice of inclusion has only just begun in Nepal – it has not concluded yet. I see three main reasons behind why inclusion is not being practiced in Nepal in accordance with the spirit of the various movements carried out by the Nepali people and the essence of the constitution.
The first reason is the lack of honesty on the part of the larger political parties toward the constitution they have created and to the promises they have made to the citizens, their attitude of skirting the law as much as possible, and of pushing for exclusion by maximizing the use of subtle opacity present in the letter of the law. They adhere to the legal process only after they exhaust all other options. There is a clear trend among all parties and their leadership of meeting the bare minimum legal requirement and not taking a single step beyond that mandated by the law.
The second reason is the bureaucratic structure, functioning as the permanent government, which adheres to the older practices and laws rather than the new constitution and the laws based on it. Some of the numerous acts, regulations and directives required to implement constitutional provisions have been created, but a lot more remain to be made. The employees of line ministries or relevant fields are responsible for creating the preliminary drafts of these documents. The people responsible for drafting these documents limit themselves to meeting constitutional mandates and are not at all prepared to hear anything progressive beyond that. I say this from personal experience.
The third important aspect that I see has to do with legal errors and lack of clarity. Our electoral system comprises two parts, of which the first-past-the-post system elects 60 percent of the total seats. There is no mandatory provision for inclusion for this section – which results in the same group that has enjoyed historical benefits continuing to be dominant. It was imperative to legally enforce a process for proportional inclusion in the first-past-the-post system, but that was knowingly left out. In the 40 percent set aside for proportional representation, the largest percentage was allocated to the community with the largest share in the population, and which does not at all need reservation. The numbers for inclusion in the Council of Ministers, which is an important executive body of the state, could have been specified in the constitution, just as the number of ministers is specified in the constitution. But this was not done, and this is the gravest error. The same concept applies to provincial council of ministers.
The constitutional provision requiring candidacy of both men and women for the top two posts in local government has resulted in massive overrepresentation of men in the topmost posts of mayor or chairperson. Legal provisions should have been created to specify the presence of women, Dalits and other communities, but that was not done. There is no legal provision requiring the principle of inclusion to be followed in various constitutional appointments. The fact that there is no Dalit person in a constitutionally appointment except at the Dalit Commission, or that no Tharu person has been appointed to constitutional appointments outside the Tharu Commission proves that the practice of inclusion so far has entirely escaped the essence of the principle of inclusion.
These are but a few representative examples. There are many issues that need reform. Dalits have remained at the very bottom of the Nepali society for many centuries, subjected to untouchability, discrimination, and indignation. Because of the caste system, they have remained worse-off than every other group in terms of social dignity, participation, education, and economic opportunity. The status of women from this community is even more heart-rending. When a few women leaders are presented as examples of how we have achieved a lot of rights, it simply adds to the already intolerable pain.
Proportional participation isn’t just a tool to install a few individuals in certain positions – it is the very foundation for building a prosperous nation. A country where the majority of the citizens are excluded from the state structure and development processes can never imagine a developed and prosperous future. But the fault is in the attitude that measures prosperity through the total length of roads built, the number of bridges, and photos of large buildings. It seems that inclusion is being understood – and practiced – as something party leaders hand out, and which Dalits, women, Tharus, Madheshis and others who have been deprived of opportunities receive gratefully from them. Proportional participation is the right of every citizen residing within the geography of the nation. The truth must be established that it is not an act of charity for one group to give away and another to receive. Those who think of themselves as the ones dispensing inclusion have already begun saying that there is too much inclusion. But those who need it the most remain untouched by the practice of proportional inclusion. Therefore, empowered efforts are needed to strengthen proportional inclusion.
Bimala BK is a former state minister and a former member of the House of Representatives. She has been continuously campaigning for equality, justice, and human rights protection for the past 20 years.
This blog was initially written in Nepali and has been translated to English.