New Constitution Divides Nepalese in New York

Supporters of the new Nepalese constitution in Elmhurst (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

Supporters of the new Nepalese constitution in Elmhurst (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

On Sept. 20, scenes playing out in Nepal were mirrored in Queens, where an estimated 20,000 Nepalese reside.

It was the day when Dr. Rambaran Yadav, the president of Nepal, officially promulgated the new constitution for Nepal.

The day was deemed “historic” by supporters of the constitution, and marked as a “black day” by others in Nepal.

Similarly, in Queens, both supporters and opponents of the new constitution made their voices heard.

Around 7 p.m., about 150 people lit candles to welcome the new constitution of Nepal at Satya Narayan Mandir, a Hindu temple in Elmhurst. A half a mile away, a smaller group of Nepalese immigrants were ripping up copies of the constitution at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights.

Warring views over the new constitution are a familiar sight in Nepal. While it was approved by two-thirds of the members of the constituent assembly in Nepal, and the majority of nationals support it, some are still actively opposing it.

During the drafting process, the population of the Terai region, especially the Madhesi and indigenous Tharu communities, raised concerns over the demarcation of federal states and whether their representation under the new constitution would be equal to their population.

The Terai region is in the lowland southern area of Nepal which borders India.

Violent protests over the constitution have taken place in the last two months, with more than 40 people killed, both civilians and police.

Amid these tensions, the three major political parties nevertheless agreed to endorse the seventh constitution of Nepal.

In Queens, the majority of Nepalese also appeared to welcome the new constitution. More than 150 people gathered at Satya Narayan Mandir and lit candles to show their support for the new constitution.

Protesters at Diversity Plaza ripping up copies of the new Nepalese constitution. (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voice of NY)

Protesters at Diversity Plaza ripping up copies of the new Nepalese constitution. (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voice of NY)

In addition to this, a small program was organized to promote interactions among the Nepalese in New York. It was hosted by two organizations – the Overseas Nepalese Forum and Nepali Public Relations Committee USA, both of which are community-based organizations working with Nepalese residing in the U.S. Ironically, both community organizations have the backing of Nepalese political parties. The former is linked to the second largest political party of Nepal, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), while the latter has links with the largest party of Nepal, the Nepali Congress.

Bishnu Maya Pariyar, a Dalit activist (Dalit is the so-called low caste in Nepal), welcomed the new constitution but was still hesitant about its implementation. She said, “I want every last bit of it to be implemented, otherwise it will be just a piece of paper.”

At Diversity Plaza, more than 50 people assembled there wearing black ribbons wrapped around their heads and hands to indicate their disapproval of the new constitution.

Luisang Waiba, the president of the Indigenous Peoples of Nepal in America, was leading the demonstration. “This constitution doesn’t favor the voice of the indigenous people of Nepal so we don’t want this,” said Waiba.

The protest was named “Anti-People’s Constitution Boycott Program.”

Six organizations took part at this protest. These organizations work for the rights of the ethnic population of the country and some work specifically for the Madhesi and Tharu communities. There is a great deal of diversity in Nepal – the country has more than 45 indigenous people, and 123 languages are spoken. At least 27 ethnic minorities live in the southern region of Terai alone.

Satendra Sah, 32, a restaurant owner in New Jersey, said the new constitution did not reflect the concerns of the population of the Terai region.

“More than 40 people have been killed in Terai and there has been a curfew for more than a month now. How can you promulgate a constitution killing your own people and banning your people from raising their voice?” said Sah, who also belongs to the Madhesi community.

Some of the protesters themselves were not clear about why they were protesting and what their demands were. Bhupen Rai, 25, who lives in Sunnyside, Queens, said he was there because he was told that this constitution didn’t fairly represent the ethnic community to which he belongs. “I don’t know much about the details of this constitution but I have been told that the current constitution was anti-ethnic so I came here to participate in the protest,” he said.

However, at the celebration program at Mandir, Ananda Bista, the president of the Nepali Public Relations Committee USA, accepted the fact that the new constitution might have several flaws but also pointed out that there couldn’t be 100 percent agreement on any issue. “You cannot satisfy everyone. It takes some time to pacify this anger,” Bista said.

Sanjay Thapa, the president of the Overseas Nepalese Forum, echoed Bista’s views. Promulgating a new constitution “is a gradual process and it can be amended as per the needs of the people.” He added: “Even the U.S. constitution has been amended 27 times till now so there is always room for improvement and amendments.”

The Non-Resident Nepalese National Coordination Council of USA, which has more than 10,000 members across the U.S., expressed its satisfaction over the result of lobbying to guarantee dual citizenship.

Tilak Shrestha, the secretary general of the organization, said the constitution has guaranteed “Non-Resident Citizenship” for immigrants like them, which he said is highly commendable. “The motto of all immigrants i.e. ‘Once a Nepali always a Nepali’ is reflected in the constitution. We believe that our voices are heard,” said Shrestha, who is also a well-known Nepalese singer in the U.S.

The constitution hasn’t guaranteed dual citizenship but it has guaranteed “Non-Resident Citizenship” to the immigrants living outside Nepal (although not to those living within the member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC). They can enjoy all the rights of Nepalese citizenship except that they may not vote or hold government positions.

Even some of the Nepalese in Queens who supported the new constitution had some reservations. Kunti Thapa, 52, who lives in Woodside, Queens, supported the constitution but she had her concerns about the constitution’s continued designation of Nepal as a secular country. “Our country has a Hindu population of more than 80 percent but we are forced to become secular. It is an injustice to the Hindu community,” said Thapa.

According to the 2011 census, 81.3 percent of the Nepalese population is Hindu. Nepal was declared a secular state on May 18, 2006. The interim constitution in 2007 and the new constitution in 2015 endorsed Nepal as a secular state.

The scenes in Queens seemed to reflect the debates and disagreements playing out in Nepal. Ang Chhiring Sherpa, chief editor of Everest Times, the Nepalese fortnightly based in New York, stressed that everybody has the right to express themselves. “This is the beauty of democracy. You can both accept and reject any views.” Being from an ethnic community himself, Chhiring said, “This is just the beginning and we can sort things out as we move forward. There is no point in looking back. Everything can be resolved through constant dialogues. I believe this is the start of a new era in Nepal.”

It took Nepal nearly a decade to promulgate the new constitution following a decade-long civil war that ended in April 2005. At that time, the rebel Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and other mainstream parties worked together to end the monarchy. The peace agreement between them paved the way to the election of the first constituent assembly which made the country a federal republic.

Disagreements among political parties delayed efforts to create a new constitution, and the re-election of a constituent assembly in November 2013 was tasked with continuing the process. The recent April 2015 earthquake obliged political parties to work harder toward an agreement on the new constitution. And as the protests in Queens showed, concerns about Nepal’s new constitution could be heard many thousands of miles away.

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