BY TA ANSARI
1. International human rights of minorities.
2. The founders of the United Nations have pledged their
commitment not only to sovereign equality of nations. They have directly
addressed, through the Charter of the United Nations, individuals and
their fundamental human rights, the dignity and worth of human persons.
They have also expressed their support for the equal rights of men and
women around the world. Various international covenants and treaties have
tried to assure the protection and enhancement of the basic human rights
of every individual irrespective of race, nationality, sex, region,
language, caste, class or religion.
Vital international instruments
1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.
2. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
3. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
4. International Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Racial Discrimination 1965.
5. Convention against Torture and Other Inhuman and
Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1984.
6. European Convention on Human Rights 1978.
7. African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Nairobi,
8. American Convention on Human Rights 1969.
9. International Convention on the Suppression and
Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid 1973.
10. ILO Conventions concerning Discrimination in
Employment and Equal Remuneration.
There are many more regional conventions and global as
well as national compilation mechanisms to implement the fundamental human
rights of the people. My concern is however to tell you something about
Nepal right now.
Nepal in transition
Nepal has emerged, a couple of years before, from a mass
people’s uprising as well as from a 10 year long armed struggle. The whole
nation and its management are now in transition. An interim Constitution
has been in force for the last year, which succeeded the Constitution of
1991, which itself was a product of a mass people’s uprising against a 30
year king’s rule. A peace process which was agreed on two years earlier is
still going on. A United Nations mission is monitoring the process.
Election of a new constituent assembly [took place in April 2008], which
will assume the role of the legislature and form a new government to
stabilise the volatile political and social conditions in the country as a
whole. The elected constituent assembly will, in the next two years, write
a Constitution for Nepal.
Country and the people
Nepal has emerged, after a mainly peaceful people’s
revolution in 1990, from a long-time monotonous and secluded Himalayan
kingdom into a multicultural and multi-religious nation state. People of
every major religion and belief have formed the Nepalese population which
is ready to touch the 30 million mark in a couple of years to come.
Besides various subsidiary languages and local dialects, six major
languages are spoken in Nepal. Interestingly, Nepali in the hills and high
Himalayan region and Hindi-Urdu in the vast plain areas are commonly
spoken and understood. Out of regional divisions and a multilinguistic and
multi-religious cultural population, many ethnic, racial, linguistic and
religious divisions of the people have been created.
Main minority groups in Nepal
1. Religious minorities – Muslims, Buddhists, Christians
2. Regional minorities – Madhesis, tribal peoples, lamas
residing in the high hills and Lepchas, Rautes and others.
3. Linguistic minorities – People speaking Maithili,
Bhojpuri, Tharu, Urdu, Hindi, Tibetan and Kirat-Rai.
Legal and constitutional rights
Nepal has since a 1951 constitutional order
adhered, at least in letter, to the international standards of equal
rights of citizens irrespective of sex, caste, religion or place of birth.
As a result, equal rights for the majority as well as for the minority
were conferred upon them by the Constitutions of 1959, 1963 and 1991 and
by the respective enactments. The rights include right to equality,
freedom, right to religion, right to property, right against exploitation
and right against exile. However, the present interim Constitution has
addressed the real and long-time untouched specific minority issues and
has prescribed constitutional measures to materialise letter into reality.
Declaration of a secular state
It was an important step forward to dissociate the state
from individuals’ religious beliefs. It has encouraged different
minorities to protect and profess their faith like others. The new
Constitution has also expressed state commitment to resolve existing
problems of discrimination on the ground of class, caste, religion or sex.
Commitment to resolve existing problems of fundamental human rights and
restructuring the state itself on the ground of socio-economic enhancement
of the people. Rights against untouchability and discrimination, right to
education and culture, employment and social security, right to social
justice and right to inclusive proportionate representation in the state
have been incorporated.
Prospective federal state
Nepal has been a unitary, monarchical and constitutionally
declared Hindu state throughout the ages. But a firm commitment has now
been expressed to make it a federal state according to the wishes of the
different ethic and regional communities. It was necessary to undertake
balanced and sustainable development with the participation of majority as
well as minority communities of the country.
Policy of positive discrimination
The Constitution has provided that the state shall adhere
to the policy of positive discrimination for the upliftment of women, the
downtrodden, tribal peoples, Madhesis, Muslims, other minorities, landless
and other backward people and communities so as to make them capable of
enjoying their constitutional rights.
Socio-economic status of the
The socio-economic statuses of different minority groups
are at different levels. Major disadvantaged groups are Madhesis in
general and the lower caste and landless people in particular. Some
isolated hill communities are also far from access to major national
resources and opportunities. However, some tribal peoples are more in
number than others in the tourism business or in private security works or
in tea plantations and some more specific businesses and industries.
Therefore the economic status of Madhesis, Muslims and the tribal people
living in the plains region is far from satisfactory and comparatively
lower than the hill peoples.
Representation of minorities in
public services and law enforcement agencies
Here also is a changed scenario. While tribal people who
claim to be a religious and cultural minority in the hill region have
found a place in the police, army and other law enforcement agencies,
other communities have been secluded so far. For example, the ethnic
minorities of the Terai, Madhes, Tharu, Rajbanshi, lower caste Hindus and
Muslims, Christians, can rarely be seen in these services. Their
representation in other public services too is far from proportionate. The
reasons are many in number. First, it has been the undeclared policy of
the state to seclude and isolate these communities from state affairs.
Secondly, they are so backward in education and resources that they cannot
compete in even the open competitive examinations for these services.
Ethnic conflict and security concerns
Nepal has traditionally been a peaceful country. Its people are
peace-loving. They have shown tolerance for centuries, even in the face of
social and economic injustices. With certain exceptions, social peace and
security for everyone, irrespective of caste, tribe or religion, has been
maintained. No serious threat from one community against another on
ethnic lines has ever been felt on a large scale. However, with the
restoration of multi-party democracy in 1991, the influence of
globalisation in general and communal activities in India in particular,
this is growing in Nepal.
A senior lecturer in anthropology at the Tribhuvan University,
Kathmandu, Mr Krishna B. Bhattachan has written, "Nepalese high caste
rulers have forced the indigenous people to speak Nepali language and
follow Hindu religion. Indigenous ethnic groups are federating themselves
to challenge monopoly of the ruling class in national, political, social,
cultural and economic resources. Similarly, Madhesis are raising their
voice against continuing social discrimination by high caste groups. Also,
the rise of Hindu fundamentalist groups in India has fuelled Hindu-Muslim
conflict in the Terai and Hindu-Buddhist and Hindu-Christian conflicts are
slowly brewing" (‘Globalisation and its impact on Nepalese society and
culture’ in Impact of Globalisation in Nepal, ed. M. Dahal, Nepal
Foundation for Advanced Studies, Kathmandu, 1999).
Challenges and prospects
Nepal has been historically not only a unitary state but was also ruled
by a group of people belonging to a select caste and class. It was for
this reason that internal colonisation has been high in many parts of the
country. This has created various economic, social, cultural and religious
challenges for the ethnic minorities. This has also generated a sense of
alienation among the minorities from the national mainstream. A new era is
however preparing to begin, with new hopes and prospects. An era of a real
democratic political system where the dignity and aspirations of the
members of every community, irrespective of race, religion, caste and
class, are respected equally.
When we talk about democracy it is often seen in its majority rule; the
fact that the rights of the minorities are guaranteed is really much more
important for the validity of the system. A majority government cannot
ignore the voices of the people simply because they belong to the minority
or opposition or because they have not voted for those who run the
government. A "concept of adjustment" needs to be
implemented for a lasting peace and democracy. We have enough reason to
believe that the days to come will bring betterment for the new
generations. Almost all political forces in Nepal have realised that
mistakes have been made in the past and need to be corrected. Certainly, a
lasting peace cannot be imposed but is to be created from within society
by fulfilling every valid expectation and aspiration of individuals from
each and every community in a country.
This minority meeting may be a small attempt but it is conspicuous. We
together may succeed by our words and deeds to convince others that the
prosperity of a nation depends upon its common people, not upon the ones
who rule it. And common people mean individual persons belonging to the
majority as well as every minority community. A society, a nation, a
system, cannot endure for long unless all of its constituents make their
contributions and unless everyone is given his or her due. That justice,
economic, social and political, is to be done in a real sense.
(Justice TA Ansari is a judge of the Supreme Court of Nepal. Paper
presented to the Global Minorities Meet, New Delhi, March 6-9, 2008.)