Kathmandu could probably at one point have been described as dreaming under quiet hills. These days it is hard to see traces of that past. Despite its river valley location, it is close in feel to the crowded Indo-Gangetic plain cities to its south and west, with its streets constantly masked in dust and traffic fumes. The tourist district, in the area of Thamel in the north of the city, sees a constant bustle of backpackers, travellers and climbers headed for Everest, for whom Kathmandu is the first port of call.
All of this activity belies the country’s recent history of conflict. Kathmandu was hardly touched by Nepal’s decade-long civil war, which caused major disruption in the country’s rural areas and paralysed its legislature until its resolution in 2006. Since then, the focus has been on the adoption of a new constitution, with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (“UCPN-M”), the previously banned political wing of the Maoist rebels, incorporated into an interim government.
This process has not been straightforward. The first Constituent Assembly, elected in April 2008 on the basis of universal suffrage, was dissolved in 2013 after failing to agree upon a draft constitution. Ethnicity lies at the centre of disagreements – Nepalis will tell you that the country is home to an astonishingly diverse range of ethnic groups, spread across its uneven and difficult geography. Tensions between the regions and the centre were a key reason for the success of the UCPN-M, which campaigned for the division of the country into a federation of states conceived along ethnic lines. The UCPN-M reached the height of its success in 2008, when it secured the abolition of the monarchy, but lost ground to its more conservative rivals, the centrist Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) as the constitutional process dragged on.
A constitution was finally agreed on 20th September 2015, only to be met with violent protests in the south of the country, led by the Madhesi ethnic group, whose homeland is divided between two of the seven new federal regions. The protests continue – so far 45 people died – and the Madhesis have also introduced an unofficial blockade to prevent the importation of fuel from India, which has led to a major shortage. Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli is currently leading negotiations with Madhesi leaders to solve the dispute before the end of the current parliamentary session.
In theory, Nepal’s future is bright. When the current squabble over the constitution is resolved and elections are finally held, there are hopes for a strong central government which will be able to deliver a consistent legislative programme – a rarity in the country’s history even before the civil war. The tourism sector saw a jump in business when the conflict ended, and there are ambitious plans in place for hydroelectric projects and transit agreements with its huge neighbours India and China. But it all depends on a political resolution – something the country has been waiting for now for twenty years. Given the bitterness of the current dispute, it looks as though it will have to wait a little longer.