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Friday, May 18, 2012

Nepal's bumpy ride to federalism gets bumpier

Jiwan Kshetry, Kathmandu

Situation in Nepal was pretty complicated before the latest pact among political parties with deepening polarization of the populace. The pact, in retrospect, seems to have further complicated the situation with disgruntled interest groups ready to react to the state with vengeance. Yet, hope remains of some constructive outcome and it is never too late to engage in a meaningful debate on a range of unsettled issues including mode of federalization. An overview:


Nepal has gone through many spells of instability and violence over the past few decades, including the bloody decade-long armed conflict between the state and the Maoists. The magnitude of violence suddenly dropped once the insurgency came to a sudden halt in 2006 after the success of a powerful anti-monarchy revolt but increasingly diverse forms of violence, political or otherwise, have characterized the transition of Nepal from a monarchial unitary state to the imminent federal republic. Even in areas where violence is short of erupting, the threat of violence has been working in favor of those who have found it very beneficial to use it.


Given the frequency of violence or the threat of violence, people here are accustomed to a level of unrest, that typically manifests as recurrent and frequently crippling 'Bandhs' or strikes. Yet, at this particular moment, most are anxious and apprehensive to the scope and magnitude of upcoming unrest.

Some form of unrest in the near future is a given in Nepal, thanks to some historic realities and the direction the political developments in Kathmandu are taking. After a nearly-defunct status of the Constituent Assembly (CA) for much of the four years period since the CA polls in 2008, the body is hurriedly working to catch up with the May 27 deadline for promulgating the new constitution. The process, once expedited with the successful rehabilitation/integration of the former Maoist combatants, has passed one more crucial milestone with the May 15 agreement among major political forces that settled all of the lingering issues about formulating the constitution and restructuring the state.

As expected, the crux of the problem, both in the process of settling contentious issues in the CA as well as in the serious and often heated discourses outside of it, has been the way in which the centuries long unitary state will be (or rather should be) restructured. The question of viability of the to-be-borne states/provinces apart, major conflict is brewing on the role 'ethnicity' or 'ethnic identity' should play in shaping the outlook of the future federation. For now the political parties have merely bought time by postponing naming and demarcation of the federal units and hence the debate continues to rage.





With the latest agreement, the bitter debate among the political parties in which the largest party in the CA, the party of former rebels, the UCPN (Maoist) had been batting for central role of ethnicity in the federalizing process against the nearly opposite stances of other major political parties, seems to have been settled more in favor of the latter. While the various ethnic groups and their umbrella organization Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) have strongly denounced the agreement as "grave betrayal" and vowed to protest, the regional parties in Madhesh (who participated in the meeting that reached the agreement) have voiced a more nuanced but equally strong objection to the pact.

The static part of the complex ethnic equation in Nepal is the fact that Nepal is formed by three extremely dissimilar parts geographically (cold and barren high mountains where very small population resides, the large hilly and more populous area occupying most of the land area and the narrow but highly fertile and populous southern plains stretching from East to the West) and hosts a plethora of equally dissimilar ethnic groups. The ruggedness of the most of the country with scattered population has ensured that the people in the hills and mountains are highly diverse with a complicated balance between and among different ethnically defined populations. While the conflict of interest between the so called 'Indigenous and ethnic' people and the 'others' (often equated with the castes/clans of former rulers) is formidable enough, the same among the so reported 102 caste/ethnic groups throughout the countries is also problematic enough.

The other dimension of the static part of the equation is formed by the conflict of interest between the people in the plains increasingly identifying themselves as 'Madhesi's, those racially, culturally and linguistically related to people in Indian side of the border; and those who migrated there from the hills over past decades to centuries. Because of some incidents in recent years when the acrimony between the two communities has boiled down to widespread violence resulting in forced migration of people, the gravity of this aspect of the ethnic question is hard to underestimate in Nepal. As aptly noted in the latest book 'Ethnicity and Federalization in Nepal' by the prominent sociologist and political scientist Chaitanya Mishra, the increasingly central role played by the plains in productive activities and thus the economy of the whole country mandate that the way in which the state behaves with forces representing the people from there be changed.

 Coming to the dynamic part of the equation, there is little doubt that the unitary state in the past under the leadership of the Shah Monarchy did establish and institutionalize the discrimination of various groups of people on the basis of ethnicity. The dominance of Hindu religion, Nepali language, Shah/Kshetri/Thakuri castes and clans was present throughout the period of about two and a half centuries during which the Shah dynasty started by the 'unifier of Nepal' Prithvi Narayan Shah ruled the country in one form or the other. The 'Rana regime', the despotic regime of a different clan which subdued the kings for a period of about a century, further aggravated the oppression of the non-ruling communities and ethnic groups.

With the abrupt end of the old regime after the successful revolt of 2006, a sense of vengeance for past wrongdoings was bound to characterize the way in which the formerly suppressed ethnic groups behaved with the new state. Indeed the role of people from those groups was enormous in the movement that uprooted monarchy. Even more important was the role they had played in growth of Maoist insurgency earlier. Thus it is very reasonable for these ethnic groups to claim their stakes in the new system, both because they suffered under the old system and they contributed significantly in dismantling the same.

The debate on how those people marginalized in the past should be compensated in the new system has been increasingly distilled into one question: should the new state be federated on the basis of ethnicity? Along with this central question, the other equally thorny question has arisen: should the castes/groups which were apparently privileged in the past be deprived of certain privileges in the new system? 

While the early period of the post-2006 years was characterized by the increasing radicalization of those aiming to seek compensation from the new state for the loss resulting from the oppression in the past regimes, that elicited relatively less rebuttal from the caste groups which were favored by the past regime. But the scenario changed dramatically over the past many months when it became increasingly certain, despite many hurdles, that the constitution was going to be promulgated by the May 27 deadline and it was going to give central role to ethnicity in federalizing the country given the fact that the pro-ethnicity UCPNM and regional parties from Madhesh dominate the CA. The apprehension was that the new state may just make them 'less equal' than the other ethnic groups which would now be entailed to certain significant privileges. 

As a result, they started systemically countering the arguments of those advocating an ethnicity-based federalism. The arguments inside and outside the assembly apart, the newly organized interest groups from the three prominent castes have made it clear over the past many weeks that they would not hesitate to take up any means to advance their agenda in the increasingly heated political environment.

The latest wave of organization and activism of the three caste groups (Brahmins, Kshetris and Thakuris together forming approximately a third of population; all of which are perceived by 'ethnic' groups as having been unjustifiably privileged by the former regime) has seen an unprecedented radicalization in Nepal. Those spitting venom at the opponents in the social media are hard to ignore. Increasingly combative rhetoric aside, they have now shown by enforcing a strict 3-day closure of the whole country that they too are as likely to opt for physical and often violent means to their ends, just like the others have been doing for so long.

In the resulting tussle that now seems to endure for long, the people from the 'indigenous' ethnic groups in the both hills and Terai as well as the Madhesis have now felt severely cheated with the latest agreement. Many analysts have already argued that this agreement is tantamount to continuing the centuries long dominance of the state by few castes/clans from the hills. Intense and concerted protest from those groups is sure to follow. 

This makes the latest situation in Nepal uniquely tricky. The most disturbing situation could be one in which the major national political parties become increasingly incapable of taming the extremist and irrational degree of polarization of the populace. Coming few months of period will be exceptionally sensitive in the regard. 

In fact, the charged and passionate debate about state restructuring with both the sides resorting to use of force in the streets has unfortunately obscured the more meaningful and engaging discourse on the issue. The discourse on whether federalization is needed in the country is increasingly losing relevance but the discourses on ideal or at least workable and manageable form of federalization is seriously going on.


Coming to the central question of optimal way of federalizing the country, scholars in Nepal are also divided. While it is nearly uniformly agreed that the new state should eradicate all forms of discrimination among citizens on any basis and the ethnic groups oppressed in the past should be compensated in some form, the debate increasingly focuses whether federalizing the country along monoethnic lines as demanded by the NEFIN and other large ethnic groups is appropriate. Those who argue against the idea say that it would be nearly impossible to satisfy demands of more than 100 ethnic groups if ethnicity is to be foundation of the process and hence it is best to federate the country on multiple bases like geography, language, ethnicity, religion, etc. Those arguing for monoethnic way of federalization say that making those oppressed in the past feel empowered through a definitive role of ethnicity in new state is the only viable and meaningful way to establish a federation in which the provinces are genuinely united, not by force but by willingness; giving one of the historically oppressed groups some dominance in a province would only motivate them to hear to and address the grievances of people from other multiple ethnicities.


Now that the political parties have deliberately postponed the most crucial task amid the increasing polarization and radicalization, the space for debates has increased further. The only risk is that highly intolerant social media users and the vandals enforcing the Bandhs in the streets may be increasingly capable of shaping the outcome of these debates while those constructively engaged in the debate may just remain in the dark.


Increasing polarization between those for and against the ethnicity-based federalization is sure to increase in coming days with potential to create widespread chaos and vandalism. The degree to which the political parties can tame this tendency will shape the political and economic outlook of Nepal in the short term while the model of federalization that eventually applies will have a lasting impact, at least for few generations to come. Right now, the process of constitution drafting is going on in full speed but many questions about future of Nepal remain unanswered. Only this much is certain: Nepal is not travelling back to the pernicious rule by the Shah monarchy. That is, in itself, not a meager thing and hence there is plenty of space for optimism.



Read the latest developments in Nepal here: 

Nepal: Letting the cat to guard the milk


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