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Shape of things to come

Publication Date : 28-05-2012


It seems very likely that the present political permutation and combination will lead Nepal into ethnic federalism. But I have doubts about its sustainability. This doubt comes from the fact that large social groups have not been taken into confidence, and the government has made various and often contradictory agreements with dissenting groups.

While, theoretically, there are advantages and disadvantages of ethnic federalism, various contextual factors are important for its success and sustainability. Sadly, there are no such facilitating factors in the Nepali context. Ethnic federalism has been promoted without consideration of these factors or attempts to cultivate them.

First of all, there is a need to analyse whether it is ethnic federalism (“jatiya rajya”) that is being promoted. In all likelihood, I feel it is ethnic federalism that is now being promoted by Janajati and Madhesi groups with support from the Unified Communist Part of Nepal (Maoist).

Let us look into the majority report of the State Restru-cturing Committee (SRC). It clearly aims at carving the states in such a way that non-Brahmin/Chhetri groups become a majority in that particular state. In this attempt, it has even created a state whose geographical shape is such that it will become difficult to provide state services to its citizens.

Let us take an example from Tamuwan state, where the areas just south of Pokhara have been separated from this state simply because they are dominated by Brahmins and Chhetris. For administrative purposes, these people have to go to Tansen or some other distant location. There are other examples too. The case of the proposed Newa state is clear to all. This attempt to overlap an ethnic group with the geographical area of a state is clearly an indication of ethnic federalism.

If the states are demarcated in such a way, will the people follow it? Considering the case of the Pokhara region, I clearly sense that they will not accept this. In other states too, people may not accept such state restructuring. This is becoming more complex because of the growing pace of urbanisation where it is extremely difficult to segregate the territoriality of ethnic groups. This will be more evident once we get the 2011 census report because the mobility of the people has been very rapid during the 2000s thanks to the Maoist conflict and a tendency of youths to seek non-farm employment.

A functional democratic political system and the rule of law is a prerequisite to the smooth functioning of federalism. This is more so for ethnic federalism. A federation of any type without democracy is a sham federation as it is only in a democracy that institutions like political parties, civil society organisations and an independent press play a positive role for peaceful management of ethnic problems. In countries where the gap between constitutional principles and practice is wide, both federal stability and ethnic conflict  management will be at risk.

Nepal does not have a good record of the rule of law and impunity is rampant. The present democratic nature of the Nepali state is questionable. Given this larger environment, we also cannot expect that the forthcoming sub-national units will be any better in this respect.

At present, the UCPN (Maoist) party has shown itself as a champion of ethnic federalism which is against the Marxist principles that it follows. Lenin and Stalin had supported ethnic nationalism, but they did so for instrumental reasons, ultimately defeating the very purpose of this project. This could very well happen in Nepal.

The continuous securitisation of ethnic relations and lack of cross-ethnic consensus on political reorganisation will be the greatest hurdle to the sustainability of ethnic federation. Securitisation of ethnic relations means fears that state recognition of ethnic plurality would undermine one’s ethnic self-interest or national unity or a fear of annexation of the country by neighbouring countries.

In the present scenario, these fears have been raised by all groups. For example, Janajatis and Madhesis fear that if a poly-ethnic identity of a state is declared, it will lead to their further marginalisation and non-recognition of their identity.

On the other hand, some sections of the Brahmin and Chhetri community believe that declaration of a mono-ethnic identity for a state would undermine their own identity, representation and overall national unity. There is a growing feeling that a mutual supportive relationship would cease in either case of a state having a mono-ethnic or a poly-ethnic identity.

The parochial nature of political leaders and opinion makers has exacerbated the securitisation of ethnic relations. They resort to war-mongering language when dealing with ethnic federalism or its opponents. As a result, cross-ethnic dialogue has been few and far between.

This is quite unfortunate. If all the groups share the same national territory and the same community, one group’s fate affects another group. The language of “winning” and “losing” that is commonly used in bargaining for more power and facilities at the cost of another group certainly does not fare well for reducing securitisation of ethnic relations.

One major consequence of securitisation of ethnic relations is growing reification and solidification of ethnic cleavages. Temporary and partial group identities are becoming permanent. This tendency will further grow once ethnic federalism is instituted.

In such a case, the country will need to give ethnicity full political, legal, institutional, and above all, territorial basis. This could be another disaster for the country.

While the demand of ethnic groups for representation and self-administration could be positive, consideration of ethnicity as the sole determining factor of political organisation can be futile if it comes along with securitisation of ethnic relations. As a result, the goal of federalism as a balance in self-rule and shared rule will be distorted, and the very purpose of federalism will be undermined.

In this situation, dialogue between ethnic groups, mutual understanding of each other’s concerns and forging consensus is important. Without this, there will be a huge proportion of the population not supporting “ethnic federalism” even if it is inserted in the constitution by hook or by crook.


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