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Battle for the narrative

Publication Date : 18-07-2012


Despite being the key political issue for over five years, the debate on federalism has unfortunately bordered on illiteracy. This could be due to a variety of reasons. Through this period, the Nepali political class has had to multi-task, something they are not too good at. Power-sharing, integration, other constitutional issues and managing the fissures within their own parties took precedence over federalism.

Rather than getting into the specifics of the nature of federalism and division of power once the agenda was established, the edit pages in the media wasted an inordinate amount of time and space debating the merits of federalism—with many pieces stoking fears of disintegration and ethnic conflict. Reflecting the ethnic composition and biases of the newsroom, the news pages fared no better—there was little effort to engage with Janajati and Madhesi political circles to understand their demands and views on federalism and the intensity of the demands.

An academic event in Kathmandu last year was an important step, but it ended up reflecting the polarised debates rather than being a medium to reconcile contending perspectives; the organisers, it was felt, sought to impose the hegemony of the anthropology discipline they represented. There were two major initiatives to take the debate outside the capital. Martin Chautari framed the entire issue in terms of rethinking Nepali nationalism. Based on C.K. Lal’s brilliant monograph "To be a Nepalese", writer Khagendra Sangroula led discussions across the country on the conceptual basis for federalism and the need to respect diversity. The effort was valuable in establishing the need for federalism, but it did not get into the specifics of the federal debate.

Another UN-supported initiative sparked discussions in all the 14 provinces proposed by the State Restructuring Committee of the Constituent Assembly, with academics Krishna Khanal and Krishna Hachhethu leading discussions. This may have helped the academics refine their own views, but findings were not shared widely; it ended up as just another donor project and could not fill in the gap left by the political parties.

Of course, people across the country—in tea-shops, bazaars and their own homes—had been curious about which province they would end up living in, and what it would mean. But except for a few members of the CA’s committee, the State Restructuring Commission members, select politicians and those passionate about the issue, few had followed the twists

and turns of the debate. It was only in mid April, once the People's Liberation Army (PLA) cantonments were handed over to the Nepal Army, that the debate dominated the wider public sphere.

And that is when terms which were unfamiliar to many cropped up in popular discourse—ekal ra bahu pahichan (single and multi-identity), agraadhikar (preferential rights), akhanda chitwan/sudur paschim/jilla (unified Chitwan/far-west/district), samarthiya (capability), jatiya rajiya (ethnic province) and sva-shashan (self-rule) being some of them. But the debate had more passion than insight, and the terms contributed more to polarisation than reconciliation. The high expectations and hopes of Madhesis and Janajatis collided with the baseless fears of the Bahuns and Chhetris; one side projected it as the panacea for all structural ills, and the other side felt this would be the end of their very existence, let alone hold over power. Representatives of the dominant communities preferred to sacrifice the CA rather than accept federalism.

Now is the time to find a common language that addresses the conflicting concerns. For unless there is a compromise between these contending social forces, resolving the political impasse is impossible.

The most important step is to reframe two binaries that have been constructed—ethnic federalism versus anti-ethnic federalism, and single-ethnic provinces versus multi-ethnic provinces. Janajati leaders have done the cause of federalism a great disservice by insisting on using terms like "jatiya rajiya" and "ekal pahichan ko rajiya" instead of pahichan-adharit sanghiyata, identity-based federalism. The anti-federalists have latched on to these terms to spread fear that only one ethnic community will exercise power in the provinces.

The simple fact is that no matter how Nepal is carved out, there cannot be provinces with only one ethnic community. Bahu jatiya, or multi-ethnic, provinces is inevitable due to the country’s geography, history of migration, mixed settlements and the constitutional guarantee that citizens will be able to move freely and reside anywhere.

The real debate in this single versus multi-ethnic federalism is based on two components—name and demography. Janajatis are willing to accept names of provinces that incorporate identity as well as geography, for instance Newa-Bagmati multi-ethnic province. Except reactionaries who can’t tolerate even hearing ethnic names, this should be acceptable as a compromise.

The other element is more complicated. When Nepali Congress (NC) and Unified Marxist Leninst (UML) ask for multi-ethnic provinces, they want to fuse districts which will— intentionally or unintentionally—result in Bahun-Chhetris together constituting the dominant community. This is difficult for Janajatis to accept. They feel that if they are accepting individual rights in provinces and giving up political agraadhikar, they should at least have a slight demographic advantage. The way out is for all communities to realise that a slight demographic advantage will not result in outright political majority, since the dominant community in most cases is less than 30 percent of the provinces.

That is why each province will be run by grand coalitions of communities. Even if there is a Limbu chief minister in Limbuwan, he will need to ally with sections of Bahuns and Chhetris and Rais in the region to get a parliamentary majority. If it is a Chhetri chief minister in Tamuwan, Gurungs will form the back-bone of the alliance. No one community will be able to exercise self rule. Bahuns and Chhetris should extract guarantees on individual rights and minority protection; they should also realise their diffused strength means they will be the swing force in almost all provinces, including Tarai. In return, they should be willing to accept provincial demarcation which gives slight population advantage to Janajatis to redress historic injustice; this is the spirit of the State Restructuring Commission’s 10 state model.

There are only two ways out now—get a deal on federalism and reinstate the CA or go for elections. If all major parties are scared of polls, as is increasingly apparent, then begin working on the first option. To do that, it is time to restart the federalism debate. Adopting terms which do not misrepresent demands and scare constituencies, and explaining how democracy and political logic will result in multi-community alliances could be the first step. This will then help separate the liberals and conservatives in the NC and UML—the former should reciprocate with the same flexibility and accept identity-based federalism. That is the only way to prevent a confrontation between, in C.K. Lal’s words, the mono-ethnic schemers committed to unitary state and the multicultural radicals committed to identity-based federalism.


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