March 10, 2012


[Below today are two posts that default federalism for Nepal. But The Himalayan Voice believes federalism can flourish in the country and with equal access of all to the national resources be viable economically also. The superstitious angst of disintegration stands far from reality. This overhyped ‘disintegration’ is fear-mongers’ over-blown default tactic. Let’s be clear – the country can’t afford to hang in limbo for long. We can’t say neither ‘this’ nor ‘that’. There may not be going back to fiefdoms, one may be right in saying so but we can’t also keep clinging on the status-quo. We have to choose now. The choice may not be theirs. The country has chosen for a change which can’t now be voided out. The question is - ‘ what is the alternative or  what next then?' Let’s have confidence in our 'Nepali nationhood' first and commitment also. No group of people forms an absolute majority in the country but the Janajatis make the largest bulk of 37.38% followed by Brahman-Kshtriya and other 'privileged folks' together 36.56% of the total population in the country. The Dalits are also not in small size. They make 21.7 % and we can't negate them standing in the 21st century on our age old religious scriptures. The Muslims may seem in minority by  4.27 % in the country but we have to honor their minority rights also. Let’s have the people have their say. The Maoists are not those guys that first professed federalism for Nepal. It was Rastriya Janamukti Party that first floated the idea in 1990 taking notes from Swiss system of government.  The Rashtriya Janamukti Party also  said in its party manifesto that the country is in a dire need of proportionate representative system. Has anybody in Singh Durbar heard it ? This makes the  Maoists default heroes whom some people in illusion think their saviours. – The Blogger]

A Chettri  wields his sword and  shield during 
a protest rally in Kathmandu 
Nearly six years into the peace and constitution processes the country has made significant achievements. The first of the two projects is nearly done and dusted with and the second is only a matter of agreement on a handful of (albeit contentious) issues.

If only wishes were horses. Six years on, top political leadership and opinion-makers are still unable to decide if a tenable agreement can be worked out on army integration before May end, and more worryingly, if the country should go federal at all.

Hang on. Isn’t the country already a federal republic? Or so we thought. As the deadline for the final extension of the Constituent Assembly closes in, more and more doubts are being expressed in the media on whether federalism is really applicable to Nepal.

Right through the last six years, among the most common gripes of the anti-federalists have been:

a) Federalism is economically unviable;
b) It could lead to possible disintegration of the country; and
c) The heretofore marginalized groups can still be best served by a unitary state.

One doesn’t have to think too hard to see the vacuity of the viability argument. Traditionally, the Nepali state has always been an unviable entity for the majority of people. The only people who found it viable comprised of a tiny fraction that milked the state for their partisan benefits—resulting in widespread socio-economic disparities and marked class and caste divides.

The second reservation of the anti-federalism forces is with the likely disintegration of the country under a federal model. Yes, as I argued in my last write up (State of the Union, Feb 23), such a possibility cannot be completely ruled out. But again, this cannot be an argument for the retention of the current unitary state model. If the central agenda of disadvantaged communities (i.e. federalism with a degree of autonomy over local resources and governance) is to be brushed aside, it is by no means certain that the traditional unitary model can keep the country together, especially in the absence of its central symbol in the monarchy. If anything, if the dominant political class somehow colludes to merely tweaking the old unitary model instead of undertaking state restructuring in true spirit of federalism, the possibility of instability and likely disintegration will considerably increase.

The third argument that Madhesis, Dalits, Janajatis and other marginalized communities would still be best served under the old unitary dispensation (that the problem with it was not its exclusionary character but lack of devolution) rings equally hollow. Unsurprisingly, it is the traditional ruling classes that have resorted to this line of thought. Try convincing that to a Tharu in Dang forced into hard labor in perpetuity or a Madhesi in Birgunj demoted to second class status on the basis of his name and skin color.

Again unsurprisingly, it is the traditionally ‘ruled’ who have been the strongest advocates of federalism with the right to self-determination.

Not that there is any reasonable chance of reverting to the old scheme of things. But it also doesn’t look like the traditional agents of discrimination are giving up their fight anytime soon. A huge chunk of Nepali Congress continues to believe federalism is a misguided agenda. If Sher Bahadur Deuba had his way “the 75 districts can easily be converted into 75 [federal] states”.

UML leaders in their recent mass gathering at the Open Air Theatre were competing against one another in trying to prove, on the strength of their capacious vocal cord, that “all Madhesi leaders are corrupt” and in league with the Maoists are ‘scheming’ to rend the country apart.

The corrupt-Madhesi leadership argument not only defies simple logic—apparently, since some birds are black, all birds must be black—it is also grossly unfair on the Madhesi political class. Most ministers in Nepal have always been corrupt: at this point, many ministers belonging to the Madhesi community are corrupt no doubt, but not because they are Madhesis but because they are ministers.

In the case of Tarai in particular, noted commentators from the Madhesi community have been time and again warning that a revolution has been silently brewing in Madhesh. They warn that if the center continues to turn a blind eye to the genuine demands of Madhesh—most importantly a guarantee of their political and socio-economic rights—the whole region might once again erupt in revolt. But the ‘mainstream’ political leadership, after six futile years of dirty power plays, still refuses to see the logic behind the demand for federalism, leave alone contemplate substantive state restructuring to safeguard the rights of all peoples.

Their fear that some of their traditional privileges might be in threat under the new dispensation is genuine. But how could it be otherwise? For the marginalized communities to gain some rights, it is imperative that the traditional power centers forgo some of their old privileges.

Besides, the argument of loss of all powers is often overdone. Most marginalized communities are not asking that they be granted quotas and first right over local resources and governance in perpetuity. Their demands are rather centered on fixed-term quotas and reservations. Again, the votaries of unitary state might argue that it’s impossible to divide the spoils among over 100 ethnic communities in the country.

Indeed. The task might be difficult. But shouldn’t be for these communities to decide on their shares? It’s presumptuous of those who in the past made decisions on their behalf to argue that the prerogative be continued in New Nepal. The same logic applies to the devolution argument. If the disadvantaged groups believe the problem was not lack of devolution but the reluctance of the privileged class to devolve power and resources, they are perfectly entitled to that belief. And it is the state’s obligation to honor it. For as a Nepali saying goes, only the chopping board understands the agony of the khukuri.

At a time the country is crying out for radical transformation, invoking the Mahendra-era nationalism that privileges a handful of groups against all others is revisionism, plain and simple.

It is not federalization of the state according to the demands of the marginalized communities that poses the biggest danger to Nepal’s integrity. It’s the shortsightedness of the privileged class that is unable to see beyond its narrow gains.

[The State Restructuring Commission was formed hastily on deadline, filled mostly with party activists, and came up with 'majority' and 'minority' reports without ever once talking to the people. The majority report itself included an absurd 'non-territorial' Dalit province, and excluded the earlier one for the Sherpa, possibly because the Commission was led by a Dalit and did not include a Sherpa.]

By Bihari K Shrestha
The federalization debate in Nepal remains more contentious, paradoxical and the most superficial also. And since last week, it is followed by violence and terrorism.

The demand to retrovert Nepal into federal states first surfaced in 1996 just before the start of the war when the Maoists demanded 'autonomous governments where ethnic communities are in the majority'.

In a country which is a dense mosaic of ethnic groups, the demand was clearly a war tactic to drive a wedge in the body politic, and to help boost recruitment. Ten years later, when the war ended and the Maoists made their triumphant return from India, the NC and the UML were in tatters. Discredited for fecklessness and corruption, they had to meekly give in to the Maoist demand for ethnic federalism.

The CA itself never constituted the State Restructuring Commission, but seemed pretending that it was working on it. Its frivolous and irresponsible attitude was on full public display at the 127th meeting of the CA's State Restructuring and Power Redistribution Committee when the Maoists quickly undid the consensus of earlier meetings in just 30 minutes. They won over the seven UML members by agreeing to Sherpa and Mithila provinces, and outvoted what otherwise would have been a parallel proposal from the NC.

The State Restructuring Commission was formed hastily on deadline, filled mostly with party activists, and came up with 'majority' and 'minority' reports without ever once talking to the people. The majority report itself included an absurd 'non-territorial' Dalit province, and excluded the earlier one for the Sherpa, possibly because the Commission was led by a Dalit and did not include a Sherpa.

The biggest shortcoming, however, has been that these reports never looked into the fundamental issue of federalisation: how would it improve the lives of the people economically, socially and politically?

The neo-feudal politicians in the CA must acknowledge that in this intermixed ethnic country, few are asking for a federation, let alone one with specific ethnic groups as the new ruling class. Most people in Nepal suffer from acute food shortages and underemployment, and they have to migrate to earn enough to feed their families. This requires unrestricted freedom of movement, which ethnic territories will restrict.

There are signs of things to come. Last Monday's blast in Kathmandu was one. Two years ago, seven men from Gorkha were butchered in Manang for trespassing during yarsa harvesting. There have been attempts at ethnic cleasning in the Tarai. Federalisation, if anything, is only going to raise communal friction among the communities. No one wins, everyone loses.

Neo-feudalism and a blatant lack of transparency and accountability on part of the politicians at all levels have kept Nepal the poorest and the most misgoverned in the world. Despite this, we have some things to be proud of: the widely-applauded world class success of community forestry due to our demonstrated ability to restore severely depleted forests in just a decade or so is an exemplary example (See: Nepali Times, # 593).

More recently, Nepal is ranked at the top among a handful of countries projected to meet the Millennium Development Goals in child survival and maternal mortality rate reduction. These dramatic success stories were the result of devolution of authority to organisations who are beneficiaries themselves: forest user groups in the case of community forestry and the mothers groups in health.

The secret ingredient in both cases is that all members of these user groups (rich, poor, men, women, castes and ethnicities) effectively participate in decision-making, ensuring good governance, transparency and accountability.

What Nepal needs is extensive devolution of authority to local communities, not breaking up the country into what is most likely going to be feuding feudal fiefdoms.

Bihari Krishna Shrestha is an anthropologist and was a senior official in the government.