June 16, 2012


[What will be the status of a Magar in Kirati Rajya and vice versa? If they are exactly same, then why even bother with ethnic division? If a Madheshi wants to live in Gurung Rajya, will he require a work permit? Newars make minority even in Kathmandu and spread throughout business centers – Gorkha, Palpa, Narayanghat, Bhojpur etc. What will be the concept of Newar Rajya? Will it be Kathmandu specific or floating around Nepal, not to mention in other countries?]

By Tilak B. Shrestha Ph.D.
The problem of marginalization of many sub-groups in Nepal is well recognized and many solutions are suggested. Some even suggested that there should be ethnic division of Nepal. However, it does not address the real issues, rather fossilizes the problems and creates more unwarranted ones. So far we are all Nepali brothers and sisters. The ethnic division will make us Bahuns, Chatters, Madheshis, Rais, Magars, Sherpas, Gurungs, Newars, and Limbus etc., except for Nepali. Our jobs should be protecting minority cultures, languages and we need to work for inclusiveness in education, economy, and politics as well. The solutions are recognizing overlapping multi-cultural and multi-lingual zones, and targeted application of education, economic opportunities and political inclusion to the most underprivileged sub-groups. The added political tools like ‘decentralization’ and ‘affirmative action’ are useful and important. In general, the strategy must be ‘no division’ but ‘unity within diversity’ for success of all. Let me put in some points below:

1. A overlapping cultural zones can satisfy all the ethnic maximalist positions, will help in ethnic cohesion without negative political fallouts.

2. Consider a case of Dalit women in Madhesh, she is in triple disadvantages. If she is given easy access to education, job and political participation, we will see an independent women standing on her own feet. The process does not have the element of violence and may not sound enough revolutionary, but this is how society is transformed. The worst scenario is to invoke some Marxist mantra force her to carry gun, tear apart society and have petty leaders holding on to power merely by pointing at her plight.

3. The appropriate decentralization will bring the sovereignty, authority and responsibility, closer to the people. A person may start as a local leader but does not carry ethnic branding and may grow being a national leader. It also will lessen the competition in the center and help in leveling playing field for all the regional and ethnic diversity.

4. The affirmative action must be designed to uplift sub-groups at the bottom. The parameter must be income, education and recognized micro-minorities, but not ethnicity. It should not be about so called class struggle or creating perpetual hostility between ethnic groups.

The motivation for the demand of ethnic division is not from nationalist perspective of betterment of all Nepalese. It is due to the perception that some how Khas (Bahun & Chhetri) group has dominated other groups. However, there is no objective study for the reasons and careful strategy to address it. Therefore dragging by-gone King Prithvi Narayan Shah and demand for separate ethnic states are forwarded. The motivation is basically anger and inability to think through all the consequences and ramifications. The ethnic equality is a noble goal, no doubt about it. Obviously we need a well thought strategy. But a medicine cannot be worst than the disease.

This problem of ethnic marginalization has been exacerbated by Maoists to weaken the center and get support especially from Janajatis. They have pressed our every social fault lines without any regard to the negative effects on the nation. However, they do not have solutions to it. Our ethnic issue is not solely based on system of means of production. A conservative Bahun will not marry a Damai merely because the capital shifts from private to public ownership.

To begin with, a marriage is a personal issue, not a political. If a Bahun wants to marry a Damai by force, then it is a social hence political issue. Even then it is a law and order issue, not a cause for armed revolution. Such bigotry is addressed by education and communication, not by ethnic division. As a matter of fact, if a Bahun can marry only Bahun and a Damai can marry either, then a Damai has more choices and better off. Secondly, the Marxist interpretation of society does not include ethnicity. Marxists are for strong center government where the party or the chief dictates. In communist countries they have a few micro-minorities as a show cases doing colorful dances, but it does not go beyond. Only democratic system allows for airing ethnic or other grievances. However, Marxist government and nationalists will agree, though coming from different approach, in one issue of keeping Nepal united.

I find every proponents of dividing Nepal harping on the policies of King Priyhivi Narayan Shah. But, why the King and the medieval Nepal are the frameworks of reference? Have not we gone far ahead? Are we trying to resurrect by-gone Kingdoms: Malla, Sen, Baise, Chaubise, Vijaypur, Palpa? Or are we talking about equal citizens in a republic Nepal? It is really about getting hung up to the fact that Prithivi Narayan Shah conquered some parts of present day Nepal. To me it is merely history. A nation cannot be sacrificed to satisfy bruised egos. We should learn from history, no doubt it again but it should not be the sole criteria for the future of the country.

There are many suggestions of ethnic division of Nepal into – two, five, eleven or take your any pick as you may. But they are based upon which historical or political criteria? From some account there are more than hundred ethnic groups. Consider the demand ‘Ek Madhesh’ and the eight sub-groups within Kirati-Rai community. How do we ascertain, which level of groupism (nascent nationalism) is valid? Do we have ‘Ek Madhesh’ ignoring all the difference within, or divide Kirat to eight states? Tharus want separate state, Madheshis want single state. If a husband and a wife do not get alone, will that justify one more division? It merely leads to never ending strife.

What actually are the boundaries of these states? Remember the proponents of all these states will not and cannot delineate. Nepal Mandal includes all the area ruled by by-gone Mallas, including the Tamang inhabitation. What if Tamangs have different idea? If you look at the history, the boundaries of those states did change around. Obviously every group will claim the historical maximum.

What will be the status of a Magar in Kirati Rajya and vice versa? If they are exactly same, then why even bother with ethnic division? If a Madheshi wants to live in Gurung Rajya, will he require a work permit? Newars make minority even in Kathmandu and spread throughout business centers – Gorkha, Palpa, Narayanghat, Bhojpur etc. What will be the concept of Newar Rajya? Will it be Kathmandu specific or floating around Nepal, not to mention in other countries?

This ethnic division of Nepal will create only ethnic leaders, not national leaders. Their criteria of effectiveness will be judged by what they can bring to the specific ethnic group. It may be at the detrimental to other groups, a source of perpetual hostility. It also will preclude formation of national leaders.

A small group of Madheshi individuals have floated the idea of Nepal as a dichotomy of Pahad and Madhesh, and separation as the solution. Without commenting on the absurdity of such claim, let us examine other dichotomies. How about Indo-Aryans (Damai, Madheshi, Bahun, Chhetri, Bishwakarma etc.) vs. Janajati (Tharu, Rai, Limbu, Gurung, Tamang etc.)? Or between high caste and low caste, or men and women, or rich and poor, literate vs. illiterate, or Nak Chuchhe vs. Nak Thepche? For the last dichotomy, I do suggest, not national division, but plastic surgery for all.

How about sub-groups like Dalits and women? They live all over Nepal? Historically they are also marginalized. Will separate Dalit and Women states help their cause? In Terai, there are cases of high caste Madheshis exploiting Dalits and Tharus. How a separate Madhesh state would address Dalit and Tharu interests? Matter of fact, they will be locked into the worst situation. Recently some Muslims demanded separate identity and Muslim personal laws. But Muslims are defined by religion, not by ethnicity. Should Nepal have religiously blind secular laws, or have separate states and laws according to religions?

Basically, the voices of groups indulging in terrorism are considered fact and offered political compromise to satisfy their every legitimate or illegitimate demand. That is the sure invitation for every imaginary sub-groups to come up with some slogan and practice terrorism.

Look at Europe. All the countries have separate languages, culture and history. They have been fighting over millennia and millions have died. Yet they came together to form ‘European Union’ and created single ‘Euro’ for economic betterment of all. In Nepal, there is no history of ethnic armies fighting. I have not heard of Bahun army against Tamangs. The criteria for this century will be the education and the economic progress of all the citizens. If Nepal can unite together and invite prosperity for all, we will survive. Or else we will not. Harping to by-gone eras will not do.

It brings the political processes in India, USA and Yugoslavia as examples. The state systems in both India and USA are not ethnicity based and working fine. The basis is geography and language in India, and geography and colonial history in USA. On the other hand, states of Yugoslavia were ethnicity based. It led to ethnic civil war. And today Yugoslavia is no more. The ethnic quotas over 50 years in India did not help towards unification. Matter of fact, many political parties today is caste based. The historical discrimination against African Americans in USA needs no introduction.

Yet, no prominent African American leader demands race specific concessions. They are all for education and job opportunities for poor Americans, regardless of race. Because making it a race issue will fossilize the issue in the society along with attendant tension and division. It will not solve the basic problems of African Americans, rather will add problem to every body. Therefore demanding progress of poor Americans, both white and black, is much wiser politics. It is the platform where all Americans can come together. It does not divide nation by race. And of course, majority benefiting from such policies will be African Americans. It will not allow petty politicians benefit by harping on race issue. The assistance goes directly to the targeted sub-group where it is most cost effective. As the social integration progresses the race issue will become redundant. And there are no race-based political parties.

Let us not blinded by today’s divisive forces. Nepal also means unity in diversity. Let us be clear that our nationhood is not defined by the superficial ethnicity or Marxist interpretation of economy; but by our tradition, roots and values. This is what connects us to be a Nepali. The inner light of Dharma essentially defines us. Our roots go before King Janak and King Yalamber.

Let us not forget our forefathers and mothers who left their legacy as temples, Chaityas, Chauth, Sundharas, Pati\pauwas, pagodas, Kumari dance, Sakhewa, Lhosar, Teej, Binayos, Madals, Guthis, Mha puja, Dheme bajon, rice terraces, Thankas, philosophies, traditions and pride of being a Nepali.

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इथियोपियाको संघीयता र जनताका आत्मनिर्णयको अधिकारका कुरा

[ Keeping in view of the importance of discourse on federalism and ethnic diversity in the country, this article has been reposted from the earlier post made on June 10, 2010. -  Editor.]