Prithvi Subba Gurung was the head of the indigenous peoples (Janjati) caucus in Nepal’s recently expired Constituent Assembly (CA). A cross-party grouping of MPs, the caucus became the fifth political force — along with Maoists, Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist); and the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) — in the final days of the CA.

Its main demand was identity-based federalism, with boundaries carved out in a way which gave ethnic groups a demographic advantage in hill provinces, and was named taking into account their claims over historic homelands. An alliance between the caucus, Madhesi parties and Maoists led to a signed declaration by over two-thirds of the CA members in support of federal models approved by a constitutional sub-committee and State Restructuring Commission (SRC). The declaration, however, did not translate into a political reality since the CA ended without the issue being put to vote.

But Mr. Gurung’s party, UML, was not happy with his advocacy of the ethnic and federal agenda and warned him to pull back. Along with other party leaders — UML vice chairman Ashok Rai; central committee member Bijay Subba; Kathmandu in-charge Rajendra Shrestha; and Madhesi leader Ram Chandra Jha — Mr. Gurung had opposed what they called UML’s indifference and opposition to issues concerning marginalised communities like Janjatis, Madhesis, Muslims, and Dalits. Last week, the party leadership divested these pro-active ethnic leaders of any responsibility on grounds of indiscipline.

Mr. Gurung is now going through a fundamental political dilemma. “I have been in UML for 40 years. Should I continue to struggle within the party and force it to accept issues concerned with the oppressed peoples? Or should I quit since even after 40 years, the party has not internalized these issues?” Terming what is happening in UML is a reflection of the contradictions in Nepali society, he told The Hindu, “We will continue to wage inner-party struggle. If the party refuses to consider our concerns on federalism and proportional representation, we will have to think of an alternative.”

‘To be or not to be’ is how radical Janjati intellectual-activist Krishna Bhattachan phrases the dilemma of leaders like Mr. Gurung. Mr. Bhattachan is a member of a taskforce set up by the Nepal Ethnic Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) after a two day political conference earlier this month. The conference declared that since the existing parties in Nepal were ‘Brahmanical, patriarchal, and controlled by upper Caste supremacists’, it was a ‘historic necessity’ to set up an inclusive party based on principles of ‘human rights, social justice, equality and equity, and ethnicity theory’. Mr. Bhattachan’s committee is mandated to engage in consultations to implement this declaration. Last week, it met intellectuals, professionals, retired bureaucrats and army personnel from ethnic communities in Kathmandu, and then visited seven districts in western Nepal.

The committee is asking a set of questions — whether there should be a new party ; should it only include ethnic groups or all oppressed communities; what should be its philosophy, ideology, objectives and policies; what will be its structure; will it give space to leaders presently in the big parties; how will resources be generated; what will be its foreign policy orientation?

Mr. Bhattachan told The Hindu, “The widespread feeling is that the big parties, led by hill upper castes, have failed. The CA did not deliver a constitution precisely because these bigger parties wanted to prevent a constitution that guaranteed our rights.” He added, “We will announce a political struggle committee, if not a party itself, on August 9 — the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Our aim will be identity based federalism; regional autonomy; right to self-determination; and ethnic liberation.” Mr. Bhattachan claims a large number of NC and UML activists from ethnic backgrounds will join the new party, and hints at a possible understanding with ‘pro federal forces like the Maoists and Madhesi parties’ for the next elections.

The debate rages on in Janjati circles.

Experienced politicians like Mr. Gurung caution that setting up a party cannot be based on a ‘whim’, and needs careful homework especially in a ‘multi-ethnic society like Nepal’. But Mahendra Lawoti, a scholar whose work deals with exclusion in Nepal, feels this is the right moment to set up a new party. “I think the cadres are ready. Socio-cultural ethnic organisations say they need a political front. In my interactions with NC ethnic workers, especially the younger generation, two-thirds say they are just waiting for an alternative. Even in Dubai, I met an ethnic migrant worker who paid party levy to UML for 17 years, and said he has stopped doing it after the CA ended. The ground is ready; the big question seems to be who will take the initiative and lead it.”

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