Marginalised and excluded communities have come together to struggle for a federal structure that would break the hegemony of hill Hindu upper castes
As the constitutional endgame approaches, Nepal is witnessing its most fierce and polarised political debate since the process to transform the state began with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006. Strikingly, it is not a battle between political parties, but different social groups.
This is the battle over the nature of federalism, the boundaries of future states, and the names and number of provinces. The issue of state restructuring perhaps resonates most among ordinary citizens, especially those belonging to communities excluded from the power structure due to their ethnic, caste, regional and religious identities. It is a battle that has been fought in Constituent Assembly (CA) committees, the State Restructuring Commission, and in the past week, on the streets.
The federal agenda in Nepal can be traced to the demands by Tarai groups in the early 1950s for autonomy in the plains. But it was the Maoists who mobilised popular support for the plank in the course of their decade-long “People's War.” They weaved together a narrative of how a centralised and autocratic state structure led by hill Hindu upper caste elites had oppressed the diverse communities who lived across the country.
The Tarai had indeed been “internally colonised.” Resources were extracted for the ruling regime in Kathmandu; forests were cleared and hill settlers were systematically encouraged even as the original inhabitants of the plains were displaced in a clear case of demographic aggression. The Tharus were enslaved, with the practice of bonded labour continuing till as late as the 1990s. Madhesis — plains-people who speak languages like Maithili, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Awadhi and Urdu and share close ethnic, linguistic, kinship and cultural links with those across the border in India — were treated as a fifth column, with deliberate policies framed to deprive them of citizenship and rights.
The traditional homeland of several Janajati (hill indigenous people) was annexed by the Gorkhali empire and promises that they could retain their cultural and economic systems were not kept. The extent of exclusion in the state structure is staggering. From politics to the bureaucracy, army to business, media to civil society, there is an overwhelming dominance of two Hindu hill upper-caste communities — Bahuns (Brahmins) and Chhetris.
In early 2007, Madhesi protesters opposed the interim constitution's silence on federalism. A spontaneous people's movement erupted across the plains. Twenty one days and over two dozen deaths later, the political class decided that Nepal would be a federal state.
This detour into history is essential to understand the genesis of the federal demand. It is not merely a yearning for administrative decentralisation. Excluded communities see it as a way to address historic injustice, break the Kathmandu-centred nature of the state, and exercise real political power through self-rule in regions where they are dominant. It is a cry for dignity, and the subalterns have won it through a long political struggle. Identity-related grievances and aspirations have thus been the driving force behind the federal agenda.
The elite backlash has been strong. Bahun-Chhetri dominated parties and media have adopted various ways to undermine the federal agenda, since they fear considerable erosion in power.
They have played the “national unity” card, stoking fears of disintegration. This is plain mischief, since no strong secessionist movement is under way in Nepal. In fact, the excluded — through federalism and inclusion — seek to become a part of the Nepali state. Concerted plans were also hatched to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, the most inclusive house in Nepal's history, without a constitution being written so that there would be no federalism.
The most unfortunate aspect of the debate is that it has got reduced to whether there should be ‘ethnic or non-ethnic states'. The point is that in a multi-ethnic society like Nepal, with mixed settlements and migration all across the country, all provinces — irrespective of the way they are carved out — will be multi-ethnic. Ethnic groups had initially demanded political preferential rights (agraadhikar), which would have only allowed members of the dominant ethnic community to gain political positions in provinces. But they no longer push this demand, which goes against individual rights and citizenship. The constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens. Nepalis can move around and reside freely anywhere in the country. Minority rights will be protected. And given the mixed demography, no one group will be able to impose hegemony over others.
When the Bahun-Chhetri leadership speaks of ‘non-ethnic federalism', or deploys arguments on the lines that economic viability or river systems should be the basis for state restructuring, they are backing the creation of states where their communities would have a demographic advantage. Janjati groups would like state boundaries decided in a manner where they have a slight demographic advantage, which would translate into greater chances of exercising a degree of self-rule. Madhesi parties had initially demanded that the entire Tarai plains be one province, but have now said they can settle for two states in the plains.
On May 15, the top three parties — Maoists, Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) — agreed that Nepal would have 11 states in the future. The names of these provinces would be decided by future provincial assemblies and their boundaries by a federal commission.
Madhesis and Janjati groups are up in arms over the agreement. They suspect that since the present numbers in the CA and the political mood favour an identity based federal structure, the older elites are ‘postponing' a decision to retain political control. If at all the 11 states model goes through, Janjatis say that Bahuns-Chhetris will be in a majority in all hill provinces. Tarai groups are against dividing the plains into five provinces as is tentatively proposed, since they fear this will weaken the Madhesi identity, dilute their demographic strength, and give the centre enormous power against weak states.
Tharus are against incorporating two far-west plains districts with a hill province. Instead, they have all demanded that the CA's subject committee report which recommended 14 states, or the State Restructuring Commission report, which suggests 10 states, be adopted. These have come through constitutional mechanisms, and are a product of a Maoist-Janjati-Madhesi alliance.
Over 320 Madhesi and ethnic lawmakers have signed a petition and opposed the pact. Madhesi Ministers in the government have threatened to resign. A cross-party Madhesi alliance has shut down eastern Tarai for three days, while Tharu groups have closed down the western Tarai. The country's umbrella ethnic outfit, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, has called for a nationwide shutdown, which turned violent in the capital on Sunday.
Responding to the pressure, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' has said that the 11 state agreement is no longer relevant and has lost its legitimacy. While the Maoists have shown a willingness to review it, the NC and UML have rejected any demands for revision. The two older parties are unwilling to go for a vote on the issue in the CA either, since they fear that ethnic lawmakers from their parties will defect and vote with the Maoists and Madhesi parties on the federalism issue.
The problem is the looming constitutional deadline of May 27. Bigger parties are urging the protesting groups to relent in order to ‘save the process'. While the constitution is indeed essential, excluded communities do not quite see the point of it if it does not address their federal aspirations. The challenge now is preserving the constitutional framework, but also addressing their rights and ensuring they have a sense of ownership of a commonly-arrived at text.
The first step should be for all big parties to immediately step back from the May 15 deal of 11 provinces; initiate broader consultations with Madhesi and Janjati groups; and come up with a fresh agreement. This can then serve as the basis for a first draft of the constitution. And on that basis, the CA should seek one final short extension of its tenure to engage in broad consultations, and finalise the federal structure. Ramming through a constitution by ignoring the aspirations of marginalised communities — who constitute almost 70 per cent of the population — will defeat the entire objective of drawing up a new, inclusive social contract for Nepal.