The recently unveiled election manifesto of Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN) portrays Nepal as a ‘multi-national state’. The manifesto says that the inhabitants of mountainous regions in Nepal have many similarities with Tibetans across the border, and hence they together can be considered as belonging to the same nation even though they are in separate countries. Likewise, says the manifesto, the inhabitants of the Tarai plains, who are distinct from the people of hill and mountain regions, can be considered as belonging to a different nation even though they are all Nepali citizens. Interestingly, while the mountain people in Nepal have been linked to Tibetans across the border, no mention is made of the cultural similarities of Madhesi communities with the communities just across the border in India. Perhaps the intent was to show that Tarai-Madesh, in itself, deserves the status of a nation that is distinctly different from areas that fall under the Indian territories. Whatever the case, Nepal’s portrayal as a multi-national state has sparked a new debate over the political status of the nascent federal republic. Is Nepal really a multi-national state, as the RJPN has portrayed it? Or is this characterization being imposed for some other ulterior motive?
To start with, it is not easy to define a nation. Even India can be characterized as a multi-nation state, if we consider how different Bengalis are to Tamils, or Punjabis are to Naga people. Since the Indian federal state brings them all in one place, India may be considered a multi-national state. What about China? Even there, the Tibetans and the Hans, for instance, are completely different ethnic groups that had traditionally occupied distinct territories and been subjects of separate sovereigns. Yet the modern-day China that brings them together under one state, and hence China too may be considered a multi-nation state. Seen this way, Sri Lanka is a multi-nation state, as is Pakistan, and so are Burma and Russia and Spain. But if the idea of multi-nation is so innocuous, why have other political parties in Nepal not characterized the Nepali state as multi-national? Perhaps because there is nothing useful to be gained from it and, if anything, such nebulous characterizations can be used to sow further division in an already divided country. We, too, do not see any utility of lumping together ‘Madhesis, Tharus, Dalits, Janjatis and Muslims’, as the RJPN manifesto does. The Tharus, for one, have always insisted that they are distinct from Madhesis.
Nor do Nepal’s scattered population patterns lend themselves to easy characterizations as distinct nations. At one time the then Madhesi Morcha was demanding that the entire Tarai-Madhes be made one federal province, even though there was no rhyme or reason to the demand. Now some extremists are trying to create a separate country out of the Tarai belt. No democratic force in Nepal should (or can) do anything to undermine the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. These are sensitive times. All our democratic forces should carefully consider the ramification of their actions. Playing with people’s atavistic fears may yield immediate electoral benefits but it’s a counterproductive political strategy in the long run.