Once in a while you must have come across a person who is tickled pink hearing that you both hail from the same place: Ye, tapai pani purbeli! (So, you also are from the east!). This sense of shared spatial association may sound casual, but in these days of federal zeitgeist it may even force you to recalibrate your place loyalties, if you have any.
And imagine the beaming face of the stranger who discovers that you both come from the same village, indeed, the same neighborhood. This happened with me the other day in Kathmandu when I met a journalist from Damak, Jhapa. She said we must have met somewhere, sometime. No way, not in Damak, I responded, because except for occasional visits to my parents, I have never really lived in that town.
But the thing about a place in our paternalistic culture is that you don´t have to live there to be there, to belong to it. This journalist in my chance encounter said she had not lived there for years either. But that did not matter as long as we knew we shared a fragment of the earth down the magnificent Mahabharat ranges.
Sure, our conversation was more about sociability than communication or information. Trying to dig deeper than the current territorial confines of Jhapa, it veered towards the past as she asked me another related question: Pahad Ghar ni? (And, which part of the mountains are you from?).
As an afterthought, she commented it was typical of many Nepalis to insist on asking this very question to fellow-citizens or strangers during introductions. We find easy to respond to a question when we know the communicative intention of the person who does the asking. You can easily guess, I replied, not that far away; as Chitwan is for Gorkhalis or Lamjunges, Jhapa is for Taplejungis or Panchthares!
Again, the fact is that I have never lived in Taplejung, my pahad ghar. My earliest memory of Tellok VDC, where my parents were born and raised, goes back to 1977 when I had joined my father for a week-long trek up the mountains from Ilam to reach the remote village facing the majestic Mt. Kanchenjunga.
Interestingly, born and living near the Indian-Burmese borders to migrant Nepali parents, as a boy I was already familiar with the term "pahad jaane" (going to the mountains) a reference we used every time my father left for Nepal to visit his ancestral home. I don´t remember myself or my siblings using the term "Nepal jaane", although, of course, I would invariably gasp in awe to see any mention of the word "Nepal" in a school textbook. But that was extremely rare.
Unlike my primeval, hunter-gatherer predecessors whose sense of "place" most likely remained confined to physical landscapes such as a river, a deurali pass, a cave-house, or a skyline, my sense of place today comes in a deluge of experiences that not only involve geography or political boundaries, but also some personal feelings about them and their meanings.
Many seem to be preoccupied these days with reconfiguring "Nepal" to reclaim a place for themselves. I wonder what will happen to the overlapping territorial, or psychological bonds that we have nurtured for years on our own volition, in spite of government-imposed structures. This deluge of my experiences, with no single physical or mental anchor to tie to, now calls for a review of my genius loci, Latin for "spirit of place" or more commonly "sense of place".
Writing mainly about media and social issues, I may be among the silent majority who keep their ideas about federalism to themselves. But that does not mean I don´t have my ten cents to add to the debate on this topic. Federalism is not just about territoriality. Right now the debate is highly polarized between advocates and opponents of ethno-linguistic based federation. In recent weeks, we have seen its physical manifestations in Mithila or Limbuwan region, in the "Far-west."
The important thing about federalism in a multi-ethnic, polyglot and geographically segregated and yet socially and culturally united entity is that lived experiences and aspirations of people must primarily inform the formal restructuring project. Pluralist and sane views have been silenced in the clamor of the crowd, between the populist slogans and the elitist admonitions.
I grew up in one of the most conflict-ridden regions of India in the North-East, where more than 50,000 people have been killed since the country became independent in 1947. Hardly a day passed by without me hearing that there were so-and-so many people killed in an explosion, or some members of an ethic community was butchered by another ethnic group. It was not rare for me even as a teenager to see a band of rebel Nagas attacking a Kuki village, or a Maitei being hacked to death by some rebel from another ethnicity.
It was a beautiful place to live in, with rolling hills, and green valleys, like the ones we see around Dhulikhel or Panauti. But my sense of that place is mired by almost routine bloodsheds and unending factional wars, which continue to this day. While India offered a state each to Biharis, Punjabis, Tamils and scores of others, many ethnicities were denied statehood, clearly leaving the door wide open for uprisings in the future. After paying high prices for conflicts, India continues, though reluctantly, to induct new states in its confederation.
If Switzerland, with eight million people, and an area three and half times smaller than Nepal, can manage 26 cantons, why can’t we have twice that, or more?
So the issue I think should be not how many states to have in our Nepali confederation, but how many to start with, and of what nature. A society-based approach to federalism as opposed to the one thrust upon the citizens by a select few considers federalism as a living, breathing organism, and it is in essence evolutionary. Nothing is final, not even the constitution, or its resultant structures.
Nothing is right or wrong unless we take sides. Rather than getting carried away by their own narrow interests, one of the first duties of politicians and experts at this time would be to find out as many demands for statehood as possible. In fact, we should have been able to see public announcements by the state restructuring commission in newspapers and the radio channels calling for individuals, groups and communities to register their claims for statehood, if they have any. Alternatively, public polls could be undertaken among specific ethic groups and regions. Nothing of this sort has happened even when we boast of being a democracy.
Given that there are over 100 languages spoken in the country with over 50 ethnic groups, we could expect the claims for statehood in the vicinity of 50-60. If a polyglot mountainous country like Switzerland, with a population of around eight million, and an area almost three and half times smaller than Nepal, can manage 26 cantons in the forms of autonomous states, why can´t Nepal have twice that number of states, or even more?
The question of viability and the fear of ethnic schism is for the future to deal, since we don´t know now for sure that the future states will utterly fail in cooperating and learning to be interdependent with their neighbors and with the central government. In a recent conversation, a friend commented that even our country, with the tag of a failing state and centuries of backwardness, may look unviable as a nation, at least to many outsiders. But it does not justify to us that we don´t deserve to have this place as our land, a place we all belong to.
Undeniably, leaving the door open for a peaceful coexistence of states in the federal process will require a long-term vision, perhaps a constitutional provision, laying out clear benchmarks for new states or reintegration of existing states, if required. Coincidently, the "akhanda" (integral whole) slogan in the Far-west reminds us that federalism is about first recognizing the worth of all the parts (khandas), which come together to make the integral whole (akhanda). We all have to live with our overlapping loyalties and identifies.
Simply stated, federalism without pluralism, which should invariably accompany inclusiveness and citizens´ rights and social justice, will not ensure every citizen a place under the sun. Without it, and despite being away from the ancestral mountains for generations or despite assimilation with fellow-citizens from other backgrounds, I will have to continue living with my pahad ghar.