Saddening lessons from Yugoslavia and Rwanda over the last two decades should remind Nepali people and political leaders what could happen if the majority suppresses minority aspirations and if the minorities push the majority against the wall. As the Constituent Assembly (CA) fast approaches its finish line of May 27, the situation in Nepal looks increasingly dire and explosive on the issue of federalism.
For starters, in Yugoslavia, the Serb majority suppressed and killed Croat, Bosnian and Kosovar minorities in an effort to hold the country together. They could not prevent the fragmentation of the country and some Serb leaders were hauled to the international court for war crimes.
In Rwanda, the Tutsi minority pushed the Hutu majority to the wall with violence and the Hutus retaliated by killing 800,000 Tutsis. Leaders from both communities were brought to the international court.
The contentious issue of carving out states in federal Nepal without developing among ethnic groups having conflicting territorial claims could invite the horrors of Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Things do not look bad until they go out of control and it would be already too late when they do.
Nepali leaders seem to have failed to grasp the gravity of the unfolding situation, for they are still trying to strike a deal on the number of states in five star hotels. They need to step back and encourage intercommunity dialogue and understanding before they carve out the country into provinces for a peaceful and orderly transition.
It is said democracy makes everyone equally unhappy because it demands compromise from everyone for the greater good of all. Both the majority and minority ethnic groups in Nepal need to recognize this inherent weakness (or strength) of democracy and seek to find common grounds based on predefined criteria to federalize the country.
The first lesson on negotiations says you must agree on technical parameters before actual negotiation begins. On the issue of federalism, there are so many conflicting demands and overlapping claims that it is impossible to find common grounds without predefined and agreed parameters.
For instance, the privileged Madheshis—Brahmins, Rajputs, Yadavs and Kayasthas (BRYK)—want regional federalism in the Tarai east to west but oppose the same north to south. The privileged Pahadis—Brahmins, Chhetris, Sanyasis, and Dashnamis (BCSD)—wants regional federalism north to south but have difficulty with it east to west.
Among the Janajatis, the most privileged of all Nepalis, the Newars, are divided. Some want ethnic federalism and some regional. Tarai Janajatis like the Tharus and other hill Janajatis want ethnic federalism to free themselves from the hegemony of BRYK and BCSD respectively.
Different groups have launched agitations and protests to force political leaders to meet their demands. In the Far West Region, contesting groups of pro-undivided region and pro-ethnically divided region have launched their (now two-week long) protests and shutdown. Protests have also been organized by hill Janajatis and BCSD across the country. BRYKs have threatened to start their own agitation if their demands are not met.
It does not matter whether political leaders agree on 8, 10, 12, 14 or 20 states. In a country of 100 ethnic groups, many groups will be left without their own states still. Tensions, therefore, will escalate and violence will probably ensue as those deprived of their own states and those put under the wrong states demand their own rights to identity, language, culture and access to power, resources and opportunities.
What is more, except in Tamsaling and Mithila-Bhojpura-Koch-Madhesh, BCSD outnumber local minority groups (as show in the table).
The majority can hardly accept to play second fiddle when their numbers are bigger than the local minority group that will be running the show.
But the problem does not end there. There will be conflicts between minorities as well. For instance, the Limbus have claimed nine districts east of the Arun River, but they the largest group only in three districts—Taplejung, Panchthar and Terhthum. The Rais are the largest group in llam, Dhankuta and Sankhuwasabha, BCs in Jhapa and Morang, and Madheshis in Sunsari. The Madheshis have claimed these three Tarai districts as well.
Similar overlapping claims have been made across the country. A marriage of convenience to extract ethnic states from BCSD has brought Janajatis and Madheshis together for short-term advantage. However, when the issue of demarcating state borders comes to the fore, they will reach for each other’s jugular.
External interference further complicates the entangled mess of Nepal. Westerners want to divide Nepal along ethnic lines and open it for unhindered religious conversion. Neighbors want to enhance their influence through the minority groups that are close to them. If violence breaks out between these communities, Nepal may lose its sovereignty or part of its territory.
The solution for the majority-minority divide and minority-minority conflicting claims does not lie in x or y number of states unless the number is nearly 100 so each ethnic group could have their own state. It lies in open dialogue between the majority and minority groups and among minority groups to remove the cloud of suspicion and to sort out the overlapping territorial claims.
Political leaders, therefore, should not try to rush contentious issues through without adequate debate and clarity. What do you do about the deadline of May 27 then?
Subas Nembang, Speaker of CA, has said the unfinished task of the constitution could be completed by the transformed legislature-parliament. He must have in mind Article 82 of the Interim Constitution. Some pundits have suggested that the CA’s term should be extended one more time.
None of these options is legitimate and workable. The stopgap parliament under Article 82 could conduct debates on contentious issues to build consensus but it cannot take a constitutional decision, for it would have no mandate after May 27. It will be a mockery of the Interim Constitution and of the Supreme Court to extend the CA’s term anymore.
That leaves only one palatable choice for the political leaders if they want to avoid inter-ethnic violence and possibly civil war. That is to complete other tasks on the constitution, agree on a framework on federalism and other contentious issues before May 27 and promulgate the constitution.
Such a course will give time to hold comprehensive dialogue between minority and majority groups as well as among minority groups to find consensus on the outstanding issues and overlapping territorial claims. The new parliament can pick up the thread from where CA had left and flesh out the details based on such consensus. Some groups would resent this course but they will have no casus belli.
Sure, all Nepalis wanted the new constitution as of yesterday. But they would rather wait for some more time than have a constitution written in a hurry that could invite the bloodshed of Yugoslavia and Rwanda to Nepal.