The nationwide general strikes called by Brahmins, Chhetris, Sanyasis, and Dashnamis (BCSD) left me stranded in my hometown of Bahrabise in Sindhupalchowk. Bahrabise is not known for its political activism. As one of the nearest towns to Khasa, it makes headlines when police unearths shoddy business deals or when sandalwood being smuggled is intercepted. But Thursday and Friday, the town came to a standstill; no schools ran, no shops opened, and no vehicles plied. As there was no sign that the banda would be lifted anytime soon, at eight o’clock Friday night I came out to the street looking for a vehicle for Kathmandu. Luckily I chanced at an apple-loaded van headed to Kathmandu from Khasa.
The driver, a Tamang youth in his twenties, was kind enough to offer me a ride. As we drove in darkness, he was eager to strike a conversation. “You look like a bahun,” he began. “Honestly, I hate Brahmin and Chhetri people. They are trying to snatch away our legitimate rights. They are trying to do so by opposing our demand for jatirajya
[colloquial for ethnic state]. We will wage war against them, I tell you. Next banda will be ours. And if you weren’t so desperate, I would not give a bahun like you a ride.” There was ferocity and passion in his voice. Surely, he cannot be the only one from his community who feels this way.
With just two weeks left for constitution drafting, ethnic and caste identity have taken center stage in people’s lives. This has created an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion among different communities. The country is witnessing a series of protests both for and against the supposed supremacy of one group over others. Protest in the Far-west pits Thraus against BCSD. While the supporters—largely belonging to BCSD—of undivided Far-west are not going to relent unless their demands are addressed, the Tharus seem equally determined to retain Kailali and Kanchanpur in Tharuhat. Mid-westerners and Westerners are following suit and have come with their own demand for undivided Mid-west and undivided Western region. This malady is likely to inflict central and eastern development regions soon. In sharp contrast, Madhesis are threatening revolt if one-Madhesh is not granted. Thus people across the country are coming up with irreconcilable demands. The major bone of contention is state restructuring and naming and demarcation of state borders.
Protests both for and against ethnic states, and by extension for and against federalism, will not end on May 27. In fact, we will be lucky if we get to May 27 without severe damage to the image of the country as we know it. As of Saturday, dozens of activists have clashed in Far-west which has left some critically injured. If one of them succumbs, what has so far been a clash for rights will take the form of clash between Tharus and BCSD. Far-west could be mired in civil war, setting a nasty precedent for other regions. Signs are that Kathmandu could become a battlefield. While BCSD have put their protests on hold, Newars have made public general strike for Newa state, apparently starting Monday. Reportedly, other indigenous groups have protest programs up their sleeves in the lead up to May 27. This could take a nasty turn. It needs only a moment of show of rancor for all the civil constraints to the protests to break down.
May 27 could be anarchic, so could May 28, Nepal’s republic day. The constitution, if declared on May 27, will have to offer a bit to everyone, which isn’t possible. One thing is for sure: People, addled on ethnic and caste agenda, will defy the new order, federal or non-federal. In the worst case, the government will have to declare constitution only after mobilizing the army on the street. In the near future, such conflicts between communities could spawn many inter-province conflicts. A province could cut off water supply and power lines to other states. On Thursday, protesters in Far-west cut off power lines to the Mid-west, plunging many Midwest districts in complete darkness. Such acts could be replicated all across the country, threatening to tear apart the social fabric as people turn against people.
But how could we have arrived at this state of affairs in a country known for harmonious coexistence of people belonging to multiple languages, castes and cultures? A single explanation cannot account for it. First, the fault lies in the way debate of federalism has been carried out. During the insurgency pandering to ethnic aspiration for equality and prosperity, then-CPN (Maoist) waged war of rhetoric against Brahmin/Chhetris in a way that made it appear to Dalits and Janajatis that the former were the evils and only by clipping their wings, could the road to prosperity for them be opened up. The underprivileged lot started to see their fortunate counterparts as elements to be wiped out, not colleagues they could get on with.
After 2008 CA polls, the Maoist capitalized on this hatred and played the ethnic card by floating ethnic provinces. In the first few years, it looked like federalism was all about carving provinces along ethnic lines. Worse, there was no alternative discourse. In truth, federalism discourse has been in full swing only in the last six months. Before that the debate was limited to seminars and workshops. This kept the general public in the dark about what federalism, ethnic or non-ethnic, really was. For their part, Nepali Congress and CPN-UML did not consider federalism their agenda. So federalism came to represent whatever Maoist and Janajati leaders said it was. By the time alternative perspectives came to the fore, the demand for ethnic federalism had been firmly entrenched.
A middle way could be found by putting restructuring on hold while enshrining federalism in the constitution.
Now that state restructuring is imminent, it has shaken up people like never before. While the Brahmin and Chhetris fear the new set up will push them to the margins, the Janjatis and Madhesis fear that the ruling elites will never let them come up. These fears, real or not, are genuine this time. Federalism is perceived as a system that empowers people at the margins by taking away from those in the establishment, not through decentralization of power from the center to the states. Lately, youth leaders of major political parties seem to have understood this. NC leader Gagan Thapa, CPN-UML lawmaker Rabindra Adhikari and UCPN (Maoist) lawmaker Hitman Shakya have warned of ethnic instability if the country is federated on ethnic basis.
But all’s not gloom. There is still a way out: Putting state restructuring on hold for a time being while enshrining federalism in the statute and coming to agreements on less contentious issues. Unrests across the nation indicate that people still need to be educated on federalism. We need to take federalism to the grassroots so that, in time, people’s fears on federalism will be dispelled. The pressing issue thus is not state restructuring; it is instilling trust that federalism will not disintegrate the country, and devising ways to avert serious conflict.