Whether people in Nepal support or oppose ethnic federalism, one thing is certain: everyone is finally paying attention to the plight of the historically marginalized and systematically discriminated ethnic groups including janjatis, Madhesis and Dalits. For the first time, the middle and upper class Khas are genuinely concerned about the extremely poor and constantly ignored Khas community of the Farwest.
Because of the Khas adhivasis’ protests in the Far-west, this region has finally got national attention and we have been able to see how our fellow citizens are living below the poverty line. Ironically, some of our most powerful and rich politicians are from the Far-west.
Our most popular slogan today for an ‘undivided Nepal’ has reached every household and is strongly linked to federalism. In the current context, federalism is often considered synonymous with ‘fragmenting a nation,’ ‘slicing the country,’ ‘dividing people’ etc, which sounds even worse when translated into Nepali and gives a whole new definition to the term. One would have thought federalism meant ‘sharing of power,’ ‘union of states under the central government,’ and ‘administrative divisions’.
Anyway, for the sake of argument, let us stick to the new theory that federalism means division of the nation. In that case, we should give up the idea of federalism and work against it to keep the country undivided. Since the protests in the Far-west, the issue of an undivided nation has sent waves across the country. But how far will we go in making sure that ethnic harmony and unity work, so that our country does not get fragmented? What does an undivided nation mean to us? Is it just about our nationalistic emotions and sentiments or do some concrete things need to be done to turn our nation into an equal society?
Over the past 16 years as a journalist, this author has traveled extensively across the country’s 70 districts. While travelling from Mahakali to Mechi, and Karnali to Sagarmatha, one comes across so many ethnic groups that make up the ‘real Nepal’. It is nothing short of amazing to see the plethora of diverse indigenous cultures, wonderful languages, music and traditions - all of which are an integral part of our nation.
However, what strikes one the most is the vast gap between the rich and poor, the privileged and underprivileged, the haves and the have-nots - as a result of systematical an historical exclusion. A majority of the Dalits, Janjatis and Madhesis live in the most remote places in pitiable conditions because of generations of lost opportunities.
The extremely poor Khas community, mostly in the Karnali region, has remained the poorest in the country due to both remoteness of the place and utter political neglect. Upper caste politicians have neglected their own clans.
The question then is, how far will we go to help our fellow Nepalis, the marginalized ethnic groups, to be empowered and make up for the loss of decades of lost opportunities? Put yourselves in the shoes of a Dalit, a Tharu or a Tamang and ask a question: how do I get justice? So, if we reject ethnic federalism, are majority of our high caste politicians willing to step aside and share power at the centre with those from the marginalized communities? Are we ready for a Dalit Prime Minister and a Tharu President?
Or should we just start poverty alleviation projects and handover pigs and goats for income generation so that the deprived communities can have some means of making their ends meet? The redundancy of such simplistic methods is more than obvious.
To take an example, thousands of Tharus, who are landless in their own villages, and many ex Kamaiyas, are still waiting for proper rehabilitation. Thousands of ex-Kamlari girls, rescued from rich households of Kathmandu and other cities, have failed to get justice and the government has not even bothered to give them scholarships for education. Dalits make up 13 percent of the population but 54 percent of them are landless, and not even four percent are employed in the government and development agencies. Untouchability continues despite a law introduced in 2011, after our parliamentarians took two years to decide if they should indeed pass the bill.
If we reject ethnic federalism, are majority of our high caste politicians willing to step aside and share power at the centre with those from marginalized communities?
Not to say there aren’t any Brahmins who have taken initiatives to end many forms of exploitation and discrimination against ethnic groups, which had been institutionalized by former regimes and rulers. But now these people have to work towards ensuring wider ethnic justice. There needs to be a broad recognition that even one group of Nepali citizens being left behind in the development process affects the prospects of the entire nation.
Emotional outbursts on the streets or in newspapers and social media about an undivided nation are not enough. Are we being fair when we say that the janjatis are rebelling because of foreign support and funding? Is it alright for us to make derogatory remarks against those who are championing the cause of the margnalised janjatis and Madhesis? Should we just dismiss their concerns and demands?
We have to ensure there is justice for those ethnic groups that have been left far behind for many generations and have been denied even basic development opportunities. To begin with, it is important to start an intelligent discourse instead of lowering it to narrow partisan interests and power games.