In these polarized times, it’s impossible to escape emotionally charged debates for or against federalism at any academic, social, cultural or even family functions. Proponents assert that aspirations for multiple identities cannot be addressed in any way other than proper federalization of the country. Opponents are equally emphatic about undesirability of federalism, which they believe would lead to fragmentation of “this beloved homeland of ours”.
The power elite wants to take Nepal back to the comfort zone of yore when everyone knew their places and lived pretty much in enforced harmony. The subaltern is in no mood to accept received wisdom anymore. Contested versions of past and conflicted visions for future have begun to vitiate intellectual exchanges.
Even an occasion as solemn as a book release at Shital Niwas didn’t remain free of frictions over federalism among illustrious attendees. President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav unveiled A Facsimile Edition of Maithili Play: Bhupatindramalla’s Parsuramopakhyan-nataka at an informal gathering. Ramawatar Yadav, an established authority in linguistics, had begun working on the manuscript of the book way back in the early 1980s and has devoted decades to develop the draft into a work of deep scholarship.
The published volume contains an elaborate introductory chapter, transliteration of the text from the original Newari Ranjana script into Devnagari and Roman, translation into English, commentary on Maithili dramaturgy, critical notes, and sketch of a middle Maithili grammar. Even though the volume credits Yadav as the editor of the original work authored by Bhupatindramalla (1696-1722); in essence he has created contemporary meaning for the medieval play through painstaking research, analyses and interpretation. This is one of those books that prove that deep study of a single volume of classics is worth a lifetime of effort.
Yadav and his publishers had invited Jayaraj Acharya—a celebrated scholar of Sanskrit, Nepali and English—to do the honors of introducing the book. Acharya’s harangue about glorious history of harmony in Nepali society and his strident tirade against federalism vitiated the convivial atmosphere of the whole ceremony. There was little indication in his outbursts that he had even flipped through the book that he had consented to introduce in an assembly of activists, connoisseurs, researchers and scholars.
Apart from dates—and possibly names—“facts” of history are far from sacrosanct and are open to multiple interpretations. In Nepal’s own experience, Chandra Shamsher had invited narrators from Europe to invent an autonomous history. Mahendra hired Indian hagiographers to glorify the place of active monarchy in Hindu society. The task Itihas Sansodhan Mandal (History Revision Group) took upon itself was to rewrite the past in such a way that the entity called Nepal would appear to be a celestial kingdom. There was nothing wrong with the mission, and scholars associated with the revisionist project have remarkable achievements to their credit in retelling old stories in a “scientific” way on the basis of inscriptions miraculously discovered and meticulously recorded.
In more recent times, official chroniclers of Panchayat had depicted politicos of Nepali Congress as “anti-national elements”, which was consequently revised in the post-1990 wave of intellectual activism to portray former “traitors” as defenders of democracy while “nationalists” of ancien regime were depicted as purveyors of fascist ideology. The jury is still out on roles played by Maoist insurgency, Madhesh uprising and Janjati campaigns in redefining the notion of Nepali nationality. However, when a scholar of Acharya’s stature questions the motives of federalists, it can make even a tolerant audience cringe with embarrassment.
It may have something to do with the kind of football Nepalis play in the streets that makes even grownups kick players rather than the ball. Questioning Acharya’s own motives that made him heat up the air-conditioned hall of a Shital Niwas with spirited defense of an unitary state would tantamount to paying him in the same coin of casting aspersions on characters of people with different convictions. Even as a person, his opinions do not carry as much weight as it did when he had parachuted from abroad directly into corridors of power in the post-1990 order. However, he represents a large section of Kathmandu intelligentsia that goes mad at the mere mention of the F-word.
In the concluding part of his political speech, Acharya claimed that a majority of democratic intellectuals that he had interacted a few days ago were completely averse to the very idea of federalism. On the same sweltering midsummer afternoon, a 27-party alliance was swearing its allegiance to federalism at the Tundikhel public grounds. Either there is a complete disconnection between intellectuals of parliamentary parties and their politicos, or the populists are lying when they publicly declare their commitment to federal principles.
Soon after Acharya had finished his sermons, the Master of Ceremony Dhirendra Premarshi rose up to remind the audience in not-so-subtle manner that while the Malla period was considered to be the Golden Age of Maithili art and literature in Nepal valley, the barbarians that trounced renowned patrons of cultural diversity also decimated its proud heritage of linguistic harmony. Dark Ages for various ethnicities in the country began with the rise of House of Gorkha and their vengeful campaigns in annexed territories.
Premarshi was on firmer ground in interpreting history. Yadav records in his book that Bhupatindramalla is credited to have created 31 plays, out of which 26 are in Maithili, four are in Newari and one in Sanskrit. Apparently, Gorkhali, which would be renamed Nepali in mid-twentieth century, had not reached to a stage where literary expressions could be made in that language. Acharya had sounded as if Nepal and Nepali was eternal and any attempt to question beliefs of the dominant community would be sacrilegious. Premarshi—and later academician Ramesh Ranjan in his vote of thanks—declared unequivocally that the stifling days of “one language, one dress, and one people” were now over.
It would be vain to claim that federalism is a miraculous cure of all ills. Compared to the simplicity of a unitary system where everyone is expected to conform to the values of dominant community, federalism is an immensely complex form of governance. No matter how well guaranteed the right to settle anywhere in the country, some rulers in the units of the union will always be susceptible to raising xenophobic slogans to discourage migrants from other provinces. In the Indian state of Maharashtra, Shiva Sena has created a devastatingly successful political platform for people that fear being swamped by outsiders.
The rise of sub-nationalism does not weaken national unity. However, it takes tremendous effort to build trust between suspicious communities that fear losing their traditional privileges on the one hand and those that expect to get their proper due post haste on the other. Ambitious politicos can easily fuel separatist movements in such situations as it happened with the Khalistan campaign in Punjab province of India.
Federalism is the most effective way of creating sustainable unity out of extreme diversities of countries where dictatorial regimes had kept aspirations for self-rule suppressed at gunpoint.
Despite its risks however, federalism is the most effective way of creating sustainable unity out of extreme diversities of countries where dictatorial regimes had kept aspirations for self-rule suppressed at gunpoint. Engagement and debate is the most dependable method of turning threats of fragmentation into opportunities that fermentation of ideas can create. The dominant community perhaps realizes dangers of harping upon supposed harmony of the past. However, proponents of federalism have done almost nothing to allay their justifiable fears.
Nepali has prospered largely because of the state patronage. If resources were shared among other languages, opportunities for communities that have benefited from the hegemony of state language will automatically shrink. Then there is a sense of guilt among those that have used their position in the unitary system to suppress aspirations of minority identities. They are afraid of ethnic backlash that federalism may unleash. These are issues that need to be pondered in a dispassionate manner. But when even scholars turn into propagandists, it’s natural for political discourse to degenerate into the kind of verbal muck that Messrs Madhav Kumar Nepal, KP Oli and Ram Chandra Paudel have been slinging at random without admitting with the frankness of Jayraj Acharya, Kamal Thapa or Chitra Bahadur KC that they are opposed to the very idea of federalism.
Indulging in idle talk about equality and concocting fictive scenarios of fragmentation will not succeed in countering aspirations of identity. Only free and frank debates can help build a functional federation for a common and shared future of all Nepalis.