The Constituent Assembly (CA) was dissolved on May 27 without producing a constitution in four years, even after two years was added to its initial life. Senior political leaders have rightly received the most bashing for the failure to deliver the much-awaited law of the land. However, we must not overlook the role played by militant politicians and intellectuals in this fiasco, because they prevented dialogue on the contentious issue of federalism and held back the senior leaders from making compromises.
Militancy thrives on obsession, blinds objectivity, clouds judgment and generates bigotry. Consequently, it makes otherwise intelligent and rational individuals say or do irrational and stupid things. In the last year’s London riot, the son of a billionaire stole two bottles of water worth less than a pound each. The promise of beautiful virgins after death sways young and educated suicide bombers to kill and get killed. Talibans still kill girls in Afghanistan for going to school to get an education or for falling in love. The Maoists killed people who opposed their ideology or violence during the decade-long insurgency in Nepal.
Federalism has become the victim of political and intellectual militancy in Nepal. Militant politicians in the CA and intellectuals outside played a pivotal part in preventing the CA from writing the constitution. Militant politicians supporting single-identity states in the CA did not want to hear the concerns and examine the proposal of the other side. Neither did militant multiple-identity state proponents want to hear the concerns and vet the rationale behind ethnic states. There was no agreement.
So the issue had to be handed to intellectuals outside the CA. The State Restructuring Commission (SRC), made of intellectuals, failed to rise above politics and divided in two groups, each giving its own report. In the broader intelligentsia, militants on both sides dominated the debate on federalism with their vituperative and stifled informed and candid dialogue that was critical to find a common ground.
On one hand, some Hill Janajati politicians and intellectuals threatened Brahmins and Chhetris with expulsion and death for the injustices of last 240 years under the Shah rule; some Madheshi politicians and intellectuals threatened with breaking the Tarai from Nepal and some even argued that Nepal had asked India for the unequal 1950 and other treaties to win India’s support.
Hill Janajati and Madheshi militants refused to acknowledge the progress that was inconceivable 10 years ago. For example, the monarchy is gone; both the president and vice-president are Madheshis; more than 50 percent of CA members were from minority groups; the army chief is from Hill Janajati; and a quota system has been introduced in public services.
On the other hand, Khas-Aryan and other pro-multiple-identity militants opposed the quota system and single identity states. They also advanced the bogey of the country’s fragmentation and called for expulsion of Madheshis to frustrate their demand for a separate Madheshi state.
Seldom did the two sides sit down around a table, review progress, and try to understand each other’s concerns and allay each other’s fears, and debate competitive proposals candidly and constructively on merit. Wherever the two sides came together—occasionally they did under the auspices of a donor or online discussion forums—one side tried to push the other against the wall. When they did not have strong and factual points to counter, they descended to ad hominem or personal attack with irrational ranting and even the use of foul words and deeds to silence the other side.
This frightened the moderate intellectuals who wanted to maintain their neutrality and acceptability to both fringes, preserve their self-perceived dignity, or simply stay out of an ugly fray. As a result, healthy and candid debate on federalism that could have helped find common ground and led to informed and consensus decisions never took place.
Such militancy became possible mainly for two reasons. First, although bigotry and racial slurs are punishable under law in most democratic societies, they became accepted democratic norms in Nepal, making it one of the most racist societies. Second, the norms to create states, as agreed in the CA, were unclear and incomplete or were left unattended, giving an impression that whoever could raise their vitriolic voice loudest could get a state.
For instance, identity, one of the key criteria to create a state, was so ambiguous that different groups could interpret it to suit their own agenda. To Hill Janajatis, it was their ethnic identity; to Madheshis, it became their regional identity, not ethnic; and to Brahmins and Chhetris, identity meant multicultural. Negotiations are bound to fail when its parameters are so vague, unclear or confusing.
If political parties had paid enough attention to economic viability, the other key criterion in theory, agreement on the number and nature of states would have been much easier to find. But economic viability was never the key consideration in negotiations in the CA, between the main political parties, and in other forums, even though states would not run for a day without money and without the immediate possibility of raising revenue.
The incompleteness of the criteria was most loudly obvious in that it had not envisaged overlapping territorial claims by different ethnic groups in many places and had not included any norms and measures to address them. Several districts in the plains have Pahadi majority; a number of districts in one ethnic area have the majority of a different ethnic group. Clashes were bound to happen where such competitive claims exist, and they did in the far west and far east.
But that is all history now. The country needs to move forward addressing the past mistakes and looking into the future. Blaming each other will not give us the states or the constitution. A national consensus will. It requires shedding militancy and making democratic compromises.
All political parties need to tame militants in their ranks who have prevented open and reasoned debate on federalism in the past.
Political parties need to be both inclusive and realistic while creating states. Some people would not be happy unless more than 100 states are created, one for each ethnic group. That would be inclusive but unrealistic in terms of economic viability and population spillover. Some would not be happy if the status quo is not maintained, but that would be politically unfeasible. Some would like to have one Madhesh, but that will not be acceptable to Tarai Janajatis and Hill people living in the plains.
There is no single universal truth or formula in democratic politics, for whatever commands the approval of most citizens has to be deemed good. Only open and candid dialogue will help citizens understand the issue, all sides of the political divide to understand and allay each other’s concerns and fears, and find common middle ground on federalism. So, all political parties need to tame the militants in their ranks and in their fold, who have prevented open and reasoned debate in the past.
All sides must remind themselves that democracy makes everyone unhappy because they have to make compromises. But democracy also makes everyone a winner because they can go home with the satisfaction that they gained something or did not lose everything. Do not let the militants’ quest for their ideal defeat the possible compromise, forever.