In order to understand the presently heated debate on the definition of federalism in Nepal, one must revert to the Constituent Assembly’s ‘state-restructuring committee’ report meant to have been submitted to the plenary. That report had suggested two platforms for the federalization of Nepal. They were:
Identity, which has (a) ethnic/community-related, (b) linguistic, (c) cultural, (d) geographic and regional continuity related, and (e) historical continuity related conditions or indicators, as the five sub-platforms.
Capability or Capacity, which has conditions or indicators related to (a) economic inter-relationships and capacity/capability, (b) existing and potential level of development of infrastructure, (c) availability of natural resources and heritage, and (d) administrative ease, as the sub-platforms.
Regardless of what we feel about the two platforms and the nine sub-platforms, there are two further issues and political points here. First, if provinces are to be based on identity and capability, what is the foundation for erecting the federation as such? Where is the space for national unity, national security, and so on? Further, what about democracy and equality of citizenship? Are we looking at ethnos or demos as the philosophical underpinning for the construction of a modern Nepal?
Second, even as the analytical principles of the committee report equally valorizes identity and capability, the demarcation of provinces does not follow these principles. Identity looms extremely large and capability evidently does not enter into consideration. Further, even among the ‘identity’ attributes, only one, i.e. ethnicity and community related identity, rules supreme. The other identity-related attributes identified in the report including language, and culture do not enter the equation. Such a privileging of ethnicity at the cost of language, culture, etc. is, in effect, prioritizing race and racism.
The transition from a monarchy to a republic on the one hand and the seeming turn from demos to ethnos on the other are contradictory and problematic. The end of monarchy was a turn toward modernity in as much as it reduced the significance of caste, ethnicity, clan, family, religious faith, etc. Monarchy was an institution that was founded on these structures and on ascribed, evidently ‘inborn,’ values. The turn to ethnicity, in particular to its biological rather than linguistic and cultural components, seeks to center-stage these very traditional structures and values. The latter (ethnos) downgrades the significance of individual achievement. In particular, the latter seeks to install nasl (race) as the primary platform for social and political categorization.
This foregrounding of ethnicity is problematic also because we are not merely ethnic beings. Each of us holds multiple and plural identities. Each of us is, surely, to some extent, an ethnic being. But our being is far from singular. One may be a peasant, a laborer, a merchant. One may be a woman or a man. There are almost infinite intersectionalities of identity. It is inappropriate and dehumanizing to reduce us to our ethnic being alone. Further, we are not only multicultural; we are pluri-cultural in as much as multiple cultures which interact are transformed in the process and as they give birth to new and more cultures than we started out with.
Further, we must consider the fluid nature of identity. Ethnicity is not something that is unchanging. A grandfather and a grandson belonging to the same ethnic group are likely to be quite dissimilar. In fact, we constantly change our ethnicity. Today, an Anglo Saxon household with the family name of Smith will not be looked down by the aristocracy, nor is the household likely to be engaged in smithy. We must also consider that marriage is more and more exogamous to most of our ‘family origin’ attributes. If social change is a constant in this churning of history, can one imagine ethnicity remaining fixed?
Risks of mono-ethnicism
In planning for a society where diversity is preserved and can flower, we must promote the use of diverse languages. The languages have to be owned nationally, not just by the individual ethnic groups. ‘Ethnic languages’ have to be protected and promoted, among others through schools, public administration, courts of law and so forth. Similarly, the state must equitably promote other cultural facets, including ‘ethnic’ festivals, dance, music, and so on.
On the other hand, mono-ethnic federalization would likely promote seclusion and impede exchange, articulation and integration by erecting invidious and eminently inflammable political, economic and cultural structures. All kinds of inter-province as well as center-province transactions may well be subjected to rabble-rousing and illegitimate rent-seeking. These processes will inevitably add to the cost of production, circulation, investment and labor migration.
Even after the medium term, and after the ‘ethnic angle’ cools down—if it does at all—entrenched ethnic interests may not allow ‘normal’ business interests to prevail. Some provinces may experience grievous outflow of capital and skilled workers. Processes of singular ethnification will inevitably be accompanied by inter-ethnic bad blood, conflict and violence. Because a large proportion of ‘ethnics’ would live outside the proposed ‘ethnic provinces,’ inter-ethnic violence may spill over a province and overtake the country as a whole.
It is surprising that the business interests of Nepal have remained silent about the risks of mono-ethnic federalization. The call by the FNCCI that Nepal should remain a ‘single, integrated market’ is not adequate. Business interests must identify the perils that mono-ethnic federalization poses to the chances of a ‘single, integrated market’. They must elaborate business-friendly federalization strategies and work with political groups to achieve the same.
Essentialism vs equality
We must analyze whether the turn to mono-ethnic federalization, and one that is based on the criteria of ethnicity—the one placed first in the report of the ‘state restructuring committee’–constitutes a search for equality or one for separateness. An irreconcilable claim to the latter will, of course, inevitably be based on the invalid and dangerous idea of essentialism, i.e. that there are innate and fixed differences between ethnic groups. On the other hand, the search for equality is not only valid but must form the bulwark of a democratic state.
Ascribed inequalities, including inter-ethnic inequalities, are widespread and deep. Removing ascribed inequalities, in particular those based on caste and ethnicity, is germane to equal democratic citizenship. The dominance of the Nepali language and the squeezing out of other languages in schools, work places, and government establishments have served as serious barriers to many who do not speak Nepali at home. Rules of entry into the scarce and coveted government jobs are systemically rigged in favor of those who write and speak Nepali well.
In contrast, skill in languages other than Nepali gives no advantage to a potential entrant. A level playing field would not only reward the deserving but also send a message that languages and linguistic diversity are a common heritage. Cultural features traditionally associated with particular ethnic, caste and other groups can be internalized or at least honored by the rest. The turn to secularism as far as religion is concerned has been a great liberating experience, and must inform how we treat our diverse languages and cultures.
Valorizing diversity by ‘de-hierarchizing’ it lies at the heart of both of democratization and the non-monoethnic agenda. The problem arises when, (a) diversity is not merely seen to be many, different and equally worthy positioning but unequal positioning and, (b) when diversity is elevated to the level of essentialist difference, as singular, innate, fixed, and unchanging. The call for federalization along mono-ethnic lines is, of course, essentially a claim that ‘different peoples’ should live apart from one another.
Addressing inequality also implies addressing class-related inequality. There are severe to moderate class and poverty-related inequalities within all identity of Nepal. The current political discourse has a class-less and ethnically pervading taste, which is unpalatable from the point of view of democracy as well as national integration. This new ‘class-lessness’ also carries a distinct odor of the political right, of unwarranted nationalist postures, and of raw ethnicist tendencies.
The author is a Professor of Sociology at Tribhuvan University. This article is a condensed version of a paper presented at a gathering on “Federalism for Democracy and Economic Growth” at the Engineering Institute on June 16, 2012.Please read the online edition of this article for the complete paper with the additional section titled ‘Bases for Integration’