In five short years (2006-2011), Nepal ended a decade long armed conflict, discarded a feudal monarchy, converted from a Hindu kingdom to a secular state, created a new Constituent Assembly and declared itself a democratic republic with a potential federal future. When Nepal made this transition, euphoria swept the nation. However, as this transition period failed to deliver greater opportunities and much needed change in politics, disillusionment and antipathy towards the state began to grow. Two issues dominated this transition period - completion of the peace process and drafting of the constitution. It was noted that the peace process, particularly ‘integration of Maoist Combatants’, dominated the early years, which marginalized the constitutional debate to large extent. This write up, however, focuses on the constitution writing process, particularly the federalism debate.
Nepal has declared itself a federal democratic republic, but is yet to formalize this in practice. And with the dissolution of the CA in May 2012, the institutionalization of the federal democratic republic status is now clouded with uncertainty. There was a heated debate regarding the type of federal structure to be adopted, which many argue ultimately led to the dissolution of the CA without delivering its mandate. The state restructuring committee under the CA had proposed a 14-state model, and hence was rejected by two major political parties - the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML.
Major political parties later formed the state restructuring commission. Although it was created by sending representatives of major political parties, the commission could not reach a unanimous decision on the type of federal model and two models were proposed - the 11-state model and the 6-state model. The debate centered on whether a structure that embodies ‘identity’ is better or one that is based on regional ‘competence’. Maoists, Madhesis and many Janjati leaders from various political parties were in favour of identity-based states, while Congress, CPN-UML and others have been arguing for capability as a viable means for Nepal. They argue that the ethnic model is not viable for Nepal at many levels. There are some issues within the ethnicity-based model which can indeed instigate this fear.
One, in a multi-ethnic community like Nepal, no single group dominates a particular geographic region and hence, granting ‘right to primacy’ within a state to an ethnic group, with ‘right to self-determination’ could sow the seeds of disintegration. Hence, an ethnic state where an ‘ethnic group whose members actually form a minority within the population’ could be a recipe for conflict. The right to self-determination could further lead to secessionist movements, if the central government does not pay adequate attention to state concerns.
Two, there is a disagreement about the ‘number of units and their boundaries’ to be formed in the new federal structure. There are no agreements on what would be the basis for the division of state boundaries, whether historical homelands of different ethnic groups could be a basis or actual present day pattern of settlement’ should be the foundation. There are a lot of contradictions within the issue of deciding state boundaries and can give rise to conflicts on several counts, for instance, division of natural resources.
Hence, there are indeed some contentious issues which require clarification, if we are to develop a viable model for Nepal’s federal structure. First, there are more than 106 different castes/ethnic groups residing in Nepal. If the idea of carving out states on the basis of single ethnic identity as currently envisioned (which is primarily based on demands of 10-11 affluent ethnic groups) is adopted, on what basis can we prevent the remaining ethnic groups from demanding their own single ethnic identity-based state? This will set a dangerous precedent. It is not feasible from the perspective of economic viability and security as well as overall integration of Nepal.
Further, there is no clear definition of ‘Jatiya’ and ‘Jatiya Rajya’. Do caste and ethnicity together comprise a ‘Jatiya’? The 2011 census of Nepal, while defining ‘Jatiya’, incorporates caste and ethnicity together. In that case, what will happen to the majority group in Nepal - the ‘Bahun/Chettri’, a caste group, which together comprises more than 34 percent of the total population? What will be their fate, if they too are not provided with a separate state? These are serious question to be answered and before federating, a proper clarification on ‘Jatiya’ and its implication for Nepal’s integration should be understood, if we do not want to sow the seeds for a fresh conflict.
Second, Maoists who fought the decade long war on the basis of providing ethnic autonomy would find it hard to not stand firm on their agenda. Their stance against ethnic federalism would make them lose their mass base and could jeopardize their political legitimacy. It could be argued that the Maoist stance of not giving up on single ethnicity-based federalism and their argument that they fought for rights of ethnic groups is in tune with their position. On the other hand, Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and pro-royalist parties fear that ethnic federalism would mean that they would lose their political ground as the regional parties and other ethnic groups will start dominating the national political scene and thus, marginalizing them. However, for Congress and CPN-UML, resistance to change is more to do with fear that single ethnic identity can lead to disintegration rather than undermining any attempt to change Nepal’s power structures. This tussle will continue for some time in future and will have an implication on deciding Nepal’s federal model.
It is imperative that if the nation decides in favor of a certain framework of federalism, everybody comes on board with clear vision.
Finally, international players like India, China, and the European Union also have their say in the type of federal model Nepal should adopt. India favours ethnic federalism more, especially for forming a Madhes province. This will help address majority of its security concerns in Nepal. China has now realized how ethnic federalism is going to impact the ‘free Tibet’ movement. It sees a dangerous game played by some international actors in Nepal’s transition. The European Union is in favour of empowering marginalized ethnic groups in Nepal and believes that ethnic federalism is one aspect of that. However, they need to understand that this is not the only viable mean. This regional and international influence will further undermine Nepal’s ability for state restructuring.
Therefore, it is imperative that if the nation decides in favor of a certain framework of federalism, then everybody comes on board with a clear vision. An independent study should be conducted through an academic institution or university to understand the views of the general public, working class, youth, political parties etc on the federalism model in Nepal. Again, this should be based on proper scientific and academic research rather than the interests of certain individuals, or by forming some experienced commission that would help us understand what could be the most viable model for federalism in Nepal.
The author is a researcher on security sector reform at Kathmandu School of Law. He has a Masters degree in Asian studies from Australian National University