That ethnic groups in Nepal are fighting for their prominent identity in the upcoming federal structure is a remarkable political achievement. It signifies people’s power in a democratic system. The fight for identity-based federalism is so powerful that it has already protracted the framing of constitution by almost half a decade and who knows how much longer it will take.
There is clearly a large public appetite for a federal structure to ensure representation of plural interests. Increased representation of the socio-economically disadvantaged in federal and local governments can serve their interests through favorable policy actions. The supreme power in a democratic system rests with the adult franchise, with numerical majority theoretically determining the outcomes. As the politics of constitution deepens, one must question how sustainable the proposed single-identity structure will be far into the future.
There are 103 different recognized ethnic groups in Nepal and, according to the 2001 census data (2011 data is yet to be made available and there is no reason to believe this picture would have altered drastically over this decade), the largest ethnic group (Chhetris) represented less than 16 percent of the population. While no single caste/ethnicity can claim of having a majority, even their broader categories such as Brahmins and Chhetris, Janajatis, and Dalits do not garner a viable majority at the national stage. The single-identity structure is proposed so that groups with majorities at the state level could claim territorial control. It would empower them to mobilize local governance and exert unified influence at the national stage.
The bottom line is that state markers would have to be designed, allowing viable groups to maintain a majority at the state level. To evaluate this claim, one must look at the ethnic composition of the population. The natural starting point would be the districts. While one can go further down to the villages for this exercise, this federal structuring in Nepal is not a case to start from scratch, where there would be no pre-existing geographic/administrative markers. Districts are sufficiently small units in thinking about broader markers for state configuration. At the minimum, states would include a few districts, making districts the natural starting point.
Census data shows that single ethnic groups claim ‘simple majority’(at least 50 percent) in 14 districts, with five of these from the center, west, mid-west, and especially far-west regions enjoying over 60 percent majority. Only one (Manang) actually has a ‘super majority’ with over 2/3rd of the population. If we move to 15 sub-regions resembling something closer to states, only three sub-regions including west mountains, far-west mountains, and far-west hills yield simple majority to single groups, with no one getting anywhere close to a super majority.
This idea of majority count is an imperfect way of evaluating political processes and outcomes. Not everyone is eligible to vote, neither is voting mandatory. Population composition also changes especially in urban areas undermining any static evaluation. If anything, democratic politics requires a delicate balancing act, with competition, coalition, and compromises considered to be fair games to get things done. That political representation occurs along ethnic lines does not always hold as it undermines the historically documented relevance of class and other social cleavages depending on the combination of individual interests.
Despite this, however, using ethnic composition to evaluate and predict whether or not identify-based state structure can sustain for near and distant future is justified. For the near future, there appears to be no way for any ethnic group, especially in the east and center, to enjoy absolute majority, a condition necessary but not sufficient to sustain control of single-ethnic states. While coalitions can form among ethnic groups to maximize the probability of dominating politics, the absolute opposite can also happen. Any loose coalition among various ethnic groups under one banner (say Janjatis) can easily breakdown once the structure is finalized for it can never fully weave fragmented identities and interests together.
The framers of the constitution must fully examine the claim that state structuring around single-identities is not only unsustainable but more importantly undesirable in a multi-ethnic country like Nepal. No single group can enjoy a stable, super majority granting the right to have single-identity states based on current population. The assumption that some groups currently enjoy a simple majority is too fragile to hold into the future. Such move can easily exclude minorities from their rights and privileges as citizens in a 21st century democracy. This can further instigate ethnic conflicts and rivalries not only within states but even at the national level as political agendas can be formed along ethnic and other identify lines. Most important of all, this would not address the existing sociopolitical grievances of historically discriminated and excluded ethnic groups—especially Dalits and Muslims—and women.
The claim that state restructuring around single-identities is undesirable in a multi-ethnic country should be re-examined.
In fact, addressing these grievances would require increasing their substantive representation in politics, administration, and public decision-making through socioeconomic empowerment. Proportional representation with quotas can serve as short-term measures with comprehensive education needed far into the future. Aggressive social policies are essential to improve the condition of these groups, preparing them to compete in today’s global society. Granting powers to certain leaders of ethnic politics cannot fully undo the disadvantages their illiterate and marginalized members experience due to both inter- and intra-group inequalities.
Advocates of a single-identity structure point to some other federal systems in which certain ethnic groups enjoy a viable majority to maintain their control of state politics. While critics charge that homogenization of states can be a recipe for “tyranny of the majority,” the idiosyncratic context of Nepal with almost no single group enjoying a viable majority and no history of purely ethnic violence suggests that single-identity states may not endure over the long term.
The author teaches public policy at Western Michigan University, US