Elite finds it difficult to let go uni-culturalism: Report
KATHMANDU, Aug 21: Though the still-powerful Bahun/Chhetri elites have accepted substantive equality and individual human rights for all Nepali citizens as fundamental principles of the new state, not all of the traditional elite agree that multi-culturalism and group rights are necessary underpinnings of the emerging constitution, an unpublished donor report says.
“Many are still most at home with majoritarian and highly centralised forms of governance and they find it difficult to leave behind the notion of the homogenous nation-state and the belief that ´national unity´ requires the assimilation of diversity,” the report says.
“This is where their push back against the on-going restructuring process has been most openly expressed.”
The report titled “Forging Equal Citizenship in a Multicultural Nepal” which was completed in September last year still remains a ´draft´ due to the pressure from ´hill elites´. The UK Department of International Development (DfID) that prepared the report, however, has said that the report is yet to be finalized.
The ´draft´ report basically unravels how Bahuns and Chhetris have dominated in the state affairs creating a uni-cultural society and explains in detail the present status of five excluded groups - women, Dalit, Janajati, Madhesi and Muslim.
The report is the summary version of Gender and Social Exclusion Assessment (GSEA) that DfID produced through a joint World Bank/DfID Trust Fund and through DfID´s Enabling State Program (ESP). The Asian Development Bank provided further support to the project.
The said report has also questioned the ongoing debate on federalism.
Although there has been much discussion and debate about federalism and the various forms it could take in Nepal, there has not been enough open discussion about what underlies the Madhesi and Janajati demand for federalism and why certain proposals for federal units based on various ´rational´ economic and geographic characteristics and organised north to south (much like the old development zones) are unacceptable to the Madhesis and Janajatis, it is stated in the report.
Stating that the expectations following the People´s Movement II of April 2006 were for a peace dividend with the end of the Maoist conflict and also for the radical reconfiguring of the state, it says the Interim Constitution fell short in terms of accommodating diversity - as became clear with the uprising in the Tarai just days after it was adopted in January 2007.
“When the Interim Constitution did not clearly specify that the new state would be structured along federal lines, the Madhesis and Janajatis became suspicious that their demand for autonomous provinces would be ignored,” it is stated in the report prepared by Lynn Bennett, Bandita Sijapati and Deepak Thapa, on behalf of Social Science Baha.
Analysing the goings-on after the Constituent Assembly election and the constitution-making process thereafter, the report clearly states that the voices of the marginalised were not heard. “Here, it is recognised that the state must not only meet basic needs and reduce the economic disparities of different ´groups or castes´, but must also recognise differences between them and respect ´their dignity and their own culture´.”
“For these long-sidelined groups, federalism is about identity assertion and some degree of self-determination,” it is stated in the report. “It is a demand for a multicultural rather than a uni-cultural state.”
The past few years have been a time of minority identity assertion in Nepal, the report further says. “To the grievances of women, Dalits and Janajatis, which the first GSEA helped to articulate, those of the powerful Madhesi movement, the Muslims and more recently, other religious minorities like the Christians and Kirats have also been added.”
All these groups have made demands on the state for different combinations of protection and recognition, special measures and equal opportunity, and for a greater share of political power in the center - and in some cases, a degree of autonomy from the center, the report adds.
While mentioning that two of the excluded groups - women and Dalits who have faced the deepest discrimination - just want the protection of their basic freedoms and the guarantee of equal human rights in the new state structure along with proportionate representation and affirmative action, the report highlights that for other groups like Madhesi, Janajati and Muslims, a constitution that guarantees substantive equality is not enough even as a starting point.
“In addition to individual human rights, they want recognition of their distinct identities and their collective rights,” it says. “Both of these groups mobilized over the last five years to force the state to grant this recognition.”
Janajatis, Madhesis and Muslims all want space to express and realize their own worldviews and values that differ from those of the long dominant Bahuns and Chhetris, the report further says. “All three groups seek some degree of “autonomy” as they want a new king of “substantive equality” that includes greater ability to influence the rules of the game by which they will be governed.”
“For Muslims - or at least some part of Nepal´s Muslim community, including many women - autonomy means primarily the right to follow Sharia personal law.
“For Janajatis and Madhesis “autonomy” refers to local self-rule or “self-determination” under a federal system. Both want to be able to use their own language in local schools and in the provincial/state level governments - and for Janajatis especially there is the idea that the institutions of local government should reflect their own traditional forms of governance and that they should have greater control over the use and protection of natural resources in their areas.
“However, it is important to highlight here, that the very pluralism which makes it possible for different identity groups to seek to shape their institutions in their own ways must be limited by an overarching set of protections of the rights of other groups who want to live under other kinds of institutions.
“The challenge for Nepal now is to find a way to accommodate the demands of those groups seeking some degree of self-determination and autonomy within the framework of an emerging multicultural Nepali state while also protecting the basic freedoms and human rights of all groups - including women, Dalits, as well as Muslims and smaller Janajati groups who will end up being “minorities within minorities” in provinces dominated by other groups.
“Any lasting political settlement must also accommodate the traditionally dominant Hill Bahun/Chhetris who still wield decisive power.”