Tibet is an integral part of China. This is the prime factor that determines China’s Nepal policy and its relations with international communities residing in and operating from Nepal. While restructuring the Nepali state along federal lines, Nepal should honor China’s sensitivity to Tibet as much as the country respects India’s security interest in the Himalayas. Irrespective of the nature of Nepali state—whether unitary or federal—its basic foreign policy will remain unchanged with respect to its strategic interest in both China and India.
Perhaps we have not conveyed this properly, so China has legitimately expressed its concerns about Nepal’s federal design. In fact, the Constituent Assembly (CA) expired without producing the new constitution because major parties failed to compromise on the nature of Nepal’s federal design. But some suspect the role of external actors in the CA’s failure. China’s concern on federal Nepal is, I assume, exaggerated with an ill intent of placing it in the camp that opposes identity-based federalism, a model pushed forward by a clear majority of the dissolved CA.
Regarding the federal design for Nepal, China has reportedly shown its concern about two aspects—one, against bideshi chalkhel (external maneuverability) and two, against ethnic federalism. China’s reservation on perceived ethnic federalism in Nepal may be a reaction against an ugly situation that surfaced on the eve of the expiry of the CA due to ethnic mobilization by all the three major contesting social groups (Khas-Arya, Janajati and Madheshi) of Nepal. China’s own internal problem—manifestation of violent ethnic discontent in Xinji and limitation of territorial and developmental approach of national integration of China vis-à-vis Tibet—also makes it sensitive to ‘ethnicization’ of politics in a neighboring country.
China’s concerns on ethnic tension in Nepal is genuine but it seems Chinese diplomats working in Nepal are influenced by those trying to defame identity-based federalism, giving it a tag of ethnic federalism. This is not unnatural since Chinese diplomacy has traditionally relied more on its formal relations with the establishment. Otherwise, the idea of ethnic federalism lay only in the imagination of some radical ethnic activists, in slogans of public demonstration, and paintings on the walls but not in the contents suggested by the State Restructuring Committee of the CA and State Restructuring Commission. To be an ethnic federal state, one should have, at least, four ingredients—constitution of federal units solely on ethnic basis; preferential rights to ‘sons of the soil’ in provincial politics, administration and natural resources; decentralized federalism with autonomy and rights to self-determination; and ethnicity-based representation in composition of central executive, legislative and judiciary.
Both the Committee and Commission only recommended that identity (ethnic, linguistic, regional and cultural) be given greater weight than capability in creation of provinces (in their naming and territorial demarcation). The logic behind why identity gets prominence can be found in how the idea of federalism was introduced in Nepal. It is a byproduct of the January 2007 Madhes uprising. Prior to that, there was ethnicization of the Maoist insurgency and escalation of Janajati movements. Both the Madhes and Janajati movements are aimed at ending inequality among social groups in distribution of state powers. Their quest for federal system is in conformity with resetting the national goal post-Jana Andolan II, which is inclusive democracy. This is acknowledged by the Interim Constitution of 2007.
The purpose of transforming Nepal into a federal state is, as outlined in Interim Constitution, to end discrimination based on caste/ethnicity, language, culture, religion, region and others (gender and class). The contents of inclusive federalism are well placed, including names of some provinces in the making, in several agreements made post-Jana Andoaln II between the government/political parties and the concerned stakeholders. A federal Nepal is an entirely home-grown agenda. Then what could external maneuverability mean?
China’s concern about ‘externality’ in Nepal’s federal agenda insinuates the role of India and the West. It seems that India is more concerned about who should be in the government than the form of federalism in Nepal. The accusation against a staff of India’s Consulate General Office in Birgunj of provoking people with the slogan of ‘one Madhes, one Pradesh’—which was denied publicly by the concerned authority—is the sole exception. Otherwise, both India and China are consciously keeping themselves away from the federal discourse in Nepal. This is because the Nepali society and its politics are polarized between those favoring ethnic/regional identity based federalism and those opposing it.
Both China and India seem aware of the limitations and consequences of neighboring countries getting involved in such a sensitive internal affair of Nepal. Other members of the international community have their own projects to assist constituting drafting in Nepal; and supporting federalism is part of that. Post-Maoist insurgency, their approach of conflict transformation is closely tied up with an agenda of addressing the problems of exclusion in Nepal, for which the government of Nepal consented in several bilateral and multilateral agreements with donors. This has obviously helped boost the morale of the excluded groups seeking political space in a federal set up. It has repercussions on the interests of the traditionally dominant group.
Hence, some parties suffering from caste/ethnic based internal polarization have dragged the international communities, some European countries in particular, for insertion of ethnic content in Nepal’s federal proposal. To my knowledge, support for federalism in Nepal by international communities is largely confined to providing comparative knowledge and experiences of federal countries and supporting internal discourse on this new system. The contents of federal Nepal have largely evolved through internal dialogues and are partly set by native experts.
China’s concerns over federal Nepal are often exaggerated with an ill intent of placing it in the camp that opposes identity-based federalism.
Does the international community’s sympathy and support to a federal Nepal with its inclusive ingredients have implications on China’s strategic interest in Tibet? Occasionally, some Western personalities holding public posts, during their visits to Kathmandu, have expressed their individual support for ‘Free Tibet’. But Nepal has no role to play vis-à-vis Dalai Lama in India and the Tibetan exile government. What it can do is keep itself away from a joint strategy of the West and India to encircle China; and to regulate Tibetan refugees settling in the country. In fact, in the aftermath of the suppression of the Khampa insurgency in the 1970s and in the post-cold war period, ‘Free Tibet’ activities surfaced occasionally in Kathmandu only for demonstrative value. Nepal under its unitary character and centralized power structure has always been resisting ‘Free Tibet’ activities.
But does federal Nepal, which allows for multiple power centers in a country, contribute to China’s greater interest on Tibet vis-à-vis Nepal? The politics of many provinces in hills and mountains (bordering China) will perhaps be dominated by Janajatis, i.e. Limbu, Rai, Tamang, Gurung, Magar, etc. Despite the fact that these groups have traditional links with India and Britain due to Gorkha recruitment system and mountaineering business, hill nationalism has never been anti-China. It is different from Madhesi regionalism. But if the proposed federal Nepal fails to address the Janajati’s aspiration of identity, access and representation, it may breed an ethnic conflict in the hills and mountains, which may jeopardize China’s Tibet interest in Nepal. Unlike India and the Western countries which balance their relation with both state and non-state actors, China has long relied on its formal relations with the establishment. China’s Tibet interest in Nepal will be better served if it adapts its foreign policy to the changing dynamics of Nepali politics