In a series of five articles written by our former diplomat, Kul Chandra Gautam, the last one was titled “My Preferred Model.” But the preferred model had no map. It sounded more like advocacy for a non-federal state, where everyone is kind to each other and treats each other as equals—as in a dreamland.
The problem with those arguing against ethnic federalism is that they rarely produce a map. Recall that UML, NC and RPP who strongly oppose ethnic federalism never produced a map before running for CA election. They produced instead a long list of considerations they would take into account before federating, which in essence meant nothing. If their intention was to confuse the public, they succeeded. But if their aim was to offer a clear alternative, they failed miserably. One can only hope that this time around UML, NC and RPP will unite and produce a map.
It is not hard to see who is for ethnic federalism, and who is against it. In general, Brahmin-Chettris oppose the ethnic model, the rest support it. This division is just as one would expect. The toughest opposition for this has come from the Brahmin-Chettri Samaj. They know very well that ethnic federalism means their political power will start eroding irreversibly until it reaches equilibrium. And the equilibrium will inevitably be well below what it is now. Madhesis and Janajatis prefer this model precisely for the same reason. They want to level the playing field—they want some of the power handed to them, soon. They want some place in the country where they can call the shots. For the last two centuries, the Brahmin-Chettris have done so for the entire country and Madhesis and Janajatis have felt neglected.
There is nothing wrong about Brahmin-Chettris running the country with disproportionate power per se. The only problem is that they don’t understand the problems that Madhesis and Janajatis face. Since they represent only 30 percent of population while Madhesis and Janjatis represent more than 50 percent, we have a situation where the leadership isn’t working on behalf of the majority. By design, such a set-up is a recipe for political instability.
True, one could argue there is no need for ethnic federalism because things are going to be different now: Madhesis and Janajatis will be given access to power. But Madhesis and Janajatis worry that this power will be only on paper. Because the group implementing this will largely be Brahmin-Chettris, they believe the changes will never get implemented. Even if they do, the process will be painfully slow. Take for example the case of recruiting Madhesis in the army. The government passed a resolution to recruit 3,000 Madhesis; but the effort is trapped in a quagmire.
Because the interest to deny them equal opportunity is deeply-rooted and entrenched, it is hard to give real power to Madhesis and Janajatis. Therefore, it is totally unrealistic to expect Madhesis and Janajatis to believe the rhetoric that things will get better for them even if there is no ethnic federalism.
Madhesis and Janajatis fear that federal states may have the structure that preserves the hegemony of Brahmin-Chettri. They believe this is what NC, UML and RPP really want. They want states so that at least in some states they can control the law and order, the right to tax, and the right to permit opening of schools, colleges, hospitals and other small projects. Trying to caricature them as being overtly selfish and insinuating that they are being unpatriotic itself appears selfish.
The main argument in Gautam’s five-part article is that ethnic federalism will somehow hurt the betterment of society in terms of living standards, infant mortality, longevity, and sanitation. But it is never clear why ethnic federalism should hurt human development. In fact, benefits are likely to be higher. Ethnic federalism will create political stability which will lay the foundation for future prosperity.
Another benefit of ethnic federalism is that Madhesis and Janajatis will no longer have the Brahmin-Chettris to blame for their failures. They will have to focus and take a hard look at themselves. This will make way for other badly needed changes among Madhesis. For example, the problems related to caste chauvinism and women’s rights.
Regardless, the ultimate model should be decided with two things in mind: first, what the majority want; and second, if the model satisfies a sufficient number of the minority. We do not want a model where about 30 percent of the population is not heard. There will have to be some compromise.
Ethnic-based federalism is not perfect. It has its share of problems. But it is the best of the options on the table. If UML, NC and RPP have a better vision, they should put a map on paper and offer a clear choice to voters. Let us see what the majority wants. Second, whichever model gets approved, the majority needs to make some room to adjust the opposing forces. If ethnic federalism prevails, this means that Madhesis and Janajatis address the concerns of the Brahmin-Chhettri Samaj. For example, perhaps compromises on having neutral names; and having at least one state where there is a clear majority of Brahmin–Chhettri.