Nearly six years into the peace and constitution processes the country has made significant achievements. The first of the two projects is nearly done and dusted with and the second is only a matter of agreement on a handful of (albeit contentious) issues.
If only wishes were horses. Six years on, top political leadership and opinion-makers are still unable to decide if a tenable agreement can be worked out on army integration before May end, and more worryingly, if the country should go federal at all.
Hang on. Isn’t the country already a federal republic? Or so we thought. As the deadline for the final extension of the Constituent Assembly closes in, more and more doubts are being expressed in the media on whether federalism is really applicable to Nepal.
Right through the last six years, among the most common gripes of the anti-federalists have been, a) Federalism is economically unviable; b) It could lead to possible disintegration of the country; and c) The heretofore marginalized groups can still be best served by a unitary state.
One doesn’t have to think too hard to see the vacuity of the viability argument. Traditionally, the Nepali state has always been an unviable entity for the majority of people. The only people who found it viable comprised of a tiny fraction that milked the state for their partisan benefits—resulting in widespread socio-economic disparities and marked class and caste divides.
The second reservation of the anti-federalism forces is with the likely disintegration of the country under a federal model. Yes, as I argued in my last write up (State of the Union, Feb 23), such a possibility cannot be completely ruled out. But again, this cannot be an argument for the retention of the current unitary state model. If the central agenda of disadvantaged communities (i.e. federalism with a degree of autonomy over local resources and governance) is to be brushed aside, it is by no means certain that the traditional unitary model can keep the country together, especially in the absence of its central symbol in the monarchy. If anything, if the dominant political class somehow colludes to merely tweaking the old unitary model instead of undertaking state restructuring in true spirit of federalism, the possibility of instability and likely disintegration will considerably increase.
The third argument that Madhesis, Dalits, Janajatis and other marginalized communities would still be best served under the old unitary dispensation (that the problem with it was not its exclusionary character but lack of devolution) rings equally hollow. Unsurprisingly, it is the traditional ruling classes that have resorted to this line of thought. Try convincing that to a Tharu in Dang forced into hard labor in perpetuity or a Madhesi in Birgunj demoted to second class status on the basis of his name and skin color.
Again unsurprisingly, it is the traditionally ‘ruled’ who have been the strongest advocates of federalism with the right to self-determination.
Not that there is any reasonable chance of reverting to the old scheme of things. But it also doesn’t look like the traditional agents of discrimination are giving up their fight anytime soon. A huge chunk of Nepali Congress continues to believe federalism is a misguided agenda. If Sher Bahadur Deuba had his way “the 75 districts can easily be converted into 75
UML leaders in their recent mass gathering at the Open Air theatre were competing against one another in trying to prove, on the strength of their capacious vocal cord, that “all Madhesi leaders are corrupt” and in league with the Maoists are ‘scheming’ to rend the country apart.
The corrupt-Madhesi leadership argument not only defies simple logic—apparently, since some birds are black, all birds must be black—it is also grossly unfair on the Madhesi political class. Most ministers in Nepal have always been corrupt: at this point, many ministers belonging to the Madhesi community are corrupt no doubt, but not because they are Madhesis but because they are ministers.
In the case of Tarai in particular, noted commentators from the Madhesi community have been time and again warning that a revolution has been silently brewing in Madhesh. They warn that if the center continues to turn a blind eye to the genuine demands of Madhesh—most importantly a guarantee of their political and socio-economic rights—the whole region might once again erupt in revolt. But the ‘mainstream’ political leadership, after six futile years of dirty power plays, still refuses to see the logic behind the demand for federalism, leave alone contemplate substantive state restructuring to safeguard the rights of all peoples.
Their fear that some of their traditional privileges might be in threat under the new dispensation is genuine. But how could it be otherwise? For the marginalized communities to gain some rights, it is imperative that the traditional power centers forgo some of their old privileges.
Besides, the argument of loss of all powers is often overdone. Most marginalized communities are not asking that they be granted quotas and first right over local resources and governance in perpetuity. Their demands are rather centered on fixed-term quotas and reservations. Again, the votaries of unitary state might argue that it’s impossible to divide the spoils among over 100 ethnic communities in the country.
Indeed. The task might be difficult. But shouldn’t it be for these communities to decide on their shares? It’s presumptuous of those who in the past made decisions on their behalf to argue that the prerogative be continued in New Nepal. The same logic applies to the devolution argument. If the disadvantaged groups believe the problem was not lack of devolution but the reluctance of the privileged class to devolve power and resources, they are perfectly entitled to that belief. And it is the state’s obligation to honor it. For as a Nepali saying goes, only the chopping block understands the agony of the khukuri.
At a time the country is crying out for radical transformation, invoking the Mahendra-era nationalism that privileges a handful of groups against all others is revisionism, plain and simple.
It is not federalization of the state according to the demands of the marginalized communities that poses the biggest danger to Nepal’s integrity. It’s the shortsightedness of the privileged class that is unable to see beyond its narrow gains.