Amidst the euphoria on some kind of consensus on federalism, we must not rush to meet the approaching deadline by making wrong decisions that, assuredly, will start unraveling soon after, with the ensuing risk of the country being pushed into unending and unwinnable skirmishes—highly charged with emotions but devoid of logic. I am talking of nothing less than the start of a running battle between (and among) the newly carved-out territories and states, to assert their autonomy, exclusiveness, and even independence from what would be a vacuumed out central administration.
For instance, even today while driving around the country, we often come across bamboo poles stretching across the road to block free movement of vehicles at road-crossings. No one knows who these gatekeepers are and whose writ they seek to impose. What is the basis of the charges they levy? And whom does the traveler turn to if they feel harassed?
The fact of the matter is that our lives are largely disconnected from what are our supposed citizenship rights—right to travel the country without harassment, intimidation and exhortation. Most of these collectors and their protectors are agents of local gangsters, warlords and common criminals. They are in cahoots with politicians and government officials who are often bribed to overlook such unauthorized and largely criminal operations.
Coming to the bamboo poles, they are no more than a public nuisance at the moment but such barriers to free travel are sure to increase if the country is divided into autonomous units. That would induce local authorities to use their new-found authority to distance themselves from central administration in all sorts of ways, starting with crossing state borders.
There is no evidence yet that framers of the constitution have laid out credible plans to guide interstate relations and outline the separation of powers between center and the states, with the drawing up of state boundaries being their primary and only concern. Arguably, the thinking is that division of rights and duties can be taken up in the second stage of evolution of federal structure, after the number of states and their boundaries have been worked out. However, in my view, this particular approach to federalism is faulty, full of uncertainties, and has the potential of sowing bitterness between and among jurisdictions.
Once the state boundaries are fixed, how would they regulate interstate traffic, raise revenue, carry out administrative tasks, manage public services, take up development work, and divide rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis government at the center? These issues are critical for the functioning of a federal system and drawing up of boundaries. In the absence of firm understanding of interstate and center-state relations, they are bound to cause frictions and multiply the likelihood of separation by individual states or group of states dissatisfied with policies pursued by the center.
If we are having so much trouble just fixing the number and boundaries of the states, imagine how much more trouble would there be while resolving more complex issues on federalism, like separation of powers between center and states and working out guidelines for interstate relations? These are the critical areas where much of the constitution-making efforts could have focused. That would have produced meaningful results, compared to the uncountable hours spent dueling on esoteric items like presidential versus parliamentary system and proportional versus direct representation.
The issues that impact day-to-day functioning of the republic needs to be viewed as central for a federation. Thus it would have made sense to sort out the details of center-state relationship before we committed to federalism. Unfortunately, vital discussion on federalism has focused almost entirely on separatism, with scant attention paid to keeping the elements of federation together.
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK
The recent outrage against federalism spearheaded by traditional ruling classes made up of Bahun-Chhetri groups is not so much of a backlash against the concept of federalism per se but against the effort to promote ethnic identity in a way that seem to undermine—even supersede—national identity. What then we see evolving is a race between and among states of finding ways and devising strategies to distance themselves from the center and avoid interactions that could be perceived as subordination to the center. Generally, prevalence of such antipathetic and antagonistic views of the center contributes to slow dissolution of the federation and creation of mini-states destined to become satellites of either of the large neighbors, if not being absorbed into them!
The other—and parallel—scenario that can develop with the formation of ethnic states is the treatment of non-ethnic residents, who would retain their majority status despite the ethnic naming of the states. This is because none of the ethnic states currently being talked about—Limbuwan, Tharuhat, Kirati, Newa, and others—has an ethnic majority except for the states in Madhes whose Madhesiness, however, is more of an outcome of geography than of commonly shared attributes that are different from the rest of Nepal.
What I read from the Bahun-Chhetri opposition to the idea of federation, especially if this be based on ethnic groupings, is that they wouldn’t have a state of their own which they can call homeland—similar to, for example, Limbuan and Tharuhat. There is a justifiable fear that non-ethnic groups in an ethnic-state-setup would likely end up being second-level citizens even though, on paper, they will have all the rights that come with citizenship. This scenario would mirror the current treatment of Madhesis in an overwhelmingly ethnic Nepal who, though technically Nepalis, are being made to feel like outsiders in their own country.