During a recess after the inaugural panel discussions of the Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal and the Himalaya, a mild-mannered Dalit activist was heard asking some fellow participants in a low voice, “Why do even renowned scholars of Nepal get so worked up the moment they hear the federalism word being pronounced?” The intelligentsia of the Permanent Establishment, which bravely shoulders the responsibility of manufacturing apologia for the status quo, gets equally irritated with terms like empowerment, identity, secularism and inclusion. However, it’s the ‘F’ word that really gets their goat.
Intellectuals of Nepal have rarely been ahead of political activists in anticipating people’s aspirations or designing innovative solutions for social transformation. In his memoirs, BP Koirala recounts his irritation with the literati of Kathmandu who preferred to raise inane objections over printer’s mark on party receipts—the right-facing Hindu swastika evoking Shakti that can be confused with the Nazi symbol—rather than discussing issues of democratic struggles.
After the overthrow of Ranas, a lot of intellectual energy was spent throughout the 1950s in depicting Nepali Congress as a destabilizing force. The critical mood of the literati didn’t change even after BP emerged as the unquestioned leader of a party with two-third majority in the first elected parliament of the country. When the royal-military coup imprisoned the premier, dissolved the parliament, proscribed political parties, and suspended the constitution, the intelligentsia went into a long hibernation.
Mahendra succeeded in enlisting the support of the best and brightest minds of the land as well as from diasporic Nepali community for the authoritarian regime that he put in place. One of the main responsibilities of the intellectual vanguard of Panchayat was to manufacture consent against ‘nefarious’ designs of certain neighboring country and its supposed agents—the NC. A cleansing campaign mimicking Cultural Revolution of China rid the regime of all elements portrayed as inimical to the ‘national interest’. The NC, a party wedded to the idea of strengthening nationality, democracy and socialism through parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, was declared to be ‘anti-national element’ preaching ‘treason’.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, an unholy alliance between Marxists-Leninists and right-wing nationalists—the so-called MaLe-Mandale intelligentsia—continued to spread fears of ‘Sikkimization’ to undermine aspirations for democratic rule. The fact that Sikkim had already been a tiny Indian protectorate where an overwhelming majority had opted for merger with its democratic protector through the mandate of a free, fair and popular plebiscite rather than remain serfs of an alienated, absolute and theocratic lord of the fiefdom was completely ignored. Cultivating fears of ‘expansionist’ India and ‘imperialist’ West has been the mainstay of ‘nationalist’ politics of leftist extremism and resurgent rightists ever since.
In the years preceding Popular Movement of 1990, parliamentary democracy was depicted as a process that would undermine the sovereignty of the country. After the promulgation of constitution of 1990, secularism and cultural pluralism became the intellectual bugbear. If democrats have been ‘anti-nationals’ earlier, now it was the turn of activists of language rights or religious freedom to be named so as NC stalwarts were subsumed into “one language, one dress, and one religion” faith of the MaLe-Mandale Mainstream (3M).
In retrospect, the claim of the ousted king that the political change of 2006 has retained some space for a ceremonial chief to perform religious and cultural duties does not appear completely out of place. The Madhesh Uprisings of 2006-007, however, made monarchy redundant: Multicultural societies have no place for exclusionary icons from a contested past such as princes, priests or preceptors. The Madhesh Uprising—and Janajati Movements that followed—transformed the Rhododendron Revolution of 2006 into Rainbow Freedom during Constituent Assembly elections. In the fitness of things, the CA declared Nepal to be a federal democratic republic at its first formal sitting.
Various Madhesi leaders are cited to claim only ‘Creamy Layer’ would benefit from federalization. There can be only one answer to this: Please look into the mirror!
Democratic processes are extremely susceptible to manipulations. That could be the reason the elite seldom fears a unified electorate. Controlling a republic through skillful use of money, media and the militia of multinational corporations—the so-called Banana Republic syndrome—is also an established practice in developing countries. Federalism, however, raises the cost of ‘state capture’ multiple times. That could be the main reason the 3M-intelligentsia fears federalism so much.
One doesn’t have to be a political scientist to recognize that the very idea of federalization of the state is being attacked whenever allusions to ‘ethnic federalism’ are being made in informed circles of Kathmandu society. By its very definition, federalism is a political arrangement that recognizes both self-rule and shared-rule. The idea of self-rule incorporates recognition of multiple identities—they could be ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, regional or even solidarities built between oppressed groups—that deserve to be masters of their own destiny. Shared-rule ensures that dignified and broadly acceptable terms are laid in the constitution for coexistence between multiplicities of self-defined identity groups under one flag within the boundaries of a common state-nation.
Even in practical terms, neither the report of the CA committee accepts mono-ethnic states nor the majority report of the state-restructuring commission advises ethnically ‘pure’ provinces. On the contrary, the 3M-Consensus over 11-Province Model is decidedly mono-ethnic that is designed to ensure the continuation of Bahun-Chhetri dominance in the entire country.
The allegation that federalism is a ‘foreign idea’ is felicitous to the point of being laughable. So are democracy, socialism, communism, fascism, free-market fundamentalism and every political order other than tribalism, caste-ism, paternalism, nepotism, untouchability and religious fanaticism. The accusation that foreigners have been funding federalist demands is patently false. Diplomats from at least three influential countries—the British, the German and the Japanese; together the largest donor community of Nepal—have obliquely questioned the suitability of federalism in Nepal publicly in the past.
The Scandinavians have invested most of their intellectual and physical capital in strengthening local governments and human rights regime, a system that assists empowerment and supports decentralization but undercuts the logic of federalism by default. Traditional triumvirate of cultural elites from Bahun-Chhetri-Newar communities control almost the entire network of INGOs and NGOs that funnel donor funds supposedly for social change. It would be futile to expect them to be friendly towards federalism. Compared to the foreign funding appropriated by traditional NGO-industry, largely sympathetic towards 3M agenda, what entities like Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) get is a pittance. Perhaps a law modelled after a recent act of the Russian Federation, where NGOs receiving donor funding are required to register themselves as ‘foreign agents’, can help in publicising the allegiance of anti-federal forces in Nepal.
Keeping all the reins of power in their own hands, dictators can live in peace with decentralization. De-concentration is acceptable even to totalitarian regimes where outlying provinces become convenient postings for banishing talented and ambitious bureaucrats to the boondocks. The best that communists can accept is the idea of notionally self-administered provinces modelled after Tibet Autonomous Region where the noun is more pronounced—it’s a region of People’s Republic of China—than the adjective promising autonomy. Federalism however is quintessentially a democratic concept. Hence, the canard that federalism leads to fragmentation is motivated primarily by the fear that changes in the ground rules of obtaining popular mandate would make ‘state capture’ by a single ethnic or political group almost impossible.
THE POOR OTHER
Denigrating federalist forces has become a handy tool of ridiculing their aspirations. Questions are raised whether political leaders like Upendra Yadav or Mahanth Thakur that have failed to prevent fragmentation of their own parties are competent enough to handle complexities of federalism. The capability criterion—federalism is an expensive system that poor countries cannot afford—is used to question the very desirability of the federal system. Track record of politicos such as Bijay Gachhedar, Sharat Singh Bhandary and Hridayesh Tripathy is cited to claim that only ‘Creamy Layer’ would benefit from the federalization of the state-nation. There can be only one answer to all such allegations: Please look into the mirror!
The inevitability of federalism would perhaps be too complacent a conclusion about an issue still under multiple contestations. However, judging from the spasms of irrational fears that the term ‘federalism’ sparks, it appears that the cultural mainstream has begun to look for a respectable retreat than fight an idea whose time has come. Pro-federal forces need to use this opportunity to address justifiable concerns of the remnants of a unitary past.
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