Nepal: Identity Politics and Federalism
Asia Report N°199
13 Jan 2011
Federal restructuring of the state has emerged as a major demand of ethnic and regional activists in Nepal. The debate about it is extremely politicised. Federalism is not simply the decentralisation of political power; it has become a powerful symbol for a wider agenda of inclusion, which encompasses other institutional reforms to guarantee ethnic proportional representation and a redefinition of Nepali nationalism to recognise the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity.
Activists demand the introduction of reservations to guarantee proportional representation of marginalised groups in government and administration. They want provinces to be named after the most numerous ethnic and regional groups and boundaries drawn to make them dominant minorities. Some claim to be indigenous to these regions and demand preferential rights to natural resources and agradhikar – priority entitlement to political leadership positions in the future provinces.
Ethnic and regional demands were important parts of the Maoist agenda during the civil war; in eastern Nepal, much of their support depended on it. State restructuring became a central component of the 2006 peace deal. After violent protests in the Tarai in 2007, federalism was included in the interim constitution as a binding principle for the Constituent Assembly.
But of the three major parties, the Maoists are the only one to give full-throated support to federalism and the establishment of ethnic provinces. Identity politics may sit uneasily with their class-based ideological framework but federalism is of great importance for them. Now that the former Hindu kingdom is a secular republic, it is the most important point left on their short-term transformative agenda. Much grassroots support, the loyalty of ethnic and regionalist activists within the party and their wider credibility as a force for change depend on them following through.
Both the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), UML, have accepted federal restructuring. They have actively participated in drafting a federal model in the Constituent Assembly. There is agreement on most institutional arrangements including the division of powers between provinces and centre. But this process has been driven by longstanding proponents of federalism within both parties, none of them very influential. It is unclear whether there is a wider consensus. Both parties have agreed to federalism in the spirit of bargaining; neither of them owns the agenda. Behind the official positions there is significant resistance to it.
Backtracking on federalism is politically impossible. Both the NC and UML are already struggling to retain cadres and leaders from minority backgrounds. But deferring crucial decisions, or stalling the constitutional process altogether, could be tempting for those opposed to change. The assumption that the Maoists have both the most to gain and the most to lose from the constitutional process could lend wider appeal to the idea.
The risks are hard to calculate. Ethnic and regionalist groups, already suspicious of the major parties’ commitment to federalism, threaten protests and ultimately violent resistance should it not come. Their eyes are on the 28 May 2011 deadline for the promulgation of the new constitution. Popular support is most widespread among Madhesis in the central and eastern Tarai and members of ethnic groups in the eastern hills. Many Madhesis are disillusioned with their leadership, but feel reforms are incomplete. The organisational landscape of ethnic activists in the eastern hills may be fragmented for now, but underneath lie strong personal and political networks. Activists are getting frustrated and the mood is becoming more militant. With an issue to rally around they are likely to coalesce; a politicised population would easily be mobilised for protest movements, should federalism not come.
Not all want federalism. Popular opposition to ethnic federalism in particular is substantial, by virtue of its association with identity politics. Many Brahmins and Chhetris, the dominant caste groups, fear they will lose out from the introduction of ethnic quotas and federal restructuring. But organised resistance is limited and fragmented. Open opposition only comes from a fringe of the political left which fears Nepal’s unity. Several Chhetri organisations are not against federalism itself but want to defend their group’s interests in the restructuring process. Pro-monarchy groups and the Hindu right are less concerned with federalism than with the republic and secularism. But given the common uneasiness with the redefinition of Nepali nationalism, a broader conservative alliance is a distinct possibility.
The structure emerging from the Constituent Assembly, federal but with a strong centre, offers a feasible compromise. If the NC overcomes its aversion to provinces named after ethnic and regional groups, the new constitution will offer important symbolic recognition of Nepal’s cultural diversity. In combination with the language rights and proportional representation in administration and government envisaged, this would go a long way towards meeting popular aspirations among ethnic and regional groups. The fact that the draft offers little scope for preferential rights beyond proportional representation as well as strong individual rights provisions should allay Brahmin and Chhetri fears of future discrimination. Not promulgating the constitution in time or deferring a decision on federalism, however, could spark serious unrest.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 13 January 2011