Op-Ed / Asia 5 minutes

Moment of truth

Federalism and Ethnicity

Many of the more alarmist scenarios involving federalism have seemed close in the past week. With each shutdown or violent incident, there is more talk of conspiracy and infiltration. People are quick to impute “ethnic” motivations to others. Some fears are reasonable and others exaggerated. For instance, some clashes described as “Newars” fighting with “Chhetris” or “Brahmins” with “Gurungs” can also be understood as bandha behaviour: someone calls a strike, someone defies it and is beaten up or has their vehicle burnt. But the willingness to see such incidents as primarily “ethnic” in nature is indicative of the present mood. 

It is a fraught moment. But it could also be productive. Although many are understandably sceptical about extending the Constituent Assembly (CA) for another three months past its May 27 deadline, the politicians need one final chance. The temptation to turn this extension into another fight over prime ministership and waste more time must be avoided at all costs. The parties must reach a new deal on federalism with some new faces at the negotiating table. The top leaders’ May 15 agreement, which replaced “identity- and capacity-based federalism” with “multi-ethnic federalism” has been definitively rejected by over half of the CA’s 596 members and by groups outside. Clause-by-clause voting on the statute and public consultation have been abandoned.

To preserve part of the democratic constitution writing process, existing proposals need more discussion. Final decisions should have a constitutional basis, namely the work of the CA’s various thematic committees and the State Restructuring Commission, and input from representatives sidelined until now. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and other leaders should speak directly to the nation with assurances that political wrangling will not overshadow public interest. 

Nepal’s political class has been haemorrhaging credibility. This is not because the new federal, democratic, inclusive republic is undesirable to most or because the CA no longer represents the people. The sharp rejection of the recent deal is, however, a sign that the rulers are losing touch. It is also a reminder that this is a democratic process. 

Tempers are high and the threat of violence is pervasive. Earlier, street actions and political violence could perhaps be somewhat calibrated and contained. Now, the multiplicity of actors has changed the game. So too has the fact that of all peace process issues, federalism goes most to the heart of ordinary people’s expectations and fears. The 2006 Jana Andolan, the Madhes Andolan, the janajati and Tharu struggles that followed, and the recent Brahmin-Chhetri and Unified Far-West strikes underscored the power of agitation. Street movements are not always benign and do not always have desirable aims or methods. But they become a difficult reality when ruling political classes appear disconnected or enchanted by their own legitimacy as elected representatives. 

Without renewed efforts to increase the legitimacy of the constitution writing process, various groups could again take to the streets to express opinions that would otherwise be heard in the CA and in the public consultation.

Since April, I have travelled to more than 10 districts in the mid- and far-west and eastern Tarai. In the past year, my colleagues and I have visited other hotspots of the federal debate, the eastern hills, the central Tarai, and all but one Maoist cantonment and spoken to hundreds of people across the political spectrum. In almost every conversation, one thing was clear: the focus on identity is not going away. Instead, it will become more nuanced as groups find new ways to live together, compete and benefit from the state. 

Kathmandu-based leaders and the CA should listen to people from outside the capital and the assembly. If they do, they will hear refined analysis about commitments they have already made (such as in the ongoing Tharu, janajati and Madhesi agitations); new iterations of “identity” (like the Unified Far-West movement); and the challenges ahead (for example, the debate in Tribhuvan University over implementation of inclusion measures). Politics will become more local, as every region has different concerns, and identity will become more prominent. This can look like fragmentation but for people in the districts and outside politics, this is about creating new categories to better reflect their aspirations.

There will be lively debates about the relationship between federalism and inclusion. Historically marginalised groups have received a commitment to “priority rights” but it is unclear what that means politically. It is also not clear that the border demarcations needed for the electoral shifts envisioned by the identity- and capacity-based models will happen. Naming rights might mollify identity groups, but do not address core issues. Yet, while demanding their rights, leaders of these groups must also publicly commit to a multicultural society. 

These issues will remain emotive. The Nepali public sphere will formulate its own take on debates well-established elsewhere about inequality, discrimination and privilege. Civil discussion about the reality of multiple layers of disadvantage will be needed. No single vector of identity, whether class, caste, ethnicity, gender, religion or region, will dominate. The idea that poverty or wealth alone is an equaliser will be questioned. Group rights will be invoked when discrimination and privilege are discussed; seemingly equal opportunity does not work the same way in unequal circumstances. A poor Limbu, for example, will probably note greater discrimination than a similarly poor Brahmin. 

There will be new alliances between groups previously sceptical of each other, such as Brahmins and Chhetris, janajatis and Madhesis. There will also be sharper divisions within groups. How will Yadavs and Maithili Brahmins share political space? Will Newars protest Kathmandu Valley being joined to Tamsaling? Groups considered disorganised or fractured could come together, like Tharus are in the Far-west. 

Language will matter, subtext will be everywhere. Cosmopolitan Kathmandu pushing for the “moderate middle” can be interpreted as telling marginalised groups not to ask for too much. Well-meant calls for social harmony can sound like “know your place”. It is easy to forget that women were accused of disrupting social harmony when they asked for the vote. For many, proof of equality lies in exercising their constitutional rights fully, including by gestures that might disturb the majority. There will be contestation over where rights end and offense begins. These are evolving debates that cannot be definitively resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. 

That should not mean the questions are not worth asking. If large groups of Nepalis claim the old order did not suit them, that they paid a price for the social compact, there is probably some truth in it. To neglect meaningful restructuring of the state and inclusion is to deny their experience. It is also a disservice to those Brahmins and Chhetris who are perfectly willing to welcome change. 

Nepal is multi-ethnic, and the many struggles for representation and recognition cannot be dealt with in isolation. For Brahmins and Chhetris, despite their indigenous status for now, state restructuring will be a zero sum game at some point. That needs to be acknowledged and put in broader perspective. During nation-building, sacrifice is often called for, yet it is striking that no leader mentions it with regard to federalism and inclusion.

The government’s acceptance of Brahmin and Chhetri demands, in the Far-west for a unified province and nationally for indigenous status, was seen by janajati and Madhesi groups as provocative. This was not least because the simultaneous—and ongoing—Tharu protests in Far-west Nepal claiming the same territory was ignored. In combination with the eleven-state “multi-ethnic”, rather than “identity- and capacity-based” model, these groups saw an attempt to abandon identity-based federalism. The frequent allegations of police bias and skewed media coverage against identity-based movements fan these flames. But violent responses to perceived backtracking and inequalities are unacceptable. They also devalue the broader inclusion agenda and make it harder for everyone who wants more inclusive and transparent negotiations. 

These are political questions that demand settlement by political actors. The CA and its leaders are elected representatives and the most legitimate sovereign body in Nepal. They need to immediately reaffirm their commitments to federalism and engage with dissenting opinions. This is the moment for statesmanship, humility and transparency. 

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