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Ethnic Federalism in Nepal

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The writing of the constitution, which has not been completed in the last three years, is expected to be drafted within the next three months – a feat that will strongly depend on the nature of negotiations and the extent to which the respective political parties are willing to compromise and reach a political consensus for the larger interest of the nation and its people. One key challenge that Nepal is encountering is the political incompetency to simultaneously address the various disputes. Both the promulgation of a new constitution, and the integration and rehabilitation of the People Liberation Army (also known as Maoist combatants) into the Nepal Army, continue be sore issues. Importantly, the inability to resolve the ethnic-based federalism, formation of governance and state-restructuring, issues have intensified the inter- party and intra-party political tensions.

The successful completion of the constitution impinges upon political consensus of state- restructuring and the modality of a federal structure. The criteria and process of redrawing the internal boundaries and delineating federal provinces require massive cadastral projects that in turn require political will, compromise and consensus. This task is inextricably tied to the rise of identity politics with ethnic groups clamouring for fair representation in order to avoid the negative impact arising out of the 1990 constitution. Highlighting the limitations of the 1990 Constitution, David Gellner argued that the Bahuns and Chhetris continued to dominate the higher echelons of the state despite the constitution enshrining the rights of individuals and banning discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, caste and gender.

During the period of the civil war, the Maoist insurgents galvanised minority ethnic groups and  mobilised  ethnic  grievances  to  garner  votes  during  the  2008  CA  elections.  The ethnicisation  of politics  is  bourgeoning  in  Nepal  and  it  appears to  shape the  inevitable outcome  of  a  political  structure  based  on  ethnic  federalism.  In  particular,  the  Madhesi struggle that gained momentum in 2007, has gained  significant political clout. Mahendra Lawoti argues that ‘if it had not been for the Madhesi movement, federalism would not have been incorporated in the interim constitution’.3  Ethnic groups such as the Madhesi, Tharus, Magars, and Tamangs share similar sentiments about their exclusion from various organs of the  state  and  the  ethnic  federalism  that  is  perceived  to  create  a  base  for  competitive democracy. As such, this concept harbours the hope of reducing the preponderance of high- caste Hindus. However, the fruition of this  is questionable since ethnicity, caste and class intersect in myriad ways thus undermining the possibility of  ethnic equality and inclusive governance.

Arguably, the primary issue is not just about the promulgation of the constitution but the political direction that Nepal is headed towards – in the context of carving out the country on the basis of ethnic federalism. The  ethnicisation of politics in Nepal has fuelled the inter- party and intra-party cleavages. In addition, the re-conceptualisation of provincial boundaries on the basis of ethnicity will undermine Prithivi Narayan Shah’s unification of the various states in 1769. In this regard, the political experiment with ethnic  federalism will firstly, debilitate the consolidatory efforts of Prithivi Narayan Shah and secondly, bring a  sharper focus to the ethnic differences among the various communities.

While  there  are  imminent  prospects  for  separatist  movements  to  gain  ground  if  ethnic federalism is not  asserted, there is also a serious need to analyse the feasibility of such a structure. Federalism requires mature leadership which Nepal lacks, and dividing the country along ethnic lines will fuel inter-ethnic hostility. As  an ethnically diverse country, a state structure based on ethnicity will, in principle, give credence to ethnic pluralism. However, it may not translate into inclusive governance and address all negative forms of exclusion. It is crucial  that  Nepal’s  political  leaders  garner  the  support  of  the  public  to  strengthen  the prospect of organising the country based on ethnic pluralism.

Furthermore, the communist ideology that captured the imagination of the public is at risk of being undermined, due to Nepal’s ethnic quandaries. The ‘People’s War’ was fought on the basis of an ideological  struggle to overthrow feudalism and the monarchy. The spirit of Maoism in Nepal evokes a sense of empowerment and resonates with the strong undercurrent of egalitarianism. During the inception of the communist movement, federalism was not on the political agenda for the UCPN-Maoist party. In fact, in 2007, when the parliament passed the interim constitution, ‘there was no mention of federalism although the  commitment to state restructuring  was  apparent’. 4  The centrality  of  the  UCPN-Maoists  leadership  will change based on their ability to tactfully adapt to the challenge of ethnic federalism, whilst retaining their communist ethos.

In the process of undergoing a political revamp, Nepal faces the threat of a counter-revolution. Since 2006, the  procrastinated transition for a ‘New Nepal’ has worn the patience of the people, which has far-reaching consequences in the long-run.  There is overwhelming hype over the delayed constitutional writing process. However, a more critical question that needs to be addressed is the challenge of ethnic federalism as a form of governance, in the light of Nepal’s fledgling roots in democracy. Amidst unending party politics, experimenting with a new political structure will sink Nepal into a deeper turmoil. Within the context of an upsurge in ethnic politics, it is integral for political actors to reconcile their various rightist and leftist ideologies and undertake a pragmatic approach in their state restructural process.

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