Doc. Fellow, Temple Varsity, Philadelphia, USA.
The conflict over ethnic federalism has taken a toll on the four year old Constitutional Assembly, and has planted a seed of serious social mistrust in Nepal. Maoists, Madhesis, and a few Janajati organizations have been demanding that the country be divided into a number of autonomous states, named after respective dominant ethnic groups. Parties like NC, UML, etc. argue that such division of the country along ethnic lines will disturb the existing social harmony. They opine that states should be named in an ethnicity-neutral fashion. The analysis in this article agrees that assigning ethnic names to potential states is unnecessary.
If someone is demanding to change names of places, you would think that either existing names are harmful or there is evidence to show that proposed names will bring in benefits. Let’s ask a few simple questions. Is the inequality prevalent in Nepal due to some zones or districts or VDCs having improper names or high caste names? How often do we read about a Janajati not succeeding because s/he hails from Acharya Tol? Is Kaski a bahun name? Or is Kathmandu an upper caste name for that matter? How many reports have been published about the impact of unsuitable names of places on the social status of residents? Moreover, which ethnic names of places have directly or indirectly increased socio-economic status of residents?
Since answers to above obvious questions do not warrant the need of new names, we are asked to believe that naming newly created states after important ethnic groups, raises the confidence of these historically marginalized groups and increases their feeling of belonging to the nation. Quite rightly so. Every rational citizen of Nepal believes that many ethnic groups have been suppressed throughout history; improving their social and economic status is critical for overall health of Nepali society. However, is naming states ethnically a panacea? The truth is far from what the neo-revolutionists have been telling us.
Without a doubt, using ethnic names will appease the respective dominant groups in each state. But the peace obtained with such an arrangement will be ephemeral. Even if federalism was necessary, assigning ethnic names is not very feasible, because Nepal has so many ethnic groups. A 1996 report by Dr. Harka Gurung recognizes 55 groups. Some reports mention even more. When it comes to creating states most marginalized groups will demand at least one state for themselves; if not now, then later. Muslims, for example, have come to demand a state lately! What’s the guarantee that Rautes and Chepangs won’t demand a state later for themselves? Why shouldn’t they? Why should some ethnic groups with slightly smaller population agree to not having a state in the proposed federal structure? They could reproduce at a faster rate and soon outnumber the ones which are currently dominant! Should we factor in the current fertility rate too? Or do we want to make an arrangement that allows us to restructure the country every ten or fifteen years? Or are we concluding that some culture(s) are more important than others? Hence the argument that only ‘important’ ethnic groups should be recognized not only ignores the basic truth about human nature( of wanting equal privileges as others) but also undermines the impact of future possibilities arising from dynamic nature of a country’s demography.
If the intention is to empower all marginalized ethnic groups by helping them participate in major decision making processes of the country, the obvious solution is to make special arrangements in the existing structure itself. More reservations, a requirement for proportional representation, and affirmative action measures will do the job. These are the internationally utilized tools used to achieve such objectives. Countries around the world don’t typically go and create a new state for each marginalized group of people. Rather, they make administrative provisions targeted at increasing opportunities for the underprivileged. Yes a few have been tried and haven’t worked in the past but our failure to implement the time tested measures cannot be an excuse to push country into a state of conflict ad infinitum.
The tactics of division and/or segregation are used to contain widespread inter-group clashes. Fortunately, Nepal is a case of peaceful co-existence. Interracial violence has never been an issue so far. Therefore the proposition that someone is trying to instill such ethnic conflict for their own vested interests simply holds water. Some proponents of ethnic federalism have pointed out the examples of India and Nigeria. However; they have failed to ask if those countries gained anything substantial owing to ethnic federalism. Moreover it will be a blunder to forget that widespread ethnic animosity led those nations to ethnic division.
Because the case against the ethnic federalism is so simple, it's unconvincing to think Maoists, Madhesis and the agitating Janajati organizations truly believe that they are making a legitimate demand. If they do realize what they are asking for is not attainable, the question is what keeps them adamant. At this juncture, unfortunately, we are left to pick one of many conspiracy theories that have been floating around in the Nepali media: foreign interests, rise of the monarchists, Maoists' will to capture state etc.
Irrespective of which elements are behind the current social conflict, more influential Janajatis and Madhesis need to follow in Amrit Gurung’s footsteps and voice their will to a united Nepal. Although there is no doubt that most Madhesi and Janajati friends are in favor of an undivided and peaceful Nepal, the country could really use a little more positive activism from them. Let’s all agree that division is not the correct tool for economic growth and equality; Social awareness, education and increased opportunities for all ethnic groups are what Nepal needs at the moment! As Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
On a more pessimistic note, if the conflict gets beyond the control of democratic niceties, the issue of ethnic federalism must be on the ballot in upcoming election. People should vote directly on issues as important as this one. A few self-acclaimed leaders, better known as a bunch of deviated brains ,cannot prevail over the sovereign people of Nepal.