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The 14-state model is deeply flawed. Federalization should not appease some at the expense of others

After the formation of the long-awaited State Restructuring Commission it is about time we discussed some important unanswered questions regarding the 14-state federal map passed by majority vote of the Constituent Assembly’s State Restructuring Committee (SRC). The bottom line of the SRC’s proposal is creation of mono-ethnic states (MES), after supposedly considering the aspects of ‘viability’ as well, as the basis of such states. While four states are named after geographical identities 10 borrow their names from ethnic communities, which will exercise agradhikar (right to rule and preferential rights over the natural resources of the territory) and right to self-determination. None are named after the Khas communities—the single largest ethnic group that comprise of Chhetri (15.80 percent of the population), Bahun (12.74 percent), Thakuri (1.47 percent), Sanyasi/Dasnami (0.88 percent) and Hill-Dalit (7.11 percent)—despite their majority in 10 of the proposed 14 states.

All credible surveys/studies carried among cross-section of population and regions show that very few are in favor of ethnic federalization. What therefore should be the basis of ‘state restructuring’—one that accommodates the aspirations and suggestions of all, including the silent majority, or the one passed by the SRC? If powerful ethno-lingual-regional interest groups have been aggressively pushing for MES, the singled out Khas community has spoken up vehemently against the SRC model.

Now the questions is: if MES are the keys to uplift the less privileged and marginalized ethnic groups, as ethno-lingual activists argue, why has no state been proposed for several of these groups, while the most developed part of the country has been allocated to one of the most privileged, urbanized, educated and wealthy communities, which is also among the over-represented ethnic groups in government jobs? Similarly, if federalization is for empowerment of the oppressed people, why nearly four million Dalits (including both Khas and Madhesis)—the most deprived of all communities—don’t have a state? Doesn’t political agradhikar for selected ethnic groups go against the concepts of universal human rights and democracy? Isn’t the history of ethnocentric federalization filled with failures and/or devastations all over the world, from the erstwhile Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to Sudan, Nigeria and even Belgium? How it will be any different in Nepal? Won’t the subjective and unsubstantiated claims and counterclaims like ‘we are the early inhabitants, you are not’, made by self-seeking ethno-lingual groups seeking agradhikar, be a perpetual source of inter-state and inter-ethnic clashes?  

In fact, in a mosaic of ethnic diversity like ours where no single ethnic group constitutes either a bloc or majority in any given area, it is not possible to allocate states for one ethnic group without inviting the wrath of others. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the SRC had done. Its proposal is full of biasness, double standards, misconceptions and irrationalities. For example, a huge land mass (Jadan) in the rugged and remote mountainous territories of Far western Nepal with no viability as a state, has been proposed as a province. It is named after the Jad—a community that barely exists. States in Tarai are divided on the basis of geography but those in the Hills are divided along ethnic lines.

Eastern Tarai is named/carved on ethno-regional considerations whereas its western equivalent is demarcated on ethno-lingual lines. Recognizing Sherpas as indigenous tribe, SRC proposes a separate state for the community which migrated to this country less than 400 years ago, and constitutes less than 1 percent of the population, the majority of whom live outsides their proposed state. The list of anomalies in the proposal goes on and on. All this has been done in the name of preservation and promotion of ethnic identities.

If the SRC’s proposal is approved, the likely exodus of communities will invite widespread ethnic strife, possibly leading to a full-blown civil war. Depending on the level of insecurity and discrimination, both real and psychological, hill people living in Madhes heartlands will flee to safer areas, the way they did in the aftermath of Madhes uprising. Unlike in the past, the migration this time will be continual. Those who can afford expensive lifestyles will move to Kathmandu, which will only fuel animosity between the ruling minority of Newars who are opposed to further influx of other communities into the valley, also in evidence from their lobbying against the construction of outer ring road. Similar mass migration will occur from provinces in eastern hills, especially the Limbuwan, another hot-spot of ultra-ethnic activism. Madhesis and Tharus, both claiming to be bhumiputra (offspring of the soil), may clash in Tarai.

While Janajatis and Khas may form an alliance in Madhes and Kathmandu, Khas and Newars may do the same in parts of Tamuan and Tamsaling against the respective ruling tribes. Border and territorial disputes that have surfaced even before the states are born will escalate and perpetuate ethnic conflicts. Besides, the battle to control local natural resources may give rise to numerous ‘Naar’ like incidents where several ‘outsiders’ who came to collect yarsagumba were beaten to death by locals in Gorkha some months ago. More and more ‘ruled communities’ will demand separate states or ‘autonomous areas’, an impossible demand because, among other reasons, the existing states will resist both fragmentation of their territories and devolution of their powers.

Federalization should aim at accommodating all, not appeasing some at the expense of others. Federalization should not be a threat to territorial integrity, national unity and social fabric of the nation. Enhancement of ethnic identities shouldn’t come at the cost of the loss of national identity. SRC’s proposal is politically regressive, socially destabilizing and economically unviable. And finally, ethnicity is not a permanent truth like geography; different ethnic groups can and should live in cohesion and harmony in multi-ethnic states. The nation won’t get a second chance; once enshrined in the constitution, MES provisions may be tough to modify, much less reverse. Although agradhikar has been proposed for only two-terms, people are skeptic; they fear that the ceiling is unlikely to be honored as powerful ethno-lingual groups will keep pressing for its indefinite extension.

Reverse exclusion that downgrades certain ethnic communities into second class citizens is not answer to historical exclusion; it is revenge. Moreover, political exclusion of one or some communities won’t correct social exclusion of the past that was a collective wrong. Except a handful of Khas upper-castes, the overwhelming majority of them are as deprived and poor as people of other ethnic groups. Their ranking in social and human development indices is much lower than that of several other communities’ selected for statehood. Leaders, therefore, should learn to put the nation before ethnicity, prudence before populism and patriotism before politics. And, experts should put professionalism before partisanship. Both should acknowledge that in modern times and civilized democracies, communities can’t be graded into super and sub citizens on grounds of ethnicity or timeline of their settlement/arrivals in the territory.

The most prosperous, inclusive and successful federal democracies in the world—the US, Canada, Australia and Germany—neither have ethnic states nor agradhikar. The semi-federal states of India are structured mostly along linguistic lines. Yes, all those democracies practice reservations/affirmative action to uplift marginalized and deprived communities. We too must have an effective system in place to ensure and enhance those communities’ access to employment, education and other opportunities. Nonetheless, the arrangement should be need-based, not ethnicity-based; it should benefit weaker, poorer and socially backward groups/people, not select ethnic groups.
Published on 2011-12-08 00:58:14
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Thnx for expressing my mind Mr Jeevan. I hope our so called politcians can rise above the confinment of ethnic walls and think and decide more as human beings before it is too late . [more]
  - Mexx Nepali
No body brought this subject up when Maoist were toting gun, vehemently then, advocating federalism based on ethnicity some 12 years ago all over Nepal to appease and garner support of these groups. Now the very same party with diverse ethnic representation, including Bahun, Chtrees and of course Khas is in power aggressively pleased to promulgate scheme is at least on the course of fulfilling its political rhetoric. Why are they so happy about implementing it? has definitely mystified some who [more]
  - Bijai Pahim
Dear Jeevanji,

Nice one. People like you should be in SRC. [more]
  - yogesh
I am so ashamed that I am speechless. Where is my dignity, honor, liberty, respect, ... I just lost it. Should I be proud to call myself a Nepali? I doubt. I would rather get more respect in foreign land than in the country of my birth. I rushing to quit my citizenship, because I will be second class citizen no matter where I live. I am worried about those who can not afford to leave like me. I am seeing suffering of Bhutanese Nepali in them in next 20 years. Unfortunately, these selfish, unprof [more]
  - GyaRel
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