Neighbourly advice

- Zulfiqar Shah
Neighbourly advice

Sep 6, 2012-

Nepal is undergoing a socio-political transformation amid a highly contested debate around federalism and ethnicity to restructure statehood, governance and the future. The constitutional blind alley is a narrow strip between directionless sailing and rudderless anarchy. However, the forces of integration are stronger enough to ensure a safe voyage. Contrary to the established parameters for ethnic identity, popular discourse and semi-academic narrative around federalism portrays the terms “ethnicity” and “clan-identification” as being almost interchangeable. This is because, unlike India and Pakistan, Nepal has never undergone colonialism which helped cement ethnic and national entities in the federating provinces.      

Myth of ethnicity

Nepal’s ethnic discourse is not all about ethnicity as such. It is about a social entity blended of caste, clan and lingual peculiarities. If the Nepali definition of ethnicity is adopted, almost every province or state in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran will have more than 100 ethnic groups. The case of Nepal resembles that of Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa (KPK) and Balochistan in Pakistan, Sistan in Iran, Helmand in Afghanistan, and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh in India. If the Nepali version of ethnicity is applied there, every district of these states will be having at least a dozen “ethnicities”. Ethnic Pashtuns of KPK are socio-graphically similar to the Nepali people. They have many clans, languages and dialects. Besides, a majority of the highland languages are unintelligible to one another and the rest. They are a recognised ethnicity sociologically.

Nepal has, no doubt, its own ethnographical peculiarities; but use of the term “nationality” by some researchers for a clan-based distinct identity is a fallacy. Ethno-clan would be more suitable if “ethnicity” has become the popular term here. The term Nepali, however, is not an exclusively single ethnicity as it consists of some broader ethno-linguistic identities. Ethno-linguistically, the broader fold of cultural identities in Nepal has three demographic features — Indo-Nepali people of the Indo-European group of languages in the lowlands, valleys and Tarai plains; Tibeto-Nepalis of the Tibeto-Burman group of languages in the northern highlands; and indigenous Nepalis of various indigenous groups of languages in parts of the Tarai and other areas. Out of the 92 identified languages, 11 are spoken by 96.5 percent of the population including Nepali, Tharu, Bhojpuri, Tamang, Maithili, Magar, Awadhi, Nepal Bhasa, Rai, Limbu and Bajka. However, Nepali alone is spoken by 80 percent of the people. No doubt, these languages qualify for official status. Besides, the religious foundations of society are cohesive with 90.9 percent of the people following culturally similar Hinduism and Buddhism.

Development disparities

The discourse around ethnic federalism gives a feeling there are development disparities, poverty of opportunities and a contest to get an appropriate or more than an appropriate share. Clans like Khas and Newar have historically remained privileged by being part of statecraft; however, the trend has gradually changed after the comprehensive peace accord. Some research studies also mention that Madhesi and Tharu in the Tarai and Kham Magar in the mid-western hills along with some other clans have been underprivileged to a higher degree. Besides, there are many marginalised clans of Adivasis that have been officially recognised as being outside the Hindu caste system with some other indigenous communities like Raute, Chepang and Bankaria.

The context of state building sometimes becomes more important especially when a diverse socio-cultural web is seen in the perspective of federalisation. In such a situation, shaping

conducive, efficient and diversity housing systems based on recognition of identities, national building, even development, urbanisation and industrialisation, and finally positive discrimination for the underdeveloped, unrepresented and marginalised become the only way forward.  

There are many federal structures that need to be analysed. Societies with a complex web of ethnicities, cultures or demographics may have two to three demographic tiers of division along with four to six administrative tiers based on ethnicity, subculture, history, terrain, economic viability and administrative factors. This has been a common foundation of federal systems in South Asia, and some African countries including Ethiopia. Ethiopia has 80 smaller and bigger ethnic groups mostly based on the ethno-clan fabric. It is divided into 11 federating provinces which are mostly administrative. Each province has a few divisions, each of which is divided into districts. The district-level tiers are of ethnic basis, but the identity of the ethnicities is recognised constitutionally. Besides, the system is further divided in sub-districts and community-union levels.

Unlike Ethiopia, Pakistan consists of historically sovereign provinces. A couple of decades ago, Hindko, Potohari and Seraikis were living in their separate divisions within the respective provinces. Since the abolition of the divisional tier during General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule, a discourse of new provinces has strengthened among these ethnicities. Indian federalism is relatively successful because of sustained democracy. Meanwhile, the political system in Bangladesh is based on divisions and districts. The divisions are mostly administrative and sub-cultural.

Towards possibilities Society is the mother organisation. Sub-organisations like the state, political parties and institutions are always reflective of it, which is vice versa too. Nations should take the moment of state building and transformation as an opportunity and celebration as it comes after decades of struggle. The Nepali people should take it carefully and devise a federal system according to their own realities, interests and will.   

In these political hot waters, some points of consensus are required. A proper solution to the current deadlock of legality and political precedence for choosing a Constituent Assembly or a regular Parliament, retaining the existing number or redefining the numerical limits of the seats and a new road map among the political parties for writing the constitution. This demands a role of academia, civil society and political think tanks. Historical nationhood and the virtue of invincibility are the foundations on which an appropriate federal system and uninterrupted democracy will lead Nepal as a growing and developing country.   

Shah is the executive director at the Institute for Social Movements, Pakistan

Published: 07-09-2012 09:09

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