Nagendra Kumal

  • That Janajatis want ‘ethnic states’ is baseless propaganda
Nagendra Kumal

Aug 24, 2014-

The constitution-writing process has recently been picking up speed at least in process if not in substance, with discussions taking place on state restructuring, the most contentious issue of the constitution. Janajati/Adivasi groups, led by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (Nefin), have been demanding that identity be taken as a major basis for state restructuring. Last Monday, Nefin leaders also met with the Constituent Assembly’s (CA) Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee, led by former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai, to present their demands. Pranaya SJB Rana spoke to Nefin Chairman Nagendra Kumal about their demands for identity-based federalism, their own model for state restructuring and their relations with the Madhesi parties, who have also made similar demands.

What kind of federalism would you like to see?

Since the very beginning of the federalism debate in the country, we have focussed on identity. We want federalism that is identity-inclusive, so towards that end, our demand has always been a constitution that will bring peace and the only way to do this is to recognise identity. Federalism is not just about taking governance to the villages; it is about recognising that there are certain marginalised elements in those villages that need representation, inclusion and need to have their voices heard. Our understanding is that only identity-inclusive federalism can do this. This kind of federalism would also ensure long-term peace in the country. We are not about taking away any community’s rights but rather, ensuring that all communities have equal access and are ensured their rights.

When you say that federalism should be identity inclusive, are you in favour of single identity or multiple identities?

Identity will always be single, but there can be various bases for identity. The first CA had decided that the basis for state restructuring would be identity and viability, but even within these two categories there are numerous bases. For identity, the bases are caste, language, culture, history, etc. Still, what we are looking for is a single identity. This doesn’t mean that any one community will get all the rights. If we say a Limbuwan state according to history and geography, it will look to be single identity in name but within that state, all communities will have equal rights. However, this state will recognise and preserve a specific culture, language and identity. There is baseless propaganda going around that the Janajatis want ethnic states. This is completely untrue. Nefin has never demanded ethnic states. Instead, what we have been saying is that the Nepal of today is an ethnic state as it promotes one culture, one language and one identity. A statute drafted without recognising this and attempting to correct it cannot bring about lasting peace and security.

Many have interpreted the mandate of the November election to be in favour of multiple identity federalism. How do you see this?

We used the Interim Constitution as a base to go for elections in November. So we must again use the Interim Constitution as a basis for drafting the new constitution. Article 138 (1) and 138 (1) (a) states that while going for federalism, the identity of all marginalised communities—Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, women—will be ensured. So far, we have been very peaceful. But if attempts are not made to bring in all stakeholders and discuss with them the bases for state restructuring, the nation will be headed towards a grave accident. The CA itself was created so that the voices of the marginalised would finally be heard but if that does not happen, we will be forced to descend to the streets and that would be very unfortunate. A constitution that is written through agreements among the parties will not bring peace; the constitution must be a document of consensus among all stakeholders. We have had constitutions in the past but they have never brought lasting peace. We do not want a similar constitution. It comes down to whether we want a constitution or peace. Nefin wants a constitution that will bring peace.

Could you tell us specifically your model of federalism?

On the basis of identity, we would like at least eight states. The total number, however, should be between 14 and 10 plus one. These two numbers were decided by an independent commission and the last CA’s own State Restructuring Committee. We do not believe that a number smaller than this will be able to address our demands for identity. A number between 14 and 11 would also ensure that there are no further demands for more states in the future. This kind of state restructuring would make the country stronger and more diverse, not break it up.

What about priority rights?

There is much talk about priority rights but Nefin, as an institution, needs to discuss more on which communities need priority rights. There is a difference between the needs of larger Janajati communities and smaller ones. Perhaps the very small ones could have priority rights. But we shouldn’t pursue priority rights at the expense of peace and stability in the country. Our focus right now is identity; we have yet to discuss priority rights in detail.

How responsive have the major political parties been to your demands?

They have seemed very positive to our demands when I have spoken to them. At first, they seemed reluctant, saying that it would be difficult to address all demands for identity as that might lead to conflict. But we reminded them that our demands are based on equal treatment, inclusion and rights and that they had committed to these ideals in their party manifestos. They had also agreed to these ideals in the last CA. We also cautioned them to not take our coming to them for talks as a sign of weakness. If the new constitution does not address our rights and demands, it will not just be Janajatis who take to the streets but all marginalised communities. Then, the parties will have to bow their heads and compromise with us. It would be better to listen to us now as equals.

The impression is that the Maoist and Madhesi parties are in support while the Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML are hesitant.

It is true that issue wise, the Maoists and Madhesi parties are supportive but the NC and UML also do not seem negative. We have met with all the top leaders of the parties and demanded an Adivasi/Janajati-friendly constitution. They have supported this. But within all of the parties, there are voices opposed and voices in support. These are the very same parties who committed to a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious Nepal in the preamble of the Interim Constitution. Still, what they have committed in words, we have not seen reflected in action.

You recently met with Baburam Bhattarai and the CA’s Political Dialogue and Consensus Committee. What issues did you raise there?

In general, we focused on two important points—first, implement past agreements, including the 20-point agreement and the nine-point agreement, signed with us and use them as a basis for the new constitution, and second, implement the UN conventions ratified by Nepal and use them too as a basis for the constitution. The most important among these conventions is ILO 169 [a legally binding international instrument which deals with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples]. It is a powerful convention that takes precedence over the nation’s laws. We also mentioned that now is not the time to make laws at the centre and then pass them off to other parts of the country. Stakeholders must be actively consulted.

What are your relations like with the Madhesi parties, especially those in favour of ‘One Madhes, One Pradesh’?

There have been Janajati/Adivasi communities living in the Tarai since time immemorial. There are places where Janajati communities even constitute the majority, like with the Tharus. Many Janajatis have been Madhesi-fied in the Tarai and placed under the Madhesi quota. You cannot take Janajatis who are recognised and listed by the state and place them under the Madhesi category. So we are completely against One Madhes, One Pradesh. To struggle to bring governance closer to the people and then demand a one single state that stretches from the East to the West is completely contradictory.

Such a situation can only lead to more injustice. We have to address issues of language, culture and history more than just geography. In the Tarai, we are in favour of at least three or four states.

On a final note, you have spoken in the past about international experiences of federalism. Could you provide a few examples?

Take Switzerland, which is a much smaller country than Nepal but also quite diverse. Currently, it has 22 different states, some of which are based on identity and some on viability. When it comes to development, do we need to look beyond Switzerland? The country has not broken up in all of its federal history. It is the same with Norway. It has a 300 year history of proportional representation. Or look at Canada, a country that is recognised as a leading proponent of human rights. It has federal states based on identity. We don’t even have to go so far. Nepali politics is heavily influenced by Indian politics. India started with 13 or 14 states but currently, they have 29 states. We can learn a lesson from India and act pre-emptively so that we don’t have to keep adding and breaking up states in the future.

Published: 25-08-2014 09:34

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