Print Edition - 2015-03-15  |  Free the Words

Disruptive proposal

  • Ethnocentric federalism cannot be a solution to the ills of this country
- Jainendra Jeevan
Disruptive proposal

Mar 14, 2015-

The dispute on the mode of federalisation of the unitary state has long been the bone of contention between political parties. Even communities are polarised on the ‘ethnocentric versus non-ethnocentric states’ debate, and the dissonance has obstructed the entire constitution-writing process. Nomenclature and cartography of the proposed states, and not mode and range of power sharing and devolution, have dominated the whole discourse. The pro-(ethnic) identity lobby that consists of the Maoists, Madhesi parties and minuscule ethnocentric parties and ethnic activists, demand that the whole of the Tarai—home to half of nation’s total population (close to 15 million)—should be made one, or at most two, Madhes state(s). Paradoxically, the same lobby campaigns for multiple tiny states in the hills, some of which, such as Sherpa province, will have a population of just a few thousands. Naming those states after a single ethnic group is their raison d’être while gerrymandering as much as possible seems to be their strategy.

A majority of the Nepali people reject this notion. The two biggest parties—Nepali Congress and CPN-UML—are in favour of federalisation based on, as far as possible, integration of the hills and the Tarai, with names denoting common identity. They fear that 10 or more states, each named after a single ethnic group—which in most cases is in itself a minority in those states—will only invite ethnic discord; as the country has 125 odd ethnic/caste groups, both large and small. Similarly, they also fear that the separation of the Tarai from the hills will pave the way for secession of that/those province(s). Conversely, the identity lobby believes that ethnocentric federalism is a must to undo the ‘historical injustices’ those communities suffered during and after the national unification drive; which, they allege, continue till date. Again, the former believes that an inclusive democracy (which has already become functional) and not ethnocentric federalisation, is the answer to those problems.

Unanswered questions

Though much has been discussed on the merits and demerits of ethnocentric federalism, some simple, but not insignificant, questions remain unanswered. Those who parrot that ethnocentric federalism will liberate oppressed communities from the tribulations of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and class-, caste-, and gender-based oppression should answer this question: how on earth will gender-based discrimination come to an end with formation of states named after ethnic groups? And how come the messiahs of the ‘oppressed’ cannot propose a separate province for Dalits—the most oppressed group of all? Simply because, owing to the mosaic-like ethnic population composition across the country, it is not possible, is it? And if, to right the wrongs of history, a separate state for the most deprived group cannot be created, isn’t it hypocritical to name the capital province of Kathmandu after the most affluent, elitist, urbanised and educated community—Newars—throughout history?

In fact, only education, and, to some extent, social and political campaigns can eliminate social discriminations (like against Dalits, Madhesis and women) that can lead to full social integration; creation of ethnic states can’t. But, the very notion and blueprint of federalism in this country has been flawed and ill-intentioned from the very beginning, thanks to our selfish and poorly-educated leaders. Madhesi leaders/activists’ demand for separate Madhes state(s) in the ‘Tarai only’ may be justified if viewed from a narrower perspective of ‘identity’; as the plains are different from the rest of the country in terms of geography, history, ethnicity, language and culture. However, hill people living in the Tarai and the indigenous tribal community of Tharus—who have significant populations in the region—are opposed to the ‘Madhesi-isation’ or Madhesi domination in the proposed state. Their territorial claims and aspirations of identity-based statehood either overlap or clash with each other.


Steps for change

The identity lobby’s prescription of federalism for the hills is ethnicity-based while it is regionalism-based for the Tarai. There is no single or uniform guiding principle; everything is convenience-driven and self-contradictory. Definitions of the ‘oppressed’ communities—a status used to determine the eligibility for statehood—have been either arbitrary or tailor-made to accommodate selected powerful communities; the Newars are a case in point. Yes, some of the grudges of the Janajatis and Madhesis are justified which need to be addressed; and, the process to do so has already begun. Affirmative actions (reservations) for marginalised communities to the tune of 45 percent in all public institutions, electoral system based on proportional representation (of different communities) and several other reform measures have been introduced; and, the results are encouraging. Unfortunately, the identity nexus, which is hell-bent on radicalising the issue and provoking inter-ethnic conflict, chooses to overlook all such positive and conciliatory developments.

Divided into many

In fact, ethnocentric federalism will be a self-defeating act, more so for this country. Tomorrow, even if we go for it, we will have to return—after a couple of wasted decades—to the unitary structure. Of course, with enough decentralisation of power to the local governments. The reasons are many. Federal systems of governance, notwithstanding the size and numbers of the provinces, are always more expensive than unitary ones. And, majority of the proposed provinces of this poor and resource-scarce country are not, and neither will be anytime in the future, able to generate those expenses. Inept and corrupt politicians who just cannot see anything beyond vote-bank politics and power do not listen to such counsels of wisdom. Blinded by identity madness, some of them even refuse to learn from history, which is witness to the tragedies ethnocentric federalism has brought to most countries in the world.

Once ethnocentric provinces will come into being—even if they are so-called multi-ethnic identity states—demands for provinces by other communities who are without a state of their own will surface one after another. That will simply be impossible to ignore, let alone deny. More and more states, therefore, will have to be created in the future, irrespective of the need and viability of such states. Creation of new states—which will partition the existing ones—will invite backlash from the ethnic groups who have states named after them, and so on. To put it bluntly, some provinces which are rich and yet, for historical reasons, feel alienated from Kathmandu may seek to secede while majority of the states will go insolvent. A constitutional provision alone that prohibits secession will not work. For federalism, also means sharing of sovereignty between states and the union, and the wish of sovereign people cannot be crushed on the grounds of constitutional embargoes.

Published: 15-03-2015 08:45

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