Nepal and Ethnic Federalism: The Insufficiency of the Maoist Model

30 Jun, 2014    ·   4533

Subin Nepal cautions against state restructuring motivated by quick money-making and the possibility of a strong electorate

The last few years have seen a great rise in the discussion surrounding state restructuring in Nepal. At its very core has been the issue of ethnic federalism. First touted by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) in their agenda in the 1990s and now heavily supported by several ethnic parties as well as some major political parties, ethnic federalism has become, in a way, the talk of the town. While some political parties have shown minor resistance to the UCPN-M model of federalism, the majority of them seem to agree with the need to restructure the state at the very least.

UCPN-M-introduced federalism needs critical analysis because of their close ties with ethnic groups during the civil war and the ethnic electorates they have been attracting. The recent constituent assembly (CA) election has shown that the UCPN-M’s overall public support has plummeted. However, a report that was submitted by the State Restructuring Commission in 2012 (before the second CA election) upheld the UCPN-M model which cannot be overlooked. While there is a possibility that a majority alliance between Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal–Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) could be formed to overthrow previously agreed upon recommendations to the constitution, it might actually be a disastrous road to take. On top of that, singling out the unhappy faction (UCPN-M) does not seem to be the best policy to move forward with. Hence, there seems to be little to no possibility of simply overlooking the third largest party and its policies.

What are the flaws in the demanded model?
At a time when the rest of the world is trying to remove social divisions that hamper unity in society, Nepali Maoists seem to be embracing a rather strange policy. Their inclination towards an ethnic model of federalism is not only a backward model but also a way to create divisions in a society that has been functioning without any major ethnic clashes till date. The Maoist model proposes 13 provinces – a majority of them named after ethnic groups. The irony is that almost no ethnic group holds a population majority within the state that has been named after them. Though the idea of uplifting the minority and historically oppressed is a particularly positive agenda that the UCPN-M has stood with, there is no clear evidence that only 13 ethnicities are minorities and have been historically oppressed in Nepal. Or, that creating only 13 provinces would provide the much needed support to the rest of the minority groups as well. The Nepalese government officially recognises the existence of more than 100 ethnic groups in the country. And if Maoists were to embrace only 13 of them as their token minorities, it would create another gap within the minority movement, giving rise to several layers within the minorities. Several ignored minority groups have already threatened to raise weapons in case they do not receive equal rights as the top 13.

What could be the solution to this proposed model?
Nepal’s federalism has been discussed by several different non-profits and research organisations. However, on the ground, work seems still to be lacking. The political parties seem to be touting federalism to receive quick funding for “minority right campaigns” from human rights-based organisations. In addition, bulky research papers are being produced without a substantial geo-strategic vision. Carving out a nation is a difficult process and the Nepali political elites seem to have forgotten this reality. Before jumping into federalism based on ethnicity or even federalism itself, Nepal needs to devise an independent agency that consists of scholars from appropriate fields for state restructuring. Cheap slogans embraced for quick money and the possibility of a strong electorate should not decide how the country gets restructured. A political suggestion is acceptable but a political division based on one party’s agenda only will leave the country divided. Hence, Nepal needs to do a serious re-evaluation of its current inclination towards the UCPN-M model of federalism. And this re-evaluation needs to come from the Constituent Assembly and the same political parties who are leaning towards this model. The CA needs to create a new agency and make it independent unlike the previous one (State Restructuring Commission) which was just a wing of the CA. This agency needs to consist of scholars and needs to take at least a few years to devise strategic plans for state restructuring before Nepal makes those changes.

At the end, the question of convincing such a divided CA to create an independent agency that might make political parties sacrifice their agendas is what makes this task difficult to accomplish. And it is certain that UCPN-M would be the one to disagree with such an agency. Bipartisanship within the CA could lead to the creation of such an agency, which then could hold all the political parties accountable, including UCPN-M, and respond to their demands with real, hands-on research of possible state restructuring.