Himalayan Frontier

Federalism and Nepal: Internal Differences

14 Jul, 2014    ·   4563

Pramod Jaiswal analyses the debate on federalism in Nepal and the difference in the narratives between marginalised communities and the high hill elites

Pramod Jaiswal
Pramod Jaiswal
Senior Fellow, China Research Programme (CRP)
The constitutional debate in Nepal has bene caught up in peculiar twists and turns ever since late 1940s. So far, Nepal has had six constitutions, at different points in time, and the debate to get an acceptable constitution for long-term social peace and stability continues.

Why have constitution debates been unable to bring social peace and political stability in Nepal? Why have federalism debates in Nepal been so polarised that Constituent Assembly (CA) I was dissolved and elections to CA II were held to draft a constitution?  There are two simple questions to deconstruct the question of federalism in Nepal. First, why do historically marginalised communities (Madhesis, Janjatis, dalits etc) that constitute almost 70 per cent of the Nepal’s population strongly sympathise with federalism? Why are the Caste of High Hill Elites (CHHE) (Brahmins and Chettri etc) who are dominant in Kathmandu’s power structure are oppose federalism in its true spirit and agreed on a federal model of governance only after the large-scale Madhesi movement in 2007? 

Why is the Federalism Narrative So Dominant In Nepal? 
Nepal has been monolithic, upper caste hill-centric dominance of one language, culture, and an extremely centralised power structure of governance throughout history. However, the diversity in languages, cultures and a sense of belongingness that exists in Nepal has not been given due recognition; and the State’s discrimination and exclusionary policies triggered a sense of deep dissatisfaction among the historically marginalised community.

In this context, on the basis of ‘unity in diversity’, federalism narratives gained prominence to institutionalise self-rule, autonomy, and dignity in the country. This brings us to the debate of ‘identity–based’ federalism that is largely the politics for recognition of diversity in Nepal for these communities. 
What are the Technicalities of the Federalism Debate?

The debate on federalism has become one of the most contentious issues in Nepal. This polarised debate is approached via various perspectives, such as: change (pro-identity based federalism) Vs. status quo forces (federalism on the basis of viability); pluralist Vs. Mono-culturalist; historically marginalised communities Vs. upper caste hill dominance; and political de-centralisation Vs. administrative de-centralisation. By and large, the new political forces that emerged in Nepal after the promulgation of the 1990 constitution – like Maoists and various political parties that arose from social movements of Madhesis, Janjatis etc. –  associate themselves with the former while traditional parties like Nepali Congress and CPN-UML associate themselves with latter categories. 

This brings us to the technical debate on federalism, that, on the basis of the ‘Committee on State Restructuring and Allocation of State Powers’ during CA I agreed upon – “Identity based Federalism” and “viability,” i.e., on the basis of economic capability. There are five indicators for “Identity” – ethnicity, language, culture, geography and regional continuity, and historical identities ( historically subjected to discrimination in various forms in their homeland). The “viability” has four indicators – economic interrelationships and capability; status and potential for infrastructural development; availability of natural resources; and administrative feasibility.

Complexities of the Federalism Issues in Nepal 
The technical details are no less complex, adding complexities to the issues in the federalism debate. However, there exist battles of narratives regarding the debate on federalism. It is alleged that the status quo forces try to obfuscate the federalism debate to benefit the CHHE and curve out federal lines of a new Nepal in ways that give demographic advantage to ruling elites and maintain dominance in Kathmandu’s power structures. Conversely, the status quo forces allege that the pro-identity-based federal forces support single identity ethnic based federalism. However, Nepal is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation and it is not possible to have a majority of any single ethic group in any model of federalism. The only difference that adds complexities is the devolution of power from dominant elite’s high hill castes to pave Nepal’s transition towards inclusive citizenship and recognition of marginalised communities, identities, culture and self-rule. 

Perhaps, the buck stops at the top leaders of the political parties in Nepal who are all traditionally ruling high-caste Brahmins to strike constitutional agreement. And, the rationale choice has to be made on ways to delegate power from the hill upper caste elites to the people who have been historically marginalised and such choices are more difficult given how CA I winners are losers in CA II elections. 

Is Nepal Postponing the Inevitable? 
Nepali politics is in transition and fast-changing its state characteristics from a monarchy to a republic; a Hindu state to a secular one; and a unitary structure towards an inclusive federal model of governance. The CA I postponed federalism issues for the CA II despite marginalised communities united and had adequate support base of 2/3rd majority – that includes the aspiration of identity and viability model of federalism denouncing 14 state models of federal governance.

If Nepal postpones the identity criterion of federalism, the constitutional debate will be likely to be endless – merely postponing the social peace and stability. The constitution is the document of compromise and the debate to make the new Nepal inclusive must ensure the aspiration of historically marginalised people towards making the people equal, and simultaneously not making them unequal via federalism.