Sunday, December 18, 2011

Federalism in Nepal: Why and What Type?

Govinda Neupane

When I was finally editing my first book, "Samajik Bikashko Vivechana" (Social Development in Nepal), I realized that there is a great need and urgency to know the composition and characteristics of colorful nationalities in Nepal and the way they could build better social harmony. It was 1999.

I started to prepare notes on nationalities, social compositions, conflicting values and behaviors, and ways and means to address existing discriminations so as to make Nepal a harmonious place to live in.

Once, I even thought of leaving the task of studying, analyzing and determining the nature, number and historical context of different nationalities as it was too complex and too controversial. However, I finally stick to it as I had done some foundation building exercises already. After months of review of literatures available during that time, I prepared three working papers – a) nationalities in Nepal: their composition and standing, b) relationships among them, and, c) superstructure that provides platform for mutually beneficial and harmonious partnership.

I encountered hostile circumstances as many experts, leaders, activists and professionals had highly diverse views on nationalities and many among them were hostile to any superstructure that challenges the one existing that time. A large majority among this crowd was too critical of federalism as they consider that that structure of governance would disintegrate Nepal. They discouraged me saying that that exercise would harm Nepal. I continued my field work for another six months and arrived at a conclusion that the hostile crowd was that of Khasa, the ruling nationality. Many among the leaders of Khasa origin of all major parties were against multiculturalism and federalism.

After a year, I concluded that there were five nationalities in Nepal – Khasa, Madhesi, MangolKirat, Dalit and Newar. I was in two minds about using the term MangolKirat. Many intellectuals among indigenous groups were using the term JANAJATI that included but not limited to MangolKirat. Janak Lal Sharma had first used the term MangolKirat. Harsha Bahadur Budha had used simply the term Kirat that included Magars. In my first draft, I had used Kirat only. However, after consultations with some of the authorities on indigenous people in Nepal including but not limited to Parshuram Tamang, I was convinced that the term MangolKirat better represents that nationality. Although, several advances have been made in researching the nationalities' composition in Nepal, still there is no consensus. It may take some more years or decades, and that is only natural. However, after a decade of that research, I am more convinced that the findings of that research stand correct.

In the past decade, my book, "The Nationalities Question in Nepal: Social Composition and Partnership Building through Multiculturalism and Federalism" has been widely used as reference material for evidences to highlight socio-political discriminations in Nepal. It has got wide recognition in area of study on discrimination of nationalities.

The decade-long Civil War created upheavals in the society. The values, belief systems and practices had to pass through scrutiny. Several old values were discarded, belief systems were challenged and the society had gone through the painful process of initial restructuring. However, the process got stuck when the Maoists entered into a new path that included negotiations, give and take and compromises. When the Maoists changed their strategies, they needed different political traits that had similar value ingredients as that of their new brethren, the Congress and CPN (UML). Hence, the process of societal transformation faced new road blocks as the lead actor disappeared from the scene. Thus, the Maoists became friendlier to status quo and gradually sidelined themselves from exercises that needed confrontation against the creamy layer of the society including the most influential Khasa politico-intellectual fraternity.

Many popular agencies formed and led by oppressed nationalities and their activists either were trapped by the Khasa-led politico-governance mechanism or by the western donors as their projects. Now, on the horizon, there are not many agencies or individuals available who truly represent the dreams of oppressed nationalities. Krishna Bhattachan and a few scholars and activists like him could be seen in the wilderness still defending the cause, still putting their intellectual richness, energy and time to champion the dreams of an egalitarian Nepali society that is free from prejudices and discriminations.

In this context, new breeds of champions of federalism have emerged. They are the yesteryear's die-hard opponents of federalism including the Congress and UML leaders. Many anti-federalism professors and professionals are raising voices in favor of federalism. However, their model of federalism is the second edition of Panchayati geographical set ups of zones or regions. Adding a few cosmetics, they want to reintroduce the same politico-administrative mechanism in the name of federalism.

Why federalism was considered a need in Nepal? The oppressed nationalities had concerns in three primary areas – cultural identity, end of discriminatory practices related to nationalities and equitable access to power, opportunities and resources. To address these concerns, they raised the voice for multiculturalism and federalism. Putting together these two attributes with geography, economic viability and governance, the appropriate federal model could be evolved. However, the new Mullahs of federalism are advocating for splitting the federal units from north to south to suit their interests. Mahendralism or Birendralism with some cosmetics added by Congress-UML-Maoists will not be federalism, if it would not address the core issue of multiculturalism that too with autonomy and the right to self-determination. Moreover, the federalism that has its functional base on co-operation or if it is a cooperative federalism, only that model could absorb the shocks and could provide sound platform for dialogue so as to sustain development, cooperation and harmony.

Now, there is a commission that is tasked with recommending the model. Before any meaningful discussion inside the commission, the coordinator of the commission has started to advocate for Mahendralism or Birendralism. This is another futile exercise that would simply legalize the thoughts, plans and designs of the Khasa leaders. Without addressing the core issue of multiculturalism, any state restructuring exercise would not address the aspirations of oppressed nationalities and thus, could not solve the problem.

Now, the transformational socio-political and economic course has been put in the back burner. It is quite unfortunate. The interests of working classes, oppressed nationalities and marginalized sections should get proper attention and priority. If that will not happen, the radical transformational course would get accelaration, once again, sooner or later. The wise men and women could see it, the average type could sense and the fools have no idea. Irrespective of having any idea or no idea, the radical course correction is inevitable.


  1. nice work i appreciate ur efforts. you right federalism based on geography or economy is just another model of panchayati set ups of geographical zones or aunchals with some remake. todays buring issue is related with ethnicity and can only be solved by ethnic federalism any other model will only make situation worse and invoke civil war in nepal as it will leave the ethnic and suppressed groups unsatisfied

  2. Exactly, I agree with Writer's view.Core issue is to bring equitable excess n opportunities in resources and make everyone feel to be part of multiculture.