The federal debate in Nepal by Akanshya Shah

Restructuring of the state is an integral part of the struggle for formation of a new Nepal. This invariably means that state restructuring is at the heart of democracy and peace building process that started in 2005 with the signing of the 12-point agreement in New Delhi between the Maoists and the then Seven Party Alliance.

The decade-long Maoists’ People’s War’, which aimed at overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of a people’s democratic republic, drew much of its strength from the ethnic communities and propagated a federal restructuring. It was accepted by most political parties and general public as it was perceived that federal restructuring would end all discrimination and disparities existing in the Nepali society and would usher in an inclusive polity. So, the new republic would be based on secularism, pluralistic democracy and freedom.

According to the popular aspiration of the Jana Andolan II, monarchy was abolished by the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly (CA) in 2008. In the CA polls of April 2008, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) emerged as the largest party with 220 seats, but it was deprived of an absolute majority (301) in an Assembly of 601 members. The other two national parties – the Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML – were relegated to the second and third positions respectively.

The emergence of new Tarai parties in the national mainstream during this period was another significant development. The Madheshi parties not only reduced the traditional influence of the NC and UML in the Tarai (southern plains bordering India), they prevented the Maoists from a sweeping victory. The Madhesi parties became a major political force after the CA polls and have been part of every government since then. The new political forces further strengthened the federal agenda in the country.

Almost all political parties in Nepal have in principle committed to federalism after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2006. After a violent protest in the Tarai, the Interim Constitution was amended to incorporate federalism in2007.

But the differences now exist on the basis of state division. While the Maoists, Madhesis and ethnic groups are supporting an identity-based federal model, the opposition NC and UML want multi-ethnicity based provinces as they fear total disintegration of the country if the state is divided along ethnic lines in a country with more than 100 ethnic groups. The NC and UML want five or at the maximum seven provinces. But the Maoists favour ten or more provinces.

As a compromise, the Maoists have suggested naming the provinces on the basis of geography and after the majority ethnic groups of the particular area. For instance, the Bagmati district (which at present includes capital city) would become Newa-Bagmati as Newaris form the majority population in this area.

The Madhesi parties prefer ’one Madhesh one Pradesh’ that extends from eastern to far western border. This is unacceptable to others. Lately, ethnic groups and other minority organisations have united for a common voice and have been pressing for more autonomy with right to self-determination. Many among them consider themselves indigenous to their territory and demand agradhikar – a preferential treatment for political leadership.

The CA was expected to settle all the contentious issues with regard to state restructuring. Unfortunately, however, after four extensions, it was dissolved on May 27, 2012, without formulating the desired constitution. Since the CA failed in its mandate, the issue of state restructuring is now more radicalised.

The real problem lay in the delay caused in addressing this issue since the beginning of the peace process and signing of the CPA. Soon after the CPA was formalised, the Nepali politicians and the academicians focussed the overall debate on the peace process, which mainly include the integration of the former Maoist combatants.

While the NC and the more conservative force within UML prioritised conclusion of peace process before writing the new constitution, the federal debate was relegated to the back-burner. It was only since the beginning of this year that federalism gained prominence, especially after the national army was sent to the Maoist cantonments and satellite camps in April. Unfortunately, May 27 deadline was too close and the political parties could not formulate a consensus on the issue of number, names and demarcation of the provinces.

As a result Nepali politics and the society at large is polarised over the restructuring at present. The same parties which were hailed for successfully holding the CA now stand discredited for their inability to forge an understanding on the federalism issue. A new alliance – of Maoists, Madhesis and the Janajatis – has emerged to strengthen the federal agenda. Although the immediate goals of the alliance, as stated by Prachanda, is to forge a national reconciliation on the federalism matter and to end the current deadlock, it is in reality a strategic partnership aimed at isolating those parties and groups which are against identity-based federal restructuring.

The opposition could face a dilemma for it can neither endorse a total ethnic agenda nor can it form an anti-federal unit, which will be perceived to be against the popular will in the country. Thus confrontation and chaos over the federalism debate will continue in the immediate future.

India has stayed out of the federalism debate in Nepal and rightly so. India played the arbitrator role in 2005 and contributed to bringing the Maoists to the mainstream thereby ending the decade-long bloody civil conflict in Nepal. It has consistently supported the peace process and constitution writing and has stressed on greater cooperation amongst the political actors in Nepal. Consensus building is the major focus of Delhi policy vis-à-vis Nepal’s fragile peace building. However, an immediate agreement on the federalism issue seems difficult in Nepal with all parties having flouted previous understandings on the issue.

China, on the other hand, has openly stated that an ethnic division of Nepal would be unacceptable to her as that would impinge on her overall security interest. Tibet is the foremost security concern for China in Nepal and of late Tibetan protests have gained prominence in Kathmandu and other major cities of Nepal.

China is increasingly worried about instability in Nepal. Soon after the CA dissolution, Vice Minister of the Chinese Communist Party Ai Ping led a delegation to Nepal and expressed concern over the political situation. During his meetings with the top leaders of UCPN (Maoist), NC, CPN-UML, CPN-Maoist and Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (Democratic), Mr Ai urged them to forge national consensus at the earliest to bail the country out of the current constitutional crisis. China perceives the restructuring along the ethnic lines as dangerous for border security along Nepal-Tibet border, which is used by Tibetan activists to illegally cross over to India via Nepalese territory.

The western countries are seen to be taking a back seat in Nepal’s key issues including federalism. Some western-sponsored NGOs and INGOs came under heavy criticism for supporting the ethnic agenda in the country and for funding foundations like the NEFIN (Nepalese Federation for Indigenous Nationalities) to sustain their programmes in Nepal. It is believed that NEFIN was funded heavily by UNDP, DfID and others. Even academic papers of the foreign INGOs are put on hold given the sensitivity of the issue now. For instance, a report titled “Forging Equal Citizenship in a Multicultural Nepal,” a report produced by the UK Department of International Development (DfID) in 2011, is yet to be published, given the hard opposition of right-wing organisations, some opposition parties and mainly from ’hill elite’. Reportedly, the report has warned that the current debate and assertion of the rights of one group has failed to recognise the equal rights of others. It is said in the report that there are inherent tensions and contradictions in the accommodation of diversity – with respect to the rights of minorities within minorities (like women and Dalits whose human rights could be compromised by traditional practices) as well as with respect to areas where the claims of one group may conflict with the rights of others.

However, important question is where does all this lead the federal debate in Nepal? Nepal is passing through the most tumultuous phase in history as the Nepalese have before been involved in such a transformation process. The transition phase is bound to face hurdles. But the onus of making the transition fruitful lies with the political parties of Nepal, who are at the moment engaged in fierce intra and inter-party rivalry.

It is also clear that there is no alternative to political consensus on the issue of federalism, in absence of which the country will be pushed further into violence and instability. The parties must realise the futility of endless power sharing feuds and the importance of compromise while negotiating, for one thing is for certain that there is no turning back on the federalism agenda.

(Akanshya Shah is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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