January 14, 2011
The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict. Its approach is grounded in field research, with some 130 staff members on five continents working in over 60 crisis-affected countries.
Its international headquarters are in Brussels, with major advocacy offices in Washington DC (where it is based as a legal entity) and New York, a smaller one in London, and liaison presences in Moscow and Beijing.
Yesterday, the International Crisis Group issued an Asian report called “Nepal: Identity Politics and Federalism” and it is, to date, the most comprehensive analysis available of Nepal’s attempt to transform itself from a unitary state into a federal one.
The extensive briefing is divided in to three sections:
1) The history of identity politics in Nepal – from the Muluki Ain of 1854, to ethnic activism before 1990, to the “People’s War”, to current ethnic demands for federalism.
2) The politics of federalism from the standpoint of Maoist, UML and Nepali Congress politicos; the ethnic and regional activists’ focus; the less vocal but significant skepticism of former royals and the religious right; the organizational capacities of all the disparate groups.
3) The risks and opportunities of ushering in federalism.
The report is most revealing in its examination of the approaches of the major political parties, all of which contain opponents to federalism. It also looks at two key areas – the eastern hills and the central and eastern Terai – where demands for identity-based federalism are greatest.
Here are a few excerpts, although a reading of the entire document is highly recommended.
Nepal is experiencing a surge in identity politics and ac- companying demands for federalism. Diverse groups are insistently demanding a direct say in governing their regions. Disappointed by their failure to win expanded rights and recognition during the democratic period of the 1990s, many organizations – representing ethnic and regional groups – now see federalism as non-negotiable. Although most of the main political parties have signed up to this as they write a new constitution, resistance to the end of a unitary state is strong. Federalism is now the most contentious issue in Nepali politics.
The debate on federalism in Nepal is inseparably linked to resistance against political and economic exclusion on the basis of caste, ethnicity and regional identity. It constitutes a significant element in the re-negotiation of power relations in the country after the civil war. On an institutional level, the demand for federalism challenges the centralization of political power in the hands of a small elite. But it goes a lot further, in that it will redefine an entrenched national identity and upends the dominant, state-sponsored narrative of the eighteenth century con- quest of what now constitutes Nepal, which celebrates it as “unification”.
THE POLITICS OF FEDERALISM
Ahead of the April 2008 polls, the political parties were almost unanimous in their public endorsement of federal- ism.64 But of the major political groups, only the Maoists offered any details in their manifesto with a plan for thirteen federal units. Scant attention in other party manifestos hinted at the ambivalence behind the facade of support. The weak agreement on the issue emerged from bargains over what many leaders regarded as short-term deals to which they would not be held. The parties had done little to think through federalism and there had been next to no internal discussion in the NC or UML, which both have significant conservative fronts. Likewise, the parties were almost mute on the issue in their public activities.
… But opposition has been building in the parties. This raises the question of whether their professed support will translate into action in the final votes on the constitution.
…All parties – most of all the Maoists – are juggling ethnic claims internally. Ethnic and regionalist groups are eyeing the parties with suspicion and warn of revolt if federalism does not pro-vide ethnic autonomy.
FEDERALISM AND ITS SKEPTICS
The assertiveness of ethnic and regional movements has led to considerable anxiety. Taken together, the movements’ demands are directed against almost the entirety of the official definition of what it means to be Nepali. A significant minority of the Nepali population opposes federalism altogether. More than a quarter of respondents in a 2009 poll said they did not want it.167 Of the almost 50 per cent who supported federalism, less than half wanted to see the country divided along lines of ethnicity or language. These deep concerns shared by about half the population have not translated into widespread organized opposition.
…Royal supporters hope that disillusionment with political parties might throw up opportunities for the Shah family; but there is no significant support for a comeback at the moment nor does it seem likely to emerge. …Given their propensity for scandals, the biggest obstacle to a political come- back of the former royal family may be itself.
... Right-wing Hindu activism exists in Nepal, but unlike in India it has never been strong.
… The weakness of the Hindu right in Nepal may well have to do with the absence of secularism; in a state so permeated by conservative Hindu values there was little need to “make Nepal Hindu”.
RISKS AND OPPORTUNITIES
The drafting of a constitution and the design of a new political structure presents Nepal with a chance to address many decades of pent-up grievance. It offers an opportunity to shape a more egalitarian and fairer political system. Federalism is only one part of this process, which will have to address a vast array of issues. There are many stark forms of discrimination that will be unchanged by federalism and will require different forms of affirmative action that may clash with the agendas of ethnic and regional groups. Caste discrimination, the most pernicious source of inequality in Nepal, and gender inequality are examples. Cultural recognition for the larger minorities may crowd out smaller groups. The demands for federalism and proportional representation do not aim to change the nature of the state as a patronage system, nor are they likely to achieve it.190 They seek wider distribution of the pie. But politically federalism is important because it con- firms the legitimacy of demands for inclusion and sets the tone for change to come.
… Nepali nationalism was previously based on three ideas: monarchy, Hinduism and the Nepali language. The monarchy has been abolished and secularism introduced so an important remaining issue of contention is the dominance of Nepali.
The language question is – with a few exceptions – about cultural recognition. Language exclusion may be a significant factor for limited groups, such as some Madhesi women, but is overall probably less keenly felt than other forms of exclusion. Given the importance of Nepali, and indeed English, for educational and career opportunities, practical considerations often prevail.
There are real risks attached to disappointing popular aspirations on federalism. An open reversal of the commitments to federalism is unlikely. But stalling the CA process overall, or deferring difficult decisions could be tempting for those who oppose change. This would be dangerous. Already mistrustful, ethnic and regional activists will perceive further postponements as decoys for reneging on previous commitments. Countrywide protests would be likely. Given the widespread support, including among local political elites, for federalism in the eastern hills, a movement there could reach the critical momentum, which would allow ethnic leaders from major parties to join. Should a heavy-handed state response escalate the situation, then longstanding and strong political networks could facilitate violent insurgency.
FOR THE FULL REPORT, LINK TO: