Though successive rulers of Nepal have tried their best to retain Nepal as a unitary state, it may now be time to tinker with this concept. Unitarism has not brought us greater unity or autonomy, it has just presented artificial and abstract symbols of nationhood that many Nepalis may not directly identify with.
Ever since the great unifier, King Prithibi Narayan Shah, recognised Nepal as a "garden of four castes and 36 races", he felt that this immense ethnic diversity could and should be forged into a single nation state. His successors, and later the Ranas and Panchayat rulers, spent a great deal of energy to homogenise Nepal by restructuring it in terms of diversity and physical demarcation of regions and districts to make the nation monolithic and unitary in nature.
Some of these means were: propagation of the Nepali language as lingua franca, the official language and the medium of education. The Ranas also divided the country into 35 districts for the sake of administration and revenue collection. Centralisation of power, economy and administration in Kathmandu during the Panchayat controlled the country via a restructuring of administrative units into five development regions with 14 zones and 75 districts.
Politically, there was an enforced Nepali nationalism with slogans like: "One State, One Power Center, One People, One Religion and One Language." Nepali nationalism was symbolised by the absolute monarchy, the Hindu religion and the Nepali language.
Pluralism was subdued by slogans such as "Our King, Our Country, Our Language, Our Attire."
Traditionally, the Shah and Rana rulers created a caste-based hierarchy which was used to dispense political and economic power. Hinduism is also a cornerstone of Nepal's mainstream society, and the traditions that come with it have been entrenched in the psyche of our rulers. Regimes have come and gone, but this has not changed.
Internal migration and resettlement of the hill villagers in the tarai and bhitri-madesh have been a gigantic social engineering project which has altered the cultural demography of the nation. That this resettlement was carried out regardless of cultural and racial considerations was clear all along, and its consequences will be with us for a long time to come.
After democracy, this Kathmandu-centrism was recognised and local self-governance became a buzz word. But the pre-eminence of Kathmandu as the power centre has been maintained, some would say it has become even more ingrained, after the restoration of democracy. The 1991 constitution states that Nepal is a unitary Hindu state. It prohibits, via article 112 (3) the formation of political parties on the basis of religion, community, caste, tribe and region. It places monarchy as the symbol of nationalism with Nepali as the only official language.
Some ethnic and regional parties like the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, Rastriya Jana Mukti Party, Jana Mukti Party, Nepal Rastriya Jana Party and organisations of indigenous people such as Limbuwan Mukti Morcha, Khambuwan Mukti Morcha, and Tharuwan Mukti Morcha have been demanding the restructuring of the country into a federal state with the right to self determination. The Maoists have also included regional autonomy in their 40-point demand.
Even though these parties and groups are not yet major players and Maoist have yet to be tested at the ballot box, their agenda needs to be addressed urgently. There are two general characteristics of federalism: territorial division of power and territorial based diversity of the population.
Our topographical regions have their ethnic and regional characteristics which are still intact despite greater internal displacement and mobility in recent years. In the last seven years, people have been displaced due to the Maoist insurgency raging in the hills and mountains, the refugees have also helped to change the cultural and social mosaic of the plains and the cities.
The proponents of federalism in Nepal rightfully state that democracy, development, culture, heritage, administration, economy, peoples participation, accountability, responsiveness, justice, inclusiveness are enhanced under a federal form of government. Theoretically, regional units should be more sensitive to the demands and special needs of the local inhabitants and be forced to include castes, religions and socio-economic groupings to participate in the administration of the state, irrespective of its percentage in relation to the total percentage of the nation.
The federal state is by definition more inclusive than a unitary one as the ethnic and tribal minorities, and indigenous people get more space to share political, economic and social power thus addressing deeply-entrenched economic and social inequities. This in turn works as a safety-valve to release ethnic, communal and caste tensions within society.
The present constitution in its directive principles and policies of the state encourage the above principles. However, even after 12 years of multiparty democracy, the people of Nepal are not satisfied with the results, and do not feel that the country is headed towards an inclusive democracy. This is mainly due to continuous upheavals at the centre that has led to disillusionment, diminishing their trust in the democratic process and the leaders who have been playing at the central arena of politics. The silver lining in this period is the overall good work elected local bodies have done throughout the length and breadth of the nation. The people have found in their VDC, DDC, and municipality representatives' real accountability and commitment to address the peoples' needs.
Nepal must move towards federalism for the sake of inclusive democracy, social justice, greater responsibility, a responsive and streamlined administration, decentralisation and greater peoples' participation in governance. But this does not mean fragmentation and carving out the country along caste, racial, tribal, religious and linguistic lines. There are enough examples in our region and beyond of countries that have been torn asunder by centrifugal ethnic forces. And in all these places, politically unscrupulous leaders have fomented ethnicity, communalism and religious hatred for their own ends.
The answer for Nepal lies in true devolution of power to elected local bodies, with the phasing out of central interference. The local bodies will best accommodate the regional, racial, cultural and social aspirations of the people at the grassroots, and political trickle-up effect will bring this inclusive representation to the national level.
It is even conceivable in future to convert the five development regions into federal states. Creating federal states along caste, ethnic or religious lines would be a grave mistake. We may want to dismantle a monolithic unitary state structure, but we must not let this erode our integrity as a nation. A federated structure would enhance Nepal's diversity and bring us strength from balanced development, inclusion and lasting peace.
(Dhawal SJB Rana, PhD, is the former UML mayor of Nepalganj.)