Nepali Times
From The Nepali Press
Ethnicity-based federalism?


Keshab Suryabansi Magar

The fact that federalism is now the nation's common agenda shows how far we have come, and is proof that the country's future is devolving power to federal units. Decentralised governance is not separatism; it is accepted throughout the world as the way to ensure full-democracy. The debate is over the kind of federalism suitable for a particular country.

In Nepal there are demands for ethnicity-based federalism. The argument is that ethnic autonomy is accepted among indigenous minorities in Canada, Finland, Bangladesh, and Japan, for example, to ensure fair representation in national governance.

Nepal's situation is slightly different. Here, ethnic groups like Magar, Gurung, Tharu, Tamang, Rai, or Limbu are not minorities. Yet, they form only 15-25 percent of the population in the areas where they demand autonomy. There is a real danger that ethnic autonomy will sow discontent among the other groups that live in those areas. The 100 or so ethnic conflicts underway around the world today show how explosive such issues can be.

The real place to start would be to correct unbalanced representation of the ruling class groups in the state: the 84 percent Bahun-Chhetris (not counting Newars) in the civil service. The agitation for separate states and self-determination or single-ethnic autonomy are slogans raised for short-term political gain. However, the call for redressing past wrongs can't be ignored and, if only lip-service is paid to federalism, the future looks bleak. The only way is to form genuine autonomous regions and a non-ethnically demarcated federal state structure.

Autonomous regions have to be regional or provincial. The rights of the ethnic minorities living in such units of government must be addressed locally. This would best guarantee long-term peace.

Keshab Suryabansi Magar is deputy general secretary of the Rastriya Janamukti Party.

Mahendra Lawoti

Those who argue for only administrative federalism ignore Nepal's multi-ethnic nature. Administrative federalism will make Nepal's problems worse, not solve them.

In my book Towards a Democratic Nepal (Sage, 2005) I propose eight ways to resolve ethnic and other injustices against dalits, women, indigenous groups, and madhesis while addressing the rights of Bahun-Chhetris. They are: non-geographic autonomy, sub-autonomy, special areas for the extra-marginalised, reservation, elections with proportional representation, a justice system, rights for minorities and a powerful upper house. Only ethnic federalism will not solve all problems, but that doesn't mean it is wrong. That is like saying democracy is wrong because there are problems with democracy.

Some argue that ethnic federalism won't work because of the lack of human resources, but this is an excuse for perpetuating centralism. If just the existing budget spent by the centre were given to the districts, it would be disbursed with much more accountability. Take the Karnali, where people are more capable of solving their problems than Kathmandu is.

Self-determination is the essence of democracy. Not giving people that right allows others to usurp their democratic rights. Self-determination won't lead to separatism, but prevent it. So far, no ethnic group has advocated separatism and to label them thus is ethnic prejudice. There are also questions about Bahun-Chhetris who are spread across the country. Since they have the highest proportion of the population, Bahun-Chhetris could safeguard their rights with higher representation at the centre. They are already prominent at the centre and will remain so for some time, though perhaps not as dominant as they are now. Those who are minorities in the centre can safeguard their rights through ethnic federalism. The whole idea is to get the maximum number of people included in decision-making. There is no reason people should be afraid of this.

Mahendra Lawoti is assistant professor of political science at Western Michigan University.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)