Nepali Times
'No magic bullet'


Nationalism and Ethnicity in Nepal
Edited by David N Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton
663+ pages
Rs 1,100
Vajra Publications, 2008
The timing couldn't have been better for the release of the updated new edition of the 1990s academic classic Nationalism and Ethnicity in Nepal.

The Constituent Assembly has started deliberating on the structure of the new Nepali state and the role of ethnicity and federalism in it. Unfortunately, the agenda is being set by political sloganeering and not a sound analysis of the ground reality of this incredibly diverse country.

The re-release of the book by Gellner, Pfaff-Czarnecka and Whelpton is therefore a welcome development. One only wishes it also had a Nepali translation.

The original volume was written at a time when ethnic voices were muted and identity politics hadn't yet made a mark. But post-1990 and especially after 2006, the demand for space and voice by the traditionally marginalised has reached a crescendo. The 2008 election to the Constituent Assembly was contested along a mixed electoral system that included proportional representation rolls. The result has been the most diverse elected legislature in Nepali history.

The original volume was titled Ethnicity and Nationalism in the World's Only Hindu State, but was changed because Nepal turned secular in 2006. The new edition has a new chapter: New Nepal, New Ethnicities: Changes Since the Mid-1990s. The authors rightly point out that despite the new voices and new activism the leadership of the political parties remain exclusive, this in turn means that their affiliated ethnic-based organisations are more radical than them. Ethnic and regional movements for autonomy therefore cross party lines and appear to be out of the control of their mother parties.

The chapter lists organisations like the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, Nepal Thami Society, Magar Association of Nepal and the Nepal Tamang Ghedung with their missions and aims. A useful table classifies 59 official Janajatis as defined by NEFIN and NFDIN.

We should be very careful in the process of creating new provinces/states. The problem is already fueling conflict in the Tarai where Madhesi parties demand the creation of a single Madhes province from Kakarvitta to Kanchanpur, but this is rejected by many Tharus. The authors urge caution over the proposal for ethnic states and indicate that it could face considerable difficulties.

They also suggest that ethnic autonomy might perhaps be better served by devolution to small blocks of villages or, as suggested by political scientist Mahendra Lawoti, by a system of 'non-territorial' or 'cultural' autonomy. But the titular group of Adibasi-Janajatis would enjoy a 'right of primacy' (agradhikar). Activists have raised the voice of 'self-determination', but this can never extend to a right to secession.

While the Maoist want 'self-determination', NEFIN wants 'internal autonomy' because granting full right of self-determination would lead to disintegration. Even though the JTMM-Goit has openly espoused separatism for the Madhes, most other Tarai and Janajati groups have not gone that far.

The main challenge before the Constituent Assembly will be to find a solution acceptable to two-third majorities of its 601 members and to do so within two years without passions spilling out into the streets. With Nepal's immense ethic diversity, the demands and dissatisfactions have to be politically managed while the process of constitution-drafting is actually taking place. The authors write: "The study of the diversity and of ethnic relations elsewhere suggests that the CA is no 'magic bullet' that will resolve all the ethnic and other tensions."

The book also includes chapters by Prayag Raj Sharma (on nation-building in a multi-ethnic state) and Harka Gurung (on state and society). The authors suggest the constitution builders bear in mind that ethnic boundaries were often consciously created, have been deliberately maintained, developed, contested and have changed over time.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)