Genuine federalism can end discrimination and oppression and uplift groups, castes, regions and classes that have been oppressed by Nepal's feudal system for centuries. That explains the attraction of federalism to the oppressed: they see it as a path to their liberation.
But as the debate on federalism begins, we are also getting regional entities interpreting it in such a way as to encompass maximum territory to the detriment of indigenous and marginalised groups like Tharus, Muslims and Dalits within those territories.
Geographical division is one of the elements in federalism, but it should ideally be determined by the peoples living there. For instance, Antarctica is uninhabited therefore self-determination doesn't make sense there. Federalism, similarly, is not handing over of rights but distribution of rights.
During the Madhes movement, the Tharu community felt left out of the struggle because their needs were not addressed. The Tharu Welfare Council had submitted a memorandum to MPs through speakers one year before the Madhes movement clearly stating that the Tharus and the Madhesis are distinct communities.
The Tharus are indigenous to the Tarai, and they are caught between Hinduisation and Madhesiation. However, the interim constitution incorporated the Tharus into the Madhesi grouping. Tharu CA members who should be in the list of indigenous nationalities are instead listed as Madhesi.
The Madhes movement started long after we had submitted a memorandum to parliament. After that we approached the prime minister and the leaders of the seven parties affirming that Tharus will never accept Madhesi hegemony in the name of One Madhes.
The Tharus used to have their own federal state in the past. We had our own laws and the Chaurasi and Badaghar. Tharu culture and religious norms still exist. But these federal states were encroached and outside rules were imposed on us. Now, we want freedom, but we are being sidelined again by the One Madhes Pradesh proposal.
One Madhes Pradesh is sure to be a unitary system. It may be called federal, but it is sure to be influenced by traditionally dominant groups. The slogan of One Madhes Pradesh is another tactical ploy to continue with the centralised state system. Madhesi politicians assure us that they want one Madhes Pradesh ensuring rights of indigenous people within it, but we have learnt not to trust their assurances.
Meanwhile, the hill Hindu and Madhesi Brahminists are trying to maintain the status quo. Federalism is a relatively expensive system but it is the only path to devolution. Isn't the 601-member constituent assembly expensive? Yet, the assembly serves to be the first inclusive elected body in Nepal's history. The autonomous provinces themselves will ultimately find ways to run less expensive administrations.
The proposed Tharuhat in the west has only 25 to 30 per cent Tharu population, therefore it is not going to be practical. Some Madhesi leaders have proposed that Tharuhat include parts of the eastern and western Tarai. The name is not as important as ensuring the rights of the Tharus at this stage. We want a Tharu autonomous province where Tharus are in a majority.
The Madhesi high class has a share in state power at present. The same class has a monopoly in the Madhes. If there is one Madhes Pradesh, there would be a Brahmin monopoly, how can we ensure the rights of Muslim, peasants, Kushwadiya, Kumal, Gangai, Jhagad (Urau),Tajpuriya, Danuwar, Tharu, Dhanuk, Dhimal, Majhi, Meche, Rajbansi, Raji and Santhal in such province? I wonder on what basis these communities would be slotted in a Madhesi community in the new constitution.
Federalism or autonomy by whatever name we call it, the major issue is to ensure the rights of marginalised communities. If we make one Madhes province in the Tarai, the indigenous peoples, Muslims and Dalits will again get only empty plates while the high castes continue to dine at the table.
Rajkumar Lekhi is general secretary of Tharu Welfare Council