Nepali Times Asian Paints
My Take
Federalising Nepal



What kind of federation Nepal should be and on what bases? Academics, activists, individuals with interest in the subject and a few politicians came together this week to share and exchange their views on this highly emotive subject.

'Ethnicity and Federalisation', organised by Tribhuvan University's Central Department of Sociology and Anthropology, was perhaps a year late. Ideally, this symposium should have been held soon after CA's term was extended by a year on 28 May 2010. Still, the effort is laudable since it attempts to engage people on a subject that has been, as usual, sacrificed on the altar of populism by a few political parties and activist organisations. The nation-wide debate and discourse that the department hopes to generate, and perhaps facilitate, could have created the necessary pressure on our politicians, donor-driven and I/NGO activists to treat the subject with the caution and respect it deserves had it began last year.

But better late than never. With the CA likely to be extended, the basis, nature, shape, nomenclature and number of provinces of federal Nepal would attract more and more attention, discourse and heated debate. Rest assured, we are going to suffer numerous bandas like the one on Wednesday.

A few CA members who came for the symposium on the last day objected to 'interference' on their home turf, arguing that one of the thematic committees of the CA had already 'decided' on the issue. This is bogus since the full assembly is yet to take up the subject and decide on it. Moreover, it has to be debated and endorsed by the larger public as required by existing provisions. A thorough and broader engagement with people is needed on an issue that is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the future Nepali state.

It is clear that our politics and polity is always influenced by four issues: the future of ex-Maoist combatants, the electoral system, the governance system, and the shape, nature, name and number of federal units of the Nepali state. The last one is the most sensitive and fraught with danger since the emotions of marginalised groups have been fanned so high that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to have any meaningful and rational discussion. With the integration/rehabilitation and musical chair on governments taking up most of the last three years since the election of the CA, the federalisation of Nepal did not get the attention and the debate it deserved.

Almost all political parties for federation agree that identity has to be one of the basis for federalising Nepal. They disagree on how to determine that identity and what kind of identity should be considered. In addition to disagreements over the basis for federalising Nepal, there are two other issues that are sure to invite fierce opposition: agradhikar (privileged right) of the dominant community in a state and right to self-determination. The fear is this would create second-class citizens out of people who will be in a majority given the number and heterogenous mix of Nepalis in any future province.

Will identity alone ensure the right to local resources and livelihood? After all, once politics over creating a federal state is over, the question of employment and resource ownership will begin to dominate. What will be our model? India, which is federal in form but is unitary in spirit? The US, whose states have well-rooted democratic institutions and economy? Or South Africa, which has adopted a co-operative federation?

There's no way we can avoid federalising Nepal. But let us discuss it without recourse to populism and without baggage.

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One month to go, EDITORIAL

1. jange

What kind of federation Nepal should be and on what bases?

Wrong question! What is federation and does Nepal need a federal structure?

As long as you avoid answering fundamental questions and worry about the details you will always be lost?

A few CA members who came for the symposium on the last day objected to 'interference' on their home turf, arguing that one of the thematic committees of the CA had already 'decided' on the issue.

...and you can't name these people or which party they are from??? ¬ Interesting!! It is also interesting the high regard that these CA members have for the general public and public discourse on the subject of the constitution.

2. Arthur
"[Details of federalism] is the most sensitive and fraught with danger since the emotions of marginalised groups have been fanned so high that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to have any meaningful and rational discussion."

There has been extensive rational discussion and Nepali Times has published numerous articles opposing the aspirations of most of the nationalities in Nepal.

Opponents of federalism (including Congress and UMLs) are now "marginalised groups" along with Nepali Times. Certainly there have been attempts to fan the emotions of these groups, but that hasn't worked.

You can get as emotional as you like but you are too marginalized to block federalism.

Instead of any actual meaningful discussion of the details all you have published in your many articles on the subject has been vague resentment while the CA majority has agreed on detailed maps and other provisions. No wonder you are so "marginalised"!

3. Never Mind

There's no way we can avoid federalising Nepal. But let us discuss it without recourse to populism and without baggage.

So a patently populist position is to be discussed without expectations of polpulism hampering the debate, and a political slogan based on imaginary baggage is expected to carry none.


4. K. K. Sharma

It seems ( exceptions are few) we are of two types. Namely those who learn only after an experience, and those who will never learn even after an experience. So federal Nepal has to come about.

 If it works out,.. well and good.

 If not, and  if the majority of us are of the second type, most of us will remain happy. If the majority of us are of the former type, we will have a field day raving ranting and blaming each other and of course, blaming our masters in Delhi as well. 

We have had such reactions with "loktantra"after 1990, and also with "Ganstantra" after 2005/6 ....... Jaya New Nepal.


6. Rishav
Federalisms based on ethnicty , even Federalism in itself is not popular amongst us Nepali people. The shout has come from militant ethnic groups who have aggreviences agianst certain other communities in our nation. For such a tiny county with such a varied mixed population it would not make any sense. The secret for our survival has been our abilty to work with each other constructively from our early beginnings until now.

Their are people with geniune aggreviances espeicially from the Dalit groups both in Khas and Madhesi communities, who have been marginalised by all ethnic groups not just by the high caste hindus,. The formation of the federal ethnic states would produce a varied standard of how Dalits are treated throughout these states and therefore would be unfair. Hence, my view would always be of centralised government approach in dealing with sideline marginalised groups which would apply for throughout the nation and much fairer in it's application.

The Government would clearly and honestly have to find out who are the truly marginalised, repressed groups in the country and not listen to militant ethnic groups who have sinister, ignorant and alterior motives.

We need to be working with each other from West to East, North to South of Nepal for a better nation. Divided we shall fall but united we will stand.

7. Anil
 A thorough and broader engagement with people is needed on an issue that is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the future Nepali state.
This is absolutely right.

The current debate on federalism sidelines two primary issues which are necessary for the functioning of a representative democracy.

1.Representative government- that the elected government represents the aspirations of all its people,and not just some of its people.

2.Ensuring and protecting individual rights of the citizens-that every citizen is accorded the same rights by the constitution and the state ensures that no citizen is discriminated based on his ethnicity,religion,caste etc.

One question that needs to be addressed is how will an ethnicity based federation be able to protect the rights of other ethnic population, and why will the other ethnic groups(who probably will form the majority in most of these federal states) meekly subjugate themselves to domination by one particular ethnic group?

There is also the problem that classifying different communities of people into groups for the purpose of creating ethnicity-based federal states completely sidelines the issue of internal discrimination within such groups. How will such ethnicity-based states ensure that the individual rights of the members of the weaker communities are adequately protected? What would happen if the discriminated communities refuse to live under domination by the elites of their group and want to form their own state eg a Dalitstan for the Dalits in Terai and the Hills?

Just talking about federalism without simultaneously addressing these issue of representative government and protection of individual rights makes the discussions regressive and meaningless, and turns the whole principle of representative democracy on its head.

 The current discussion reminds me of a talk I heard many years ago regarding exploitation of poor tillers by money lenders (loan-sharks) and landlords. Paradoxically, the speaker stated, that instead of decrying that such a system was faulty and needed to be discarded, most of the exploited tillers' dream was to earn enough money and be a landlord or a money-lender and continue exploiting less fortunate villagers.

For such a system to change it was not enough to change the mind-set of the landlords and money-lenders, but also that of the exploited tillers.

The mind-set of many politicians and their supporters in the civic society and media seems to be similar: by dismantling the feudal state what they seem to want is to create smaller feudal  states where they can keep on exploiting others, rather than working towards the goal of creating a truly representative democracy that ensures and protects the rights of every Nepali citizen irrespective of his/her background.

The other questions that need to be addressed and are missing from the current debate are:

1.  1.  For a small country like Nepal wedged in between two powerful and very interested neighbors, will a federal structure make it more vulnerable and a playing ground for outside interference? What will a weak fractious central government (which seems to be virtually non-existent currently) do if a state, with or without outside backing, seeks to set its own foreign policies or other policies that conflicts with that of the center's?

2.    2.   Will the people be willing to pay more taxes to pay for the salaries of all these new ministers and government functionaries as well as the expenses related to creating and supporting all the multiple new  bureaucracies(ministries, courts, police force etc)in each new state? If not, where will the money for all this come from?

3.     3.  Is there a less costly alternative short of federalization that accomplishes the same goal of decentralization and empowerment of the people eg by moving the capital out of Kathmandu and by spreading various government and non-governmental headquarters around several regional centers in the country, and by making the local governments more autonomous? (In the age of internet, there is no reason to have everything centralized in one city; and this may actually ensure faster build-up of infrastructure around the country, as well as provide job opportunities to people outside of Kathmandu valley).

Ultimately, after debating all the pros and cons of all possible options with public participation, the final decision should be left to the people to decide through a referendum.


8. Nirmal

After 3 years of CA election, there begins to glimpse the overall design of the whole peace process in this year, both in letter and in its music. As for the letter, the main focus revolves around the ideology of the necessity of the moment: to deregulate the monarchy and please the Maoists, establish a federal system that none of the stakeholders knew how it should be and what it really means for Nepal, regain GPK's and the NC's lost weight. It really is a natural reaction after King Gyanendra's myopic decision to form his own cabinet but how can that political alliance, which tried to distinguish itself more for the former than the latter, confuse socialism with patronage party-cracy that created a huge deficit of confidence even amongst them and a long lists of jobs to be done that will take years for them to finish, even worst: they will never be finished with them at the helm of the power. Therefore, the pendulum has swung to the other side: tremendous public distrust which is natural. So, in order to reduce it and not to incur blame-game there requires a good orientation through common sense, political logic that's what I've been insisting for a long time. Koirala and family blame the Maoists and the Maoists blame reactionaries, there goes the show continuously. And we're in the middle as mere spectators. It really matters a penny but the country needs to move on, full stop.

 However, from there, the options are clear. The key point is to identify areas where the Federalism could be applied. However, the submission of people to certain clans is unacceptable and it's out of date, come on we've been fighting against caste system for years to establish ethnic states at the end? How foolish we've been for 60 years fighting for the Democracy then! The Maoists have this judgement badly founded in their bible, but all indications are that they will use racial card to target the power, preferably, to create social unrests in order to capture the state, this is where there idea of liberation is tinged with never seen conservatism. Perhaps now there is an opportunity for them to consider other options of modern federalism. And with other it doesn't mean to copy foreigners' models or something like that. We're enough creative and pragmatic to do it by ourselves. So, let's have the starting point of federalism engraved in our brain: NO INDIAN MODEL, NEITHER EUROPEAN NOR AMERICAN MODEL can be suited in Nepal. Of course we need suggestions and ideas and we should ask them politely but without any sort of complexity.

As for the music, simsimepanima is the most visible and popular, it seems that we have moved from the stage: the grievance, the complaint, the alleged mistreatment inflicted centuries ago are still the main reasons for this whole mess poached and we've never found a solution but it is not necessary to demand certain privileges but finest policies and polities. Finally, the drudgery of always, but far less metaphysical than during the days of BP Koirala, more materialistic, formulated in the language of old nepali business schools in times of facebook and twitter. For now we should demand that the CA receive and provide a competitive political paper, in principle, by the end of this month. If they give us, well, if not also it is ok,  but in both cases they should declare the REFERENDUM with the jobs finished and unfinished, what they cannot do is to say If falano agrees we can do it in a week. How badly people are treated by these political thugs. Damakant, the country needs to move ahead and there is no one imprescindible when she needs to breathe.

These things happen when Federalism is not an end in itself but only a means to political dominance. The Federalism is good for politics, but to create national consciousness. Some may have come to believe that 1990 constitution  would be politically more pragmatic and less ideological than the unknown Federalism that's in political market right now concerned by the losing existence of the nepali nationalism (Daura-suruwaal and Dhaka topi nitis for me) for essence.

  All indications are that there will not be any constitution neither federalism nor the PLA integration without miracle, the protection (read it possessiveness) that is perpetrated by the Maoists, the NC, and the Madhesi parties(I don't mention UML because it is going to be erased from our political map soon so it's not worthy mentioning) is the main cause we have nothing. Nepali politics at the moment, is still in the same place as it was sixty years ago. Pity!

9. Prakash Chandra Joshi
The writer seems to have overlooked the fact that the debate on 'ethnicity and federalism' is going on in the country since Nepal was decleared as a federal republic country.At different forums this topic has been taken up with all its seriousness.Political parties,their sister organisations,activists,academicians,ngos/ingos and interested individuals were/are taking part in such dissusions.The pros and cons on this issue have been elaborately discussed,and the media has played even a greater role.Though the recent excersise is an add-on to earlier discussions, one cannot out right say that their was hardly any debate and discussions on this subject. Federalism based on ethnicity, langauge, religion/culture is an emotive issue and instead of solving the prolem it will create more problems which the present day Nepal which has a history of a powerful central authority till yesterday and even to-day is ill-afford to solve.Therefore it will be wiser not to left this issue in the hands of political parties and their CA members alone. Even the so-called local experts and uncalled for foreign advisers who have very little knowledge of ground realities can make a sensible decision,therefore the best way is to let the people (represented by the political parties at the district level) debate and decide on the regional boundries and solve this problem In this way you give the right to solve an issue to those who have raised it.After all according to the existing provisions,the federal structure has to be debated and ratified by the people at large too.        

10. naresh
7. Anil
Thank You!
The issue of federalization must keep up with the expectations of the heterogeneous society like ours. And, I think we need the rigorous discussion among think-tanks about what'll be the purpose and methods of federation. If we just get federation and federalism a roller coaster ride, just like we are having since fifty years every decade, we'll be disparate nationalities, for the highly charged emotions of marginalized group seem as if they'll not stop, and are likely to flash occasioned hangovers. Next, we need at least ten experts who could devise the nomenclature and policies attributable to such highly charged a field like federation.
By some accounts, Kathmandu is believed to have been 70% of the Nepal's economy; so your case for surrogacy seems pretty cool. May be, Dang or Chitwan or Parsa can be among better alternatives for the new capital.
The problem is that political parties 'll act in camouflage to despise such rigor of dialogues, since they'll desire not to let in their activists the mantra of aggrandizement, for stupidity is their game. 

11. BB

Fully agree with Jange and other commenters here. No one's ever really explained why Nepal needs a federal structure, and nothing else will do, in the first place? Why/how will federalism make us better off? Is it economically/financially viable? Are there least costly alternatives?

It's amazing that those who pose as the thinkers, intellectuals and opinion-makers of our country, like Jayshi, see no need to grapple with these basic questions before diving headlong into the unknown!

It was the same with the 1990 Constitution. We got rid of it without any serious consideration. And if we are willing to be a bit honest and objective, it should be clear to us what a soup that ill-considered and thoughtless move has gotten us into!

It's unbelievable that, even with the benefit of hindsight, we're bent on making more mistakes. Like the CA, federalism is a Maoist idea. Before 2006, no one wanted it. We don't need to go federal just because the Maoists, or some interested groups, demand it. We don't need to go federal unless we are clear and convinced that it is necessary and will be good for our country.

Influential opinion-makers like Jayshi, Dixit etc. should have the guts to challenge the wisdom of federalism instead of accepting it in the fatalistic manner that they do.

If our intellectual and political leaders allow our country to become federal without adequate challenge to that idea, they will have failed us again!

12. John M. Kelleher
11. BB

>> "Fully agree with Jange and other commenters here. No one's ever really explained why Nepal needs a federal structure, and nothing else will do, in the first place? Why/how will federalism make us better off? Is it economically/financially viable? Are there least costly alternatives?"

This is precisely the point which articles like this prefer to soft-peddle.  Federalism has not been institutionalized in Nepal, notwithstanding its notional inclusion in the polity's formal designation.  The word alone has been enshrined in public discourse, as if it is intended to have some sort of talismanic effect all by itself [rather like the word "ganatantra"....].

To date there has been absolutely no serious, substantive debate as to the form or modalities of the proposed federal model.  Perhaps this is because the necessary first step of any such debate has been gratuitously skipped: why does Nepal need to introduce federalism in the first place?

The current discourse on federalism in Nepal seems to presume that the dichotomy between centralism and federalism runs neatly parallel to elitism versus ethnic equality.  This is precisely the wrong direction from which to approach any federal proposal.  Federalism, if applied appropriately in suitable circumstances, can be a useful means to increase the economic productivity of the federal units by granting them greater internal democratic control over their own fiscal, economic, and social policies.  As the author correctly points out, this is why the federal model works so well in the U.S., and he might have mentioned the Swiss cantons as well.

But, this requires that the potential economic capacity of the federal units outweighs the increased bureaucracy costs of federalism.  As someone who has lived his entire life under a federal system, let me introduce a minor point to the debate that seems to have been somehow overlooked thus far: federalism is an expensive form of government!  Having representative political institutions at both the federal and regional level inevitably multiplies the costs of government, necessitating taxes at both the federal and regional level as well as creating the additional logistical demands of carrying out elections at both levels.

Any argument for federalism needs to take this additional cost into its calculations.  In an economy the size of Nepal's, it simply doesn't make economic sense.  Vague claims of greater ethnic equality through federalism aren't going to skirt the unavoidable fact that it is simply an untenable model for Nepal. 

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)