Nepali Times
Including the excluded



For more than a decade Sitaram Tamang and his colleagues have discussed how they would revive their ancestral lands: Tamsaling. Now they believe the time has come.

In the wake of the people's movement, Nepal's indigenous people finally believe they will have proportional representation in their country's governance.

That means "in 10 years we will have the majority of seats in parliament," predicts Tamang of the Nepal Tamang Ghedung, "but we have no time-we have to join with Dalits, Madhesis and women to pressure the government."

While almost all agree it's time to restructure Nepal so that Janjatis and other 'disadvantaged' groups need a larger say in running the state, there's no consensus on how to achieve that. Conservative voices argue that political parties themselves should first start having members from excluded groups. Once they are elected, this logic goes, these individuals will make decisions that favour their own.

"The parties should ensure representation within themselves," KB Gurung, NC general secretary told us, "Janjatis must be provided their language, religion and traditions. That must be given by the government and parties."

Many outspoken, senior leaders of Janjatis and other excluded sectors argue that the time has passed when their people should depend on the largesse of the ruling 'upper' caste elite. Not only do they want to mould the country into a federal state with a central government and provinces, they say that those smaller units should be based on ethnicity/language and should be autonomous. The Maoists go even a step further, saying that autonomous regions should have the right to become independent countries (see interview).

"The whole nation is talking about a new is the proper time to discuss all the national problems, of the ethnic people, the tarai people," says rights activist Padma Ratna Tuladhar. "Ethnic groups want their own regions so they can have their own language, education in their mother tongue, their own culture."

But Tuladhar says even the Maoists don't understand this. Among the tens of thousands of posters that the party printed to advertise its recent giant rally in Kathmandu, none was in Newari, he points out.

Academics like Krishna Bhattachan argue that Nepal wasn't so much unified by King Prthibi Narayan Shah but various regions were given autonomy under a federal structure. 'The king's idea of internal autonomy (was) to bind the different ethnic groups into a single territorial nation-state, or into a multi-ethnic nation-state,' Bhattachan writes.

If so, federalism shouldn't be such an alien concept for Nepal. However, rulers since Nepal's formation in the 18th century have twisted the notion to ensure domination of the Bahun-Chhetri elite, Bhattachan says.

Not all Janjatis are convinced that autonomy, or even a restructured state, are priorities. "Yes we need more rights but first you need to have a vision of what to do with those rights. And before we can develop that, the Newars all need to come together, stop fighting among themselves," says one Newar restaurant owner.

But it's not only Janjati leaders who think it's time to share power. "We think that more freedom will make a stronger Nepal," says the UML's Amrit Bohara, "but we have to make sure we don't go against our own national interest."

Civil society leader Devendra Raj Panday sees autonomy for Janjatis creating a threat from within. "The biggest faultline is how we handle the question of ethnicity. The challenge is to create a federal state that addresses, ethnicity, geography and development issues," he adds.

But Sitaram Tamang is matter-of-fact: "We don't want to take over, we're demanding only our fair share. We think that's democracy."

"From feudalism to federalism"
The Maoists shocked the nation when they redrew the map of Nepal in 2004 basing it mainly on ethnicity. Their senior leader Deb Gurung talked to us about exactly how these autonomous regions would function.


Nepali Times: Under the autonomy that you propose would each region be allocated complete political powers or would it be like a federal system where the regions get some powers and the centre other ones?
Deb Gurung: We have practised both systems in our own way. The autonomous regions have a constitution, judiciary and other state organs. Foreign affairs, national defence and money matters are vested in the federal government. Other powers, like schools, language, culture, natural resources and many other things are vested in the autonomous regions.

Then how do federal and autonomous systems differ?
We have guaranteed the right of secession to the autonomous regions. If they feel oppressed they can detach themselves from the central government.

So it's possible that the country could split apart?
They have the right to secession but nowadays the trend of globalisation is that strength is found in unity.

Where would the resources come from for each region to run its own affairs, particularly in the west, the poorest part of the country?
The main resources are people's capability and hard work. But Nepal's feudal economic system has made the society dependent on others. Due to the misuse of local resources by the centre, local production has not developed nor have markets. Proper management of those resources would solve this problem.

Although your party has now agreed to participate in multi-party politics, your ultimate aim is a socialist or Marxist state, which is a centralised one. How can you reconcile that vision with autonomy?
In our evaluation of the history of states, including Vietnam, China and Cuba, we have observed certain problems they had, concerning state power, the army and other entities. Prachandapath, or democracy of the 21st century, is the outcome of this deep study with a view to matching form with reality. Only on the basis of full democracy do you produce a unified state, not on the basis of dictatorship.

Many Janajatis and other oppressed peoples died for your vision of liberation via an armed struggle. Now you are telling them to put the gun aside and use the political process to achieve liberation.
When the people's war started that was also a political process, war is a continuation of politics through other means. The Nepali people are ready to participate no matter what form of struggle we choose.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)