Nepali Times
Race for identity



The restoration of democracy in April has prompted Nepal's plethora of ethnic, regional and linguistic groups to press for self-determination and autonomy. But political scientists warn that identity-based federalism may lead to fragmentation and perhaps even ethno-separatist conflict in future.

The Maoists, who felt sidelined by the restoration of parliament and the pace at which it passed dramatic legislations since April, have tried to remain relevant by strongly pushing for autonomous ethnic regions. Even non-Maoist indigenous organisations, ethnic minorities and marginalised group have found common cause with the rebels.

Together, they tried unsuccessfully to push elements of ethnic regionalism into the draft interim constitution, and various groups struggling for indigenous autonomy have been holding public meetings calling for radical state restructuring along ethnic lines.

But neither the Maoists nor the various ethnic-based groups seem to be clear about how ethnic regionalism will work in practice in a country with such racial and caste heterogeneity within districts and regions.

For instance, when the Chepang Union held its conference in Chitwan in July it said it wanted \'self-determination with ethnic autonomy\' in the 29 VDCs where an estimated 52,000 Chepangs live in Chitwan, Gorkha, Dhading and Makwanpur. But some of these are districts are also claimed by the Tamang Autonomous Region.

Similarly, there are misgivings among the Tharu and other tarai communities about the Maoist Autonomous Madhes region that would encompass the entire tarai from east to west. Even the use of the word Madhes has generated debate among the tarai communities. Madhya desh is the area between Ganga and Jamuna rivers and over time, the people from this region started being referred to as Madhesis, which does not indicate any 'national' or 'ethnic identity', says Khem Narayan Chaudhary, president of the Tharu Kalyankarini Sabha. In fact a Maoist-breakaway faction called the Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha is already fighting both the Maoists and the state, and assassinated RPP MP Krishna Charan Shrestha just before Dasain.


WARNING: Various janjati organisations demonstrate outside Singha Darbar on 31 May to caution the government to pay serious attention to indigenous rights.
The ethnic regions carved out by the Maoists for the Gurungs, Magars, and Kirats also overlap, and autonomy could lay the seed of unprecedented inter-ethnic conflict in future, experts say. The communal riots that followed the massacre of 12 Nepali workers in Iraq in September 2004 proved that ethnic violence can easily be stoked.

In fact, in many of the regions set aside for particular ethnicities, those groups are themselves minorities. Magars, Tharus, Tamang, Newar and Gurungs each have majorities in only one district each within their regions, for instance.

In an interview before he was killed in the helicopter crash last month, ethnicity expert Harka Gurung told us: "It's not enough to say 'Limbuwan' or 'Tamuwan'. You have to decide where to demarcate the borders of these regions. So you can have endless debates for political reasons about whether these divisions are ethnic or geographic, but the key question is whether these regions can be truly autonomous."

There is no denying that successive governments in Nepal ever since unification have refused to devolve power. There was extreme marginalisation of certain ethnic and caste groups, and centuries of neglect of remote regions and exploitation of tarai resources by feudal rulers in Kathmandu.

Some, like political scientist Krishna Bhattachan, believe that ethnic autonomy should not be seen as synonymous with separatism. "If you offer genuine autonomy it won't bring separatism, in fact it will prevent it" he says.

The sudden upsurge in demands for ethnic autonomy after the collapse of the royal regime is partly political posturing by various identity-based groups. Political parties have also been tempted by ethnic populism and are trying to take advantage while the Maoists are using the ethnic card as a bargaining chip. All this could be dangerous, analysts say, because it threatens to turn Nepal's class war into a caste war.
There is near-unanimity among academics and politicians that some form of federalism is needed to correct historic Kathmandu-centric governance.

But the question is whether a future federal structure should be demarcated along ethnic lines or by regions. At the moment, the voices of those calling for non-ethnic autonomous regions are muted. Yet, true regional autonomy would kill two birds with one stone: guaranteeing political devolution while giving proportional representation to marginalised groups.

Bahun-Chhetris have dominated the political process, but still account for more than 50 percent of the population in 18 districts and more than 20 percent in 62 districts. Regional federalism would be fair to everyone, some experts feel, without swinging to the other extreme and sowing the seeds of future conflict by creating new exclusions.

A more-inclusive politics will, however, first need the political parties to have greater internal diversity. The Nepali Congress and UML are both dominated by so called high-caste figures and even the top Maoist leadership doesn't reflect ethnic or gender diversity.

Krishna Khanal, professor of political science at Tribhuban University, is convinced that given Nepal's ethnic and linguistic diversity ethnic-based federalism would be a mistake. A better way would be to set up a federal structure for regional autonomy that would guarantee ethnic representation. He adds: "This way you don't risk communal conflict, and you provide indigenous groups with the chance to govern. The issue should be equity, not race politics."

Such a structure could be based on King Birendra's five 'development regions', which could serve as federal units for regional governance. The indigenous and marginalised groups would have a say within these autonomous regions and also be present in a future federal parliament under proportional representation mechanisms.

Nepal's past experience shows that whenever governance has been takeaway from Kathmandu to the districts and the grassroots, it has worked better. So future federal structures have a better chance of ensuring accountability and good governance by giving hitherto neglected groups a say in the decision-making process.

"It is past exclusion in the political process that has given rise to this demand for ethnic autonomy," explains geographer Pitambar Sharma, "it is certain we now need federalism. But it should be geographical federalism, not ethnic-based federalism and these federal units should have a mechanism to give indigenous groups fair representation."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)