Not all groups calling for greater ethnic- and language-based autonomy are as militant as the Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), which is demanding an independent madhesi state. But all debates, radical and moderate, academic and political, turn on the same argument-that if Nepal is to thrive, it would do well to adopt a federal system of governance. The difference is whether these regions should be divided on the basis of ethnicity or geography.
Even the Maoists, who still officially back ethnic autonomy, seem to be having second thoughts. The demands of janajati, dalit, and madhesi activists thus now sound even more radical than those of the Maoists. Privately, Maoist leaders say they are finding it hard to keep radicalised ethnic politics and secessionism in check and this is why they are now espousing 'democratic centralism'.
Despite the high profile inclusion of women and disadvantaged groups in their representation in the interim parliament, some janajati and madhesi activists are accusing the Maoist leadership of showing the same traditional mainstream biases.
"This is not a war against the high castes by other ethnic groups but a fight against the long-held non-inclusive character [of the state], and ethnic supremacy perpetuated by Brahmanbad feudalism," says Malla K Sundar, president of the Newar National Organisation. He argues that panic about Nepal disintegrating is being spread by those who stand to lose the most from federalism.
The Maoist proposal for nine autonomous regions or 'Pradesh' and the Janjati demands for up to 13 autonomous regions are based on identity politics that found space after the April Uprising rather than on federal principles committed to devolution.
Political analysts say the Maoists have never explained how their ethnic autonomy formula will work. "In theory the Maoists want a forward-looking and modern ethnic state, but in reality the attempt seems to be to mobilise mass support based on a generalised idea of ethnic homeland," says Pitamber Sharma, one of Nepal's foremost demographers.
While cautioning that issues of ethnic inclusion need to be addressed, academics express doubt whether autonomous regions based on ethnicity are feasible or desirable in Nepal. "The grievances of janajatis and madhesis should be considered, and government policies should favour them. But the crucial issue is whether ethnic autonomy is economically viable," says Deepak Thapa of the Social Science Baha and author of two books on Nepal's Maoist movement.
For one, academics argue, even in the regions designated for particular ethnic groups they do not form a clear numerical majority. Janajati groups want that a certain ethnic group dominating a certain region to have more rights and privileges, whether political or economic, than the minority groups living in the same region.
Such moves, they say would open up dangers of ethnic cleansing by dominant local groups. "One should not, in order to right the wrongs of history, commit more wrongs. This is what will happen once there is a system of disenfranchising other people living in that area," explains Thapa. Sharma concurs, adding that, "the dominance of the Bahun ethos and extremism cannot be defeated by extremism imposed by the Limbu, Gurung, Newar, or any other ethnic group."
Even some janajati leaders admit there are big risks and challenges and that the future of ethnic federalism is uncertain . In the proposed Tamsaling autonomous region, incorporating the hills of the Bagmati, Narayani and Janakpur zones (excluding the Kathmandu Valley) there is only talk about Tamang rights, though the region is inhabited by a spectrum of groups-in Dolakha, there are the indigenous Jirel and Suryal communities, in Ramechhap Sunwals, in Sindupalchok, Thamis and Yolmos.
The case of Indian states, where federalism based on linguistic and ethnic autonomy has held, is cited by activists like Parsuram Tamang, who heads the Broad National Democratic Republican Front which was established in August 2006 and is made up of five groups that advocate ethnic federalism. Anthropologists and geographers counter that federalism in India has more to do with devolution of political and economic power to local government units, and add that ethnic or linguistic federalism is no guarantee of inclusiveness.
Most independent analysts agree that the pros and cons of regional versus ethnic autonomous areas should be based on rational economic analysis and not get mixed up with politics and emotion. Gaurinath Rimal, former member of the Planning Commission, says plans for federalism should be aimed at devolving power to the lowest level and regional development.
Sharma warns that small ethnicity-based units will not be economically viable and could trigger demands for representation from other minorities within those autonomous regions. "Due to lack of economic strength of the federal units, the whole notion of autonomy would be shallow with consequent unease and strains on inter-state relations and rising dependence on the centre," he explains.
The Maoist leadership seems to realise it has opened a can of worms and worry that the diverse demands for autonomy will come back to haunt them in the interim government. The UML also favours ethnic federalism based on regions dominated by indigenous and ethnic groups. Nepal's only regional party, the Nepal Sadbhawana Party, demands tarai autonomy but has failed to come up with a concrete formula. The NC is still not in favour of federalism. Ethnic-based communalism is manifested most militantly by former Maoist factions of the JTMM based in the eastern tarai.
"Ethnic identity should not be conceived as a simple means of going back to history, which is neither feasible nor possible," Sharma adds. If, say, a Limbuwan Front is formed, would all the Limbus (including those living in Kathmandu) really want to resettle in the eastern region? Should a Newar Autonomous Region bring the Newar diaspora back to the capital? "Federalism based solely on ethnicity and language can foment deep divisions and may lead to the break-up of the state for reasons of political expediency by sectarian political leaders," says Sharma.
Economics aside, the basic question is how the internal relations between communities will be managed, and how every group's rights will be ensured. However, janajati activists like Tamang say there is no way to address traditional oppression without ethnic autonomy. "Nepal may disintegrate not because ethnic autonomy is granted, but because it is not granted," he says.
Status of hill- mountain cohort* in tarai districts
MAPS: GAURINATH RIMAL
SOURCE: POPULATION CENSUS 2001
Maoist proposed federal zones- population breakdown by ethnicity:
Seti Mahakali 'Pradesh'
Total pop: 1,196,734
Hill upper caste**: 74.61 percent
Hill dalit: 15.28 percent
Others: 10.11 percent
Bheri Karnali Pradesh
Total pop: 957,680
Hill upper caste: 58.77 percent
Hill dalit: 20.15 percent
Others: 21.08 percent
Total pop: 1,028,204
Gurung: 20.57 percent
Hill upper caste: 41.11 percent
Others: 38.32 percent
Total pop: 1,645,091
Newar: 35.40 percent
Hill upper caste: 37.76 percent
Others: 26.84 percent
Total pop: 2,064,833
Rai: 21.24 percent
Limbu: 12.09 percent
Kirat: 33.33 percent
Hill upper caste: 28.73 percent
Others: 37.94 percent
Total pop: 2,613,968
Magar: 28.36 percent
Hill upper caste: 44.89 percent
Others: 26.75 percent
Total pop: 2,452,458
Tamang: 31.57 percent
Hill upper caste: 33.01 percent
Others: 35.42 percent
Total pop: 8,996,328
Tarai upper caste: 33.65 percent
Tarai dalit: 11.55 percent
Tarai ethnic (incl tharu): 10.76 percent
Hill mountain cohort: 32.64 percent
Others (incl Muslim): 11.40 percent
Total pop: 2,255,465
Tharu: 25.63 percent
Hill mountain cohort: 48.14 percent
Others: 26.23 percent
*Hill mountain cohort: Chhetri-Bahun, hill dalit, mountain, hill, and inner tarai ethnic
**Hill upper caste: Chhetri-Bahun