Nepali Times
Guest Column
New country, old habits


In Kathmandu last week, I met friends from the human rights community in Nepal coming out of a class on federalism. Over a decade ago, when I was an election observer here, I, like other activists, was delighted to see the emergence of a robust human rights and democratic activism in Nepal. As part of the international rights community, we nurtured these forces, which we also saw as supporting the aspirations of SAARC citizens.

What we did not expect to see was these trends deteriorating slowly as political struggles took hold. What happened? Did the progressives became so state-ist that they removed themselves from the 'people' in order to sustain the regime?

This situation begs another question of the Nepali polity: who is setting the agenda now? Who is charting new territory, and what does it look like?

Nepal is going through an intense process of constitution-making. The crucial issue of dealing with the monarchy might have been resolved in the call for a constitution which, at its core, respects 'people's power'. In a legalistic sense the alternate to a unitary constitution obviously is 'federalist'.

Post-independence India and Sri Lanka have seen violence and blood-shed as communities and nationalities struggled for equality. I am in favour of federalism in Sri Lanka-where the monarchy was kicked out by colonial powers-because political power-sharing is the only way to resolve its raging ethnic conflict. The struggle for federalism together with the right to self-determination suggest homelands, distinct languages, territories, and cultural identities.

But this might not be appropriate for Nepal. Nepal today is at the threshold of giving birth to the diversity of its people, rather than making 'one nation'. Can its political future, the aspirations of its minority communities, janajatis, dalits, and other caste groups be enshrined in an effective and representative manner in a federalist project?

All constitutional pundits offer all countries coming out of armed struggle federalist options, and perhaps they are compelled by constitutional law to offer federalism as a structure for power-sharing. But one needs to begin from the fundamentals.

What are the core concerns of the Nepali people? Where in a federal structure would we place dalits and janjatis? Is geographical territory or non-territorial asymmetry more important? What will be devolved unit? If it is regional units, how can we find representation in that political establishment for discriminated-against communities?

Nepal has to face up to the crucial challenge of its democratic struggle and related reforms. It still has large unresolved issues related to land reform and has to engage in a public discourse regarding the equal rights of women and girl children. It has to find the best mechanism to facilitate equal representation of all minorities in the governing process and find modalities to combat discriminatory practices, whether traditional or recent.

It is of course an exciting experience to deal with the notion of power sharing immediately after a victory of this nature. But we must not forget the soul of this struggle. The strength of this resistance to monarchy and caste-based domination was drawn from those who risked their lives for a democratic and just Nepal. The cause for free and independent Nepal was nurtured by 'the people'.

The formation of a New Nepal calls for a high level of representation of the people at all decision making levels in governance. And there's no way to facilitate this representation if we can't even agree on a state model.

And before state structures are formed, there has to be broad-based dialogue as to how unity can be forged within and among its numerous communities. Representation and participatory democracy are crucial issues for debate. Civil society and political forces need to take their task seriously and broaden their terms of debate before mapping the country's options.

Nimalka Fernando is a Sri Lankan attorney and founding member of Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)