Revolution in South Asia

An Internationalist Info Project

Understanding Federalism P1: Work toward Federalism in Nepal Appears More Complex than the Peace Accord and Constituent Assembly

Posted by n3wday on July 31, 2008

This article was written by the Conflict Study Center and was edited by Neil Horning.

Federalism is an incredibly important subject in Nepal. The old Nepal was officially a Hindu state and for a long time there was an “official” nationality (Nepali) and an “official” language (Nepali). But in fact this country is extremely complex and multicultural with over 40 ethnic groups and nationalities. A large part of the excitement over the revolution is finally overthrowing the old feudal oppression of the many groups, and negotiating a new revolutionary arrangement based on equality and liberation. And that is what the word “federalism” means in Nepal — that the government is not in the name of one nationality, and the new society will incorporate and respect the living complexity of the Nepali people.

Work toward Federalism in Nepal Appears More Complex than the Peace Accord and Constituent Assembly
Federalism in present Nepal has become a topic of great contention. Nepal has been a witness of several armed and unarmed struggles conducted by the Gurung, Tamang, Lama, Dalits and so forth. They have struggled against injustice, inequality, repression, absolutism, and for their freedom and livelihood. However, such movements could not attract much of the general population due to lack of strong organization, competent leadership, enough preparation, and strategical skills. The popular movement I of 1990 made the people conscious of their rights and duties. They were also made conscious by the world’s politics. Namely, the cultural, regional, and ethnic-based dimensions that emerged in the 21st century after the US tried to impose free market and human rights policy on the communist regimes of the 20th century. The zeal of the multi-caste, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-regional Nepali people was finally fueled when the Communist Party of Nepal – or CPN (Maoist) – initiated the armed conflict termed the “People’s War” on February 13, 1996. The issues of federalism, national-regional and cultural autonomy, secularism, and the right to self-determination became prominent along with the intensifying of the People’s War. Federation with autonomy has now become the prime agenda of all ethnic, regional, lingual, and cultural based groups in Nepal.

There are several different titles for a federation of states: (i) Federal republic – Brazil, Germany, Nepal, and Nigeria; (ii) Federation – Russia, Saint Kitts, and Nevis; (iii) Republic – Argentina, Austria, India (Indian Union), Iraq, and Sudan; (iv) Confederation – Switzerland; (v) Commonwealth – Australia; (vi) Bolivarian republic – Venezuela, (vi) Federal democratic republic – Ethiopia; (viii) Federal states – Micronesia; (ix) Federative republic – Brazil, (x) Kingdom – Belgium and the Netherlands; (xi) Union – Comoros and India; and (xii) United Mexican state – Mexico. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Malaysia, Canada, United Arab States, and United States of America have none.

There are several types of federation: (i) Geographically divided federation, e.g., Switzerland, Canada, Russia, etc.; (ii) Corporate federation, e.g., Nepal, Nigeria, etc.; (iii) Unequal/mixed federation, e.g., Quebec of Canada, Sikkim and Kashmir of India, Pakistan, etc.; (iv) Confluence federation, e.g., Belgium, etc.; and (v) Union federation, e.g., US, EU, etc. It would be better if Nepal could adopt mixed federation providing greater autonomy to Karnali region and other poor, marginalized, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups or communities.

Once Nepal has constitutionally formed federal government, that is not the end but the beginning. Some countries who declared republican federation with a small number of states now have 1200% more. For example, Nigeria left federal constitutional rule despite a series of people’s movements for regional autonomy and rights to secession even as a British colony in 1954. When Nigeria attained independence in 1960, its three earlier federal regions had already become autonomous, and when it declared itself a Federal Republic in 1963, its three regions had already become independent. It has now gained 36 federal states in a 5 decade period. Sudan, which had three ethno-federal states, now has divided into 26 such states in 50 years time. India which is 2nd in terms of population had not been satisfied when it declared its self a republic through a New Constitution. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee in India and the PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, were very disappointed when they were compelled to incorporate federal states into the Constitution of India. Sardar Patel, the then powerful Home Minister, played a pivotal role in that cause. Instead of a federation of states, India wisely incorporated into a Union of 7 with 29 States. India can be called a quasi-form (unitary/federal) state, as its Constitution reserves presidential power to declare national/state emergency. It first announced self governance in 1950, and now has 22 more ethno-federal, regional, and cultural groups demanding their own identity-based federal state with autonomy.

Nepal’s federalism has been a common agenda of all caste, ethnicity, region, culture, and gender based groups. The 4th amendment of the Interim Constitution of December 2007 has incorporated it and it has now become the world’s 26th nation to unequivocally declare its self a federal republic along with Brazil, Ethiopia, Germany, and Nigeria. But, history shows that Switzerland became federal seeking greater regional autonomy, the European Union for greater regional integration, and many others for independence from colonial states or to end a unitary state mechanism composing a number of self-governing states.

In the case of Nepal, there is no clear-cut model of a federation of states from the mainstream parliamentary forces except the CPN (Maoist) along with donor driven intellectuals. It had put forward a federation of nine autonomous states during the course of the People’s War (February 13, 1996 to April 25, 2006). This has been restructured into 11 federal states and 3 federal sub-states from the earlier 9-autonomous states after the Peace Accord. They are:

1. Limbuwan State Committee: Taplejung, Panchthar, Ilam, Terhathum, and Dhankuta districts.
2. Kochila State Committee: Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari districts.
3. Kirant State Committee: Solukhumbu, Okhaldhunga, Udayapur, Khotang, Bhojpur and Sankhuwasabha districts.
4. Newa State Committee: Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur districts.
5. Tamang-Saling State Committee: Chitwan, Makawanpur, Sindhuli, Ramechhap, Dolakha, Sindhupalchowk, Kavre, Rasuwa, Nuwakot and Dhading districts.
6. Tamuwan State Committee: Parbat and all districts of Gandaki zone – Gorkha, Lamjung, Tanahu, Syanjya, Kaski and Manang.
7. Magarat State Committee: Rukum, Rolpa, Salyan, Pyuthan, Arghakhanchi, Gulmi, Palpa, Baglung, Myagdi and Mustang districts.
8. Bheri-Karnali State Committee: Humla, Jumla, Mugu, Kalikot, Dolpa, Jajarkot, Dailekh and Surkhet districts.
9. Tharuwan State Committee: Dang, Banke, Bardia, Kailali and Kandhanpur districts.
10. Seti-Mahakali State Committee: Darchula, Baitadi, Dadeldhura, Bajhang, Bajura, Achham and Doti districts.
11. Madhes State Committee: Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari and Sarlahi districts as Mithila sub-state committee; Rautahat, Bara and Parsa districts as Bhojpura sub-state committee; and Nawalparasi, Rupandehi and Kapilbastu districts as Awadh sub-state committee.

Nepal is a landlocked, mountainous, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual country similar to Switzerland. Thus the Maoists are considering the Swiss model of federation in Nepal as well. However, the Swiss incorporated 160 years ago ending the civil war between Catholic versus Liberal cantons. Nepal has different geopolitical structures, socio-cultural patters, and economic disparities.

The Swiss federation is comprised of three-fifths (64%) German-speaking, one-fifth (20%) French-speaking and 6% Italian-speaking people whereas in Nepal almost half (48%) of the population speak Nepali, 12% Maithili, 8% Bhojpuri , 6% Tharu, and 3% Awadi and so forth. Moreover, the German speaking population is predominant in 17 cantons, French in 4, and Italian in one out of 26 in Switzerland. The 2001 census of Nepal states that 113 different caste/ethnic groups exist in Nepal who speak at least 92 different dialects. That is eighteen times less than India’s 1,652 dialects. If half the population of Nepali speakers do not find a linguistic federal state in Nepal, but only those speaking Maithili, Bhojpuri, and Awadh do, could this positive discrimination not raise conflicts in the future?

The Maoists proposal is centered on ethnic, linguistic, and regional federal autonomy. The Maoist proposed Limbuwan State comprises 27% Limbu with 1.6% national population, whereas there is an equal number of Bahun and Chhetri in the same state. Of course Bahun and Chhetri are the largest population (29%) in Nepal. Kochila State is again a proposed minority state encompassing a population of 24% Rajbanshi, Satar, Harijan, Dusadh, Dhimal, Tharu, Teli, Kurmi, dhanuk, etc. Kirat State is also a minority federal state which consists of one-fourth (26%) Rai and Limbu with 2.84% of the Rai population in Nepal. The 6th highest population (5.5%) of Nepal is Newar. They are still in the minority in their native Kathmandu valley with 35% next to an equal population of Bahun and Chhetri. Due to rapid urbanization the population except Newar has been increasing steadily. Tamang is the 5th largest population in the Census of 2001, which comprises just 30% of its population at the Maoists proposed Tamang-Saling state, but Bahun and Chhetri make up one-third of the same state. Gurung is in the minority (27%) in the Maoist proposed Tamuwan State which comprises 2.4% of the population with 11th position in the national population, although Bahun and Chhetri is 12% more than that. Magar is the third largest rank with 7.1% population and even it is in the minority (28%) within the Maoist proposed Magarat State. It’s 14% smaller than the Bahun and Chhetri population in that state. Tharu, which comprises the fourth largest population 6.7%, is still just one-third (35%) in the Tharuwan State which is 2% less than the combined population of Bahun and Chhetri there.

Federation is an acceptance of majority and recognition to minority from center to grass-roots. Federalism refers to greater autonomy which varies between the federation of states to central government in terms of power sharing, civic freedom, economic distribution, and socio-cultural liberation or identity. For example, in the federalism of Canada, Quebec maintains greater autonomy with constitutional recognition of a sovereign and independent Quebec nation. It retains corresponding rights and political power along with economic union and de facto asymmetry within the Canadian federation similar to the setup of the EU. Quebec consists of French speaking people with a distinct socio-cultural life, pension plan, employment, and immigration authority than the other nine provinces. Quebec could be a good example for Nepal to ensure greater cultural and regional autonomy within an asymmetrical federalism. Federalism is also found in the constitutional monarchial states; for instance, Australia, Belgium, Canada, and Malaysia. Although China is a unitary state, it could be another example of asymmetrical federalism for Nepal, as China has given Special Administrative Region (SAR) authority to Hong Kong and Macao through “Basic Law.” The UK adopted a unitary state with a series of parliaments established through asymmetrical devolution of powers such as the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Ireland parliaments created between 1998 and 1999. Nepal could ensure two more official/co-official languages similar to Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland or it could adopt no official language, like the U.S. The EU may also provide and example of how to respect different national traditions.

Nepal is the latest entrant to the group of countries with a federal republican form of government and has become the 26th country in the world to do so. In Nepal there are demands for ethno-federalism (among indigenous minorities) similar to Canada, Finland, Bangladesh, and Japan, in the name of fair/inclusive representation in national governance. The federalism shall also give special attention and advantage to the nearly extinct ethnic group, Kusunda, whose population is just 164 and only exists in Nepal. All caste/ethnic groups are for the most part spread throughout country besides the Tharus who reside in the Tarai particularly.

Nepali people have high hopes and expectations that the federal state will provide food, shelter, clothing, employment, education, freedom, and so forth. If it does not fulfill people’s interests, expectations, and demands it may either invite communal violence or recurrent demands for secession (or merger to neighbors). It could join the extensive list of 23 historical defunct federal states. These are: Austria-Hungary (1848-1918), the Inca Empire (1197-1572), the Confederate States of America (1861-1865), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922-1991), the United Provinces of Central Africa (1823-1838), French West Africa (1904-1958), French Equatorial Africa (1910-1960), the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1992), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992-2003), the United States of Indonesia (1949-1950), the United Kingdom of Libya (1951-1963), the Federal Malay States (1896-1946), the Malayan Union (1946-1948), the Federation of Malaya (1948-1963), New Granada (1855-1886), the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1953-1963), the West Indies Federation (1958-1962), the Mali Federation (1959-1960), the Federal Republic of Spain (1873-1974), the Federal Republic of Cameroon (1961-1972), the Federation of South Arabia (19621967), Czechoslovakia (1969-1992), and Uganda (1962-1967).

The approaches from unitary states to federal states in the world are as follows: (i) To strengthen mutual security; e.g.: the former USSR, Yugoslavia, etc. Czechoslovakia formed one united state merging the Czech and Slovak into two distinct political entities seeking strength in economic opportunities and mutual security. Yet, the former federal republics of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are limited in history. (ii) To maintain friendly relations (save nation from secession) amongst the castes/ethnicities; e.g.: Nigeria and Ethiopia proclaimed themselves federal republics in order to save the nation’s sovereignty and integrity from secessionist groups. India also declared its self federal to ovoid more secession after that of Pakistan. (iii) Independence from colonialism; e.g.: Argentina from Spain, Australia from the UK, Belgium from Germany, Brazil from Portugal, Canada from the UK, Comoros from France, India from the UK, Iraq from the UK, Malaysia from the UK, Mexico from Spain, Micronesia from the US, Russia from the former USSR, Sudan from the British Empire and Egypt, the US from the UK, and Venezuela from Spain. (iv) Ousting a communist regime; e.g.: Bosnia-Herzegovina. (v) Protection from Communism; e.g.: West Germany. (vi) To maintain neutrality; e.g.: Switzerland and Nepal (declaring 14 zones and 75 districts in the past), (vii) People’s harmony; e.g.: United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands. (viii) An enormous country; e.g., Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Nigeria, Russia, and the United States.

Argentina is the world’s 8th largest nation with a total area of 2,780,403 sq. km. slightly smaller than the 7th largest, India (3,287,590 sq. km), although the 5th largest, Brazil, with a total size of 8,514,877 sq. km, is almost three times larger than India. Similarly, the 6th largest, Australia (7,741,220 sq. km), is two-and-half-times larger than India. The largest country, Russia, with a total area of 17,075,400 sq. km is two-times larger than the 3rd largest, the United States, with 9,826, 630 sq. km. The 32nd largest, Nigeria, is 923, 768 sq. km, two-and-half-times larger than Germany, with a total size of 357, 021 sq. km. Nepal (147,181 sq. km) is seven-and-half-times smaller than the 27th largest, Ethiopia, that has a total size of 1,104,300 sq. km, but is almost twice as large as the 115th largest, Austria (83,872 sq. km), and more than three times as large as the 135th largest, Switzerland (41,285 sq. km). It is to be noted that Nepal is twenty two and a half times smaller than India. The smallest federal state is Saint Kitts and Nevis which has a population of 42,696 compared to India’s 1.13 billion.

The Congo is not a federal state, but in practice, it uses both forms – unitary and federal/ united and indivisible state similar to Nepal with 14 zones and 75 districts. Congo in unitary form, the center has a great deal of authority over the entities of provinces and territories, with a single hierarchical judicial system, security force, elected governors, etc. It also acts as a federal state due to constitutional division between exclusive prerogatives at the central government and the provincial government. The provinces have independent identities for budget, administration, physical assets, and civil service corps.

Despite huge internal moral pressure particularly by the foreign forces and external public pressure by the mainstream political parties including the Maoists and Janadhikar Madhesi Forum (JMF), Girija Prasad Koirala, PM of the caretaker government lead by the Nepali Congress (NC) finally tendered resignation at the legislative assembly of the Constituent Assembly (CA) on June 26, 2008. While he was leaving the Session, he gestured, slapping the back to his former close colleague Bijaya Kumar Gachhedar. The MJF, TAMALOPA, and Nepal Sadbhawan Parties then encircled the premise of speaker demanding the fulfillment of their 8-point agreement signed on February 28, 2008 between the government and themselves. Their prime demands are that the Madesh be an autonomous region along with group entry of Madhesis into the Civil Service including Nepal Army. As a result, the House has been adjourned six times and postponed thrice. Making the rounds are several of the following speculations about the agitation. First, these groups want to clear the way for PM Girija to be the first president of Nepal through agitation. Second, the move was started against the Maoists-proposed, first advocate of republic in 1962and Madhesi leader, Ram Raja Prasad Singh; although the Forum has stated that they will support anyone from Madhes for the first President. Last, these groups are serious about ensuring constitutional rights to the Madhesis. It is too early to say which option is correct. Madhesi CA members of other mainstream parties believe that the agitators act at the direction of other forces rather than in their own political goal, value, and interest. The Maoist refusal to accept PM Girija as President and the agitation started immediately after his resignation may have been just a coincidence. Some harbor the suspicion that if Girija were to be first president of Nepal, his role would be either Sikkim’s Lendup Dorje or would make Nepal the second Bhutan- to exact revenge against the Maoists. This suspicion made a closer ally out of the Maoists and the UML. All have a notion that “One Madhes One Pradesh” will sew the seeds of either a very weak nation or secession. Besides the mainstream parties (the Maoists, NC and UML), the Association of Tharus and intellectuals, the aboriginals of the Tarai (Madhes), who occupy the fourth largest population 6.75% in Nepal, are against the One Madhes One Pradesh proposal. To protest against the demand of One Madhes One Pradesh, about two dozen socio-cultural, ethnic, and regional groups have also been demanding their own autonomous state with right to self-determination. Due to an explicitly spatial population, none of the castes/ethnicities are in a majority in one region or particular area. Indeed, Nepal is a country of minorities. Today, Nepal’s great challenge is to determine the foundation of federal state structures.

The sovereignty and geo-integrity of countries have been endangered in both unitary (Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, etc.) and federal states (Pakistan, India, Sudan, Ethiopia, former USSR, former Yugoslavia, etc.). India’s Jharkhanda, Uttaranchal, and Chhatisgad have already been declared autonomous states. Gorkhaland people’s demand had the oldest one but yet to become autonomous, although Nepali language has been a national language since 1992. Similar, Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan in 1971 for its lingual identity in the face of ethno-Islamic federalism. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia. Russia’s Chechen struggle, Sudan’s Muslim versus Christian armed conflict, India’s Kasmir Hindu versus Muslim, Assam’s Bodo clash, Croatia’s minority fight, etc. are today’s major ethno-federal, religio-federal, and culturo-federal violence within federal states.

With regard to federalism, Nepal would do well to account for geopolitical structure, population density, regional/economic disparity, ethnic diversity, linguistic multiplicity, regional variety, religious array, administrative accessibility, unequal development, and geographical/spatial elements rather than divide on an ethno-federal, linguistic-federal, culturo-federal or region-federal basis. Moreover, Nepal should give extreme attention to national security, foreign affairs, monitory policy, big hydro power, national highways, and an international airport in the course of declaring a Federation of States. Indeed Nepal neither be One Himal One Pradesh nor One Madhes One Pradesh. Such federal states will ultimately lead to the corrosion of Nepalese identity, united strength, and harmony as each shall fight for supremacy. Our weak efforts shall be the fertile playground for those who would “watch and encircle” the country. Otherwise, we are inviting more communal violence, more chaos, and more bloodshed than in the recent past.

Author: Bishnu Pathak PhD and edited by: Neil Horning
Assisted by: Chitra Niraula, Rushma Shakya, Rita Chaudhary, Man Pd. Neupane ‘Manish’, Ganga Puri and Meena Siwakoti

References: Kitts and Nevis Arab Emirates States of America Kingdom
Situation Update: August 6, 2007. NEPAL’S Madhesi Movement: Against Khas Chauvinism? Kathmandu: CS Center
Situation Update: September 3, 2007. Nepal’s Maoists Federalism, Autonomy and Social Justice. Kathmandu: CS Center
Situation Update: April 30, 2007. Constituent Assembly Elections: Will Former Insurgent Maoist Lead Nepal. Kathmandu: CS Center
CAHURAST: (unpublished paper). Nepalma Sanghiyatako Swarup: AK Chhalaphal (Form of Federation in Nepal: A Debate). Kathmandu
CBS: 2003. Population Monograph. Kathmandu
CBS:2001. Population Census 2001. Kathmandu
Lawati, Mahendra. 2008. Nepalma Jatiyataki Prashashanik Sanghiyata (Ethnic or Administrative Federation in Nepal).
Pathak, Bishnu. 2006. Politics of People’s War and Human Rights in Nepal. Bimipa Publication: Kathmandu
Pathak, Bishnu. 2008. Nepal’s 2008 Constituent Assembly Elections: Converting Bullets to Ballots. USA: East-West Center
Regmi, Avantika. 2007. Listen Up! Don’t Go for ‘Federal Republic’. Kathmandu: Nepal Monitor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: