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Nepal: ethnic lock, federal key, national door

A lengthy political crisis in Nepal has exposed deep divisions over the country’s future, in which matters of identity - national, ethnic, caste, class - are to the fore. A new federal constitution is intended to address these. The obstacles in its way could be removed by rethinking the “identitarian” dimension of the proposed settlement, says Oliver Housden.
Oliver Housden
16 July 2010

The Nepali peace process is entering a critical stage when the country’s democratic future will be decided. Nepal’s very self-definition as a state, in the shape of a new constitution, is at the heart of the process.

If the constitution can be agreed to the satisfaction of all involved, the result could be a catharsis to match the popular uprising of April 2006 which led to a peace agreement with the Maoist movement that ended the decade-long war in November 2006, the democratic elections of 2008, and the removal of the monarchy. If the document proves to be a messy compromise that satisfies no one, the likely result is indefinite political conflict which will impede Nepal’s progress. A key variable in either outcome is how the claims of Nepal’s regions and ethnic groups are represented in the final constitutional settlement.

A hard month

A lengthy standoff between major political forces has increased the partisanship surrounding the constitutional argument. An agreement on the new constitution was scheduled for completion by 28 May 2010, but the persistent bickering forced the issue into extra-time. The primary contention is between (on one side) the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and (on the other) the ruling Unified Marxist-Leninist Party (UNL) and the Nepali Congress (NC).

The three parties signed a three-point agreement on 28 May to extend the constituent assembly (CA) where the new constitution is being discussed, while remaining deadlocked over substantive issues. Nonetheless, eight weeks after the three-point deal they were able to conclude a schedule for completing the process; 13 April 2011 is now the planned date for promulgation of the constitution (see “Nepali major parties settle on schedule for new constitution”, People’s Daily, 16 July 2010).

The two camps are also still split over the composition of a new government, a situation unaffected by the resignation of the UML prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal on 30 June 2010. The Maoists had demanded that MK Nepal leave office as per the 28 May deal in order that they could lead a new “unity government” - a key goal of the national bandhs (strikes) coordinated by the Maoists in the first week of May. MK Nepal, backed by the twenty-one other parties who make up the unwieldy ruling coalition, initially refused to step down until the UCPN-M fulfilled its own obligations under the peace process, especially in regards to dismantling the People’s Liberation Army and halting their use of force in grassroots politics; but his resolve ended on 30 June when he left the search for a resolution of the stalemate to his successor, to be chosen on 21 July (see Kanak Mani Dixit, “Nepal moves on”, Himal Southasian, July 2010).  

The six-day strike-wave and the party dispute made May 2010 the most difficult month Nepal has faced since the end of the civil war. Amid the polarisation, it is significant that the Maoists - despite the UCPN-M’s remarkable capacity to mobilise support - did not succeed in toppling the government. The ruling coalition kept its resolve, and a demonstration of 25,000 anti-Maoist peace protesters on 7 May showed that it too could reply on strong popular sentiment. In this sense, the events of May suggest that no one power - perhaps other than the Nepali army - is currently able to secure absolute state control. This leaves negotiations and consensus, the buzzwords of Nepali politics that never entirely lose their potency, as indeed essential for the country to move forward. 

A federal conundrum

A consensual political deal is the sine qua non of the new constitution. Before the Maoists' strike agitation, a limited consensus over the controversial issue of federalism had been reached. In broad terms, the federal models for Nepal so far proposed conceive federal states either as homogenous entities (based on ethnicity, language or geography) or heterogeneous units (which place greater emphasis on economic and administrative capacity). The UCPN-M, Madhesi groups (those from the Terai plains of southern Nepal) and other historically marginalised ethnic or caste communities are the most vocal supporters of ethnic-based federalism.

These proposed frameworks, along with linguistic models (albeit to a lesser extent) have become the most popular conceptions projected thus far. The supporters of geographical federalism suggest adopting boundaries that cut across Nepal’s diverse ethnic populations, and would allow physical features such as rivers and lakes which transcend Nepal’s varied topography to be shared by multiple communities. Conversely, the established political parties (such as the UML or NC) propose less radical, heterogeneous units which incorporate linguistic, ethnic, religious, caste and geographical diversity but focus on administration and economic capabilities. 

All the existing federal designs are provisional and inconsistent. For instance, all sides argue that fiscal authority, defence spending and foreign policy should remain in the national government’s control; but significant disagreements persist over “self-determination”, “autonomy” and the extent to which power should be devolved from the centre to the periphery. These problems must be resolved if federalism is to be a viable apparatus on which to build a new political structure in Nepal. 

A matter of identity

Nepal’s ethnic and caste-based social plurality means that contemporary politics are infused by issues of identity. The eclectic alliance of the first people’s movement (or Jan Andolan I) to end authoritarian rule and restore democracy in the late 1980s - which included left- and right-wing democrats, civil-society members, the media and representatives of marginalised ethnic and caste communities - highlighted an increasing awareness of ethnicity and caste in Nepali political identity.

The trend was exacerbated in the 1996-2006 period, as the Maoist rebels played upon various identity-based grievances (ethnic, caste, gender, class, youth) and the failure of the new democracy to end inequality (both vertical and horizontal) in order to mobilise support for their insurgency (see Kanak Mani Dixit, “Letter to the whole-timer”, Himal Southasian, February 2010). 

The use of “identity politics” became even more widespread after Jan Andolan II in April 2006 and the rise of activism among the the Madhesi (who historically feel alienated from economic and political development in Kathmandu). In the national elections of 10 April 2008, won by the Maoists, the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (MPRF) gained fifty-two seats; this planted the Madhes issue at the heart of Kathmandu politics. More generally, the MPRF’s achievement has facilitated a rise in political movements elsewhere in Nepal advocating specific ethnic and caste-based concerns. 

An identity beyond ethnicity: the Tharu

The diverse coalition of vocal ethnic actors that emerged during both Jan Andolans, and the profusion of ethnic-based parties which contested the 2008 elections, suggest that Nepal’s burgeoning “identity politics” will become a permanent part of its landscape (thus too making the country part of a wider post-1990 phenomenon in democratising states).  

Yet a more nuanced reading of Nepali politics suggests this may simplify the ground-level reality and fail to capture the inherently localised nature of Nepali power-politics. A case in point is the Tharu ethnic community, the oldest indigenous community currently living in the Terai region. Tharu leaders, like representatives of other ethnic or caste communities in Nepal, are anxious to preserve their cultural heritage and identity within Nepal’s coming political framework as a federal republic (specified by the interim-constitution’s second amendment).

Tharu political associations - such as the Tharuhut Autonomous State Council (TASC) or Tharuhut Struggle Committee (TSC) - demand an autonomous “Tharuhut” state which includes Terai and hill-districts in the mid- and far-west of the country. This state, for Tharu leaders, would not discriminate against other ethnicities living within its boundaries, but must act as guarantor of Tharu cultural and linguistic rights (especially the right to teach children in their mother-tongue rather than just Nepali). Furthermore, the TASC and TSC leaderships frequently cite article 15.1 of the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169, ratified by the Nepali government in August 2007, to justify their right to extract natural resources from any future Tharu state.

But Tharu leaders, again similar to Nepal’s other identity-based political movements, have found it difficult to form a cohesive political struggle. Interviews with senior figures from the Tharu movement suggest that a history of oppression, and associated limits on education and political awareness, have constrained its political growth. Tharus were historically subjugated by the Muluki Ain (national code) in 1854, an act which formally institutionalised the hierarchical caste-system in Nepali society. Although caste-based discrimination was made illegal in 1963, many poorer Tharus continued to be exploited by the Kamaiya (bonded-labour) system that was finally outlawed only in 2000.  

At the same time, the obstacles to forming a united Tharu political identity go deeper than historic structural inequality. Most of the Tharu population of 1.2m lives in mid-western districts such as Bardiya, Dang and Banke, but a sizeable chunk also inhabits the east. Crucially, the cultural, intellectual and economic development of the respective eastern and mid-western Tharu populations has been markedly different, consequently leading to competing descriptions of Tharu identity, ambitions and demands.

For example, some Tharus in the east have overcome barriers to education and employment to become wealthy landowners and prosperous businesspeople (notably the current deputy prime minister, Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar). This is less common in the west, where proportionally far more Tharus were kept as Kamaiyas. Moreover, the most frequent concerns raised in interviews with everyday Tharus are access to land, employment opportunities and education for their children. Knowledge and support for an autonomous Tharu state is patchy and seldom raised unless prompted.  

A resilient identity: Nepali

There is no doubt that ethnicity is central to Tharu political and social life. Ethnic consciousness has consolidated Tharu non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Tharu Welfare Society or the Backward Society Education-Nepal (BASE), which have worked tirelessly for Tharu issues such as the preservation of cultural heritage, access to education, increasing political awareness and campaigning against the Kamaiya system. The Maoists were able to capture Tharu support during the civil war by exploiting their existing ethnic grievances behind their insurgency. It is no coincidence that Laxman Tharu, one of the most vocal and polemical Tharu political leaders today, is a former Maoist rebel.  

That said, the pan-Tharu identity which transcends geographical, class and caste barriers and unifies their population is a fantasy that is promulgated chiefly by an ethnic elite. The failure of this aspiration to resonate with the wider Tharu public may owe something to limited political awareness and division within the Tharu movement, but it must also be attributed to the continuing salience of national identity in Nepal.

Indeed, new religious, caste, ethnic and class voices in the multi-party democratic era have come to challenge and question what it means to be Nepali - rather than rejecting this concept altogether. There is also a concern with resources here. Apart from militant fringe groups that demand secession, most ethnic-based political movements and their representative communities want the right to autonomy within a proposed federal unit yet also to have access to top public- and private-sector jobs, and remain part of Nepal.

Moreover, a report by the Carter Center on local perceptions of federalism has observed increasing antipathy and disillusion toward the federal project, as many Nepalis fear it would trigger the country’s disintegration. Such worries may be unfounded, and exacerbated by poor education of the constitution-drafting process; but they nevertheless demonstrate that being Nepali is still a pertinent aspect of identity amongst the population.  

A last chance 

The brutal reality is that whatever the content of the new constitution, low-intensity political violence, bandhs and deteriorating security will continue in Nepal for some time. In this light, there is a temptation for Nepali political actors to press constitution-drafters to adopt a quick-fix solution to appease current unrest (see “The Maoist-non-Maoist Polarisation”, Himal Southasian, June 2010).

This would be a mistake. Nepal should not undervalue its rich ethnic, linguistic and cultural mosaic; but an ethnic-based federalist politics is but a cosmetic solution to the problems which a democratising Nepal is facing. Even this brief appraisal of identity politics illustrates that ethnicity is only one of many important aspects of Nepali identity. Nepal is indeed one of the most ethnically diverse states in the world, recording 103 castes and ethnicities speaking 93 languages. But it cannot be assumed that ethnicity or caste are more influential than numerous other tenets of identity (class, gender, occupation, age, nationality, religion, region and language) among all these communities.

In any event, it is beyond dispute that radical (and to many painful) steps must be taken in the constitution to open up centralised power to new political voices. Nepal’s most impressive achievement since 1990 is the remarkable emancipation of marginalised ethnic and caste communities and their subsequent inclusion in national political dialogue. But ensuring the rights of historically excluded ethnic and caste minorities must also be realised through sustained awareness, education and advocacy work; these projects demand dedication and hard graft, but will provide the most durable solutions to statebuilding in Nepal.  

The constitution’s architects should seize the final opportunity presented by the constitution deadline’s extension to 13 April 2011. The politicians involved say that the drafting committees have completed 70%-80% of their obligations. The outstanding issues - including federalism, control of the judiciary, and a parliamentary vs presidential system - will be hard to resolve. The next months will be crucial in persuading politicians to set aside their differences (internal and cross-party) and implement the constitution.

The roles of India (Nepal’s traditional “big brother”) and to a lesser extent the United Nations Mission in Nepal (whose mandate has been extended until 15 September 2010) will be essential in facilitating an agreement. Another prolongation of the constitutional deadline would lead to nationwide violence and the strong possibility of a military coup. Nepalis and their democracy deserve better than that.

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