No Bantustans in Nepal

From Republica Daily (20 December, 2011)

As the Constituent Assembly proceeds with its drafting work, forced out of its three-year indolence by judicial activism, it is the time for vigilance. Given the poor state of constitutionalism in the Assembly, and the grip of radical populism over much of the Kathmandu intelligentsia, come May 2012 we could be handed a document that defies the public’s desires for peace and progress.

The danger arises mainly from the attitude of the UCPN (Maoist) as the largest party in the CA, with the power to ram through its agenda. As past experience has shown, the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and Madhesi parties could well agree to untoward compromises simply to avoid a Maoist-generated backlash.

The definition of federal units is a major danger zone, with the Maoist party proposing provinces based primarily on ethnicity. When some of the party’s own leaders had misgivings, and sought to opt for a six-province formula in January 2010, the ethnic activists in the State Restructuring Committee would have none of it. The 14-province design (including agradhikar, political prior rights for the handful of designated communities) was recommended to the plenary by a bare-majority vote.

The people at large, in the districts, seem to be wary of federalism based on identity, but they are held hostage by Kathmandu, where the discourse has been devoid of social-scientific inquiry. One can hope that the recently established State Restructuring Commission will propose an alternative definition of federalism, but the marriage of convenience between the Maoists and the Madhesbadi forces in the current coalition government points to the muscle-power that is pushing identity-based federalism.


The Whites of South Africa created a dozen Bantustans in order to isolate communities like the Xhosa, Zulu, Venda and Tswana and lock them in backwardness. Ironically, in Nepal it is the ethnic and Madhesbadi stalwarts themselves who propose exclusive enclaves, which would weaken the economic base of their own communities. They propose exclusivity in a national society where the habitation is completely mixed, without one community with a simple majority down to the village level.

The chasm in the debate is not between those who propose federalism and those who reject it, but between activists pushing (ethnic and Madhesi) identity-federalism and others maintaining economic geography to be the sensible criterion. At the very moment when, with the long-last advent of open society, the citizens were about to reap the advantage of economy of scale of a nation-state demarcated two and half centuries ago, we are confronted with an unscientific fracturing that promises ceremonial provincialism and communal discord. Even as the success of the ethnic and Madhesi identity movements have sought to deliver the marginalised communities to their rightful place in the national firmament—comes this attempt to establish Bantustans.

Federalism was meant to correct the historical deprivation of the people of ethnic, Dalit and Madhes origin (and others) by the Kathmandu-centric state apparatus. A federalism tailored to Nepal would take advantage of the robust nation-state on the one hand, and the benefits of devolved power on the other, to reverse the economic marginalisation of so many communities even while buttressing their sense of identity.


Some questions must be answered by the identity-federalists inside and outside the Constituent Assembly—why this attempt to privilege a handful of ethnicities with exclusive provinces in a country of more than a hundred communities? And what of the abject poor of the Khas community who make up such a large segment of the population? What of the Muslim citizens? Is there a deliberate attempt to stoke discord, to provoke revolt?

If the idea was to attack deprivation though the allocation of provinces by community, why did the State Restructuring Committee exclude the most deprived one of all from provincial rights, viz. the Dalit of hill and Tarai? Are we properly sensitive to the sub- or parallel identities that will come to the fore once ethnic federalism begins to look like a reality? The ex-post-facto promise of ‘non-territorial federalism’ for the Dalit, and ‘autonomous councils’ for the sub-identities that have managed to raise a voice, looks and feels like appeasement.

Such is the neglect of demography as a discipline among the identity-federalists that they seem to be working towards weakening the very ethnicities they seek to privilege with agradhikar. All said and done, ethnic federalism is an open invitation to citizens to engage in politics-of-identity rather than by class. Once unleashed, identity politics would not be restricted to the designated community in an ethnically defined provincial unit, and every other group would play the identity card. Given that such designated communities make up about a third of the population in the proposed provinces—whether Gurung, Rai or Magar, for example— they would face political isolation as the other ethnicities and castes in the province unite.

The call for one, two or three Tarai-specific provinces, pushed by the newborn Madhesbadi parties to build a populist base, similarly looks designed to disempower the poorest of the plains. Given the massively lop-sided concentration and density of poverty in the Tarai, the wealth of the plains alone would not suffice to subsidise and support the Madhesi poor. And yet, the Madhesbadi leaders seem willing to collaborate with the ethnic stalwarts in creating Tarai-only provinces that will be denied the future wealth of the hills—through service industries, agro-forestry, the China/Tibet linkage, entrepot trade, tourism and hydropower. The water for irrigating the flatlands might have to be negotiated with the upstream province rather than demanded as a right.

If the historically marginalised communities are meant to benefit from federalism, it is imperative to construct provinces which will benefit those communities, and especially the poorest among them. Can there be satisfaction of identity in being residents of a ceremonial province that cannot support its inhabitants? The best way to improve living conditions, and provide the pride of ownership including identity, is through potent provinces that are large enough and economically coherent, with vibrant commercial possibilities.


In the context of Nepal, federalism that uplifts the poor and marginalised would have to be defined by economic geography, taking into account the population density of individual communities and the integration possibilities unleashed by infrastructural connectivity, including new highway networks. A north-south orientation touching both international frontiers, and following the logic of the river systems, would create powerful provinces with the ability to represent the inhabitants vis-a-vis Kathmandu. Such provinces would wield clout on a Southasian scale, enough for the chief ministers to be welcomed by their counterparts in Sikkim, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

The five development regions established by King Birendra three decades ago, with the help of planners like Dr. Harka Gurung, never gained traction because the royal palace balked at devolving genuine authority. These development regions could be our ready-made north-south provinces, if only we had the openness of spirit to recognise why they failed in the past, and how they could benefit the marginalised communities concentrated therein in the future.

It is also important to have large-sized provinces in order to keep the existing districts and village units intact; since 1990 these have evolved as the units trusted by the citizenry for development, governance and administration. Thus far, the lawmakers in the Constituent Assembly have assiduously neglected our experience in local governance and decentralisation after 1990, but they must recognise how governance was brought to the grassroots and development became participatory. The elected VDCs and DDCs must remain the vehicles for decentralisation, a complement to the provinces and (if need be) a counterfoil.

Given the nature of the spread of habitation in Nepal, a powerful province would naturally privilege each marginalised communities within it, whether ethnic, Madhesi or Dalit. Why are the identity-federalists, having fought so hard for equality in hill and plain, now willing to abandon the possibilities of marginalised community representatives attaining positions of influence in powerful, ‘secular’ provinces? This is a question worth pondering.

Hopefully, the scepticism of the population regarding identity-led federalism will make itself heard in the Constituent Assembly in the days ahead, as and when the drafting exercise gets serious. We can either select provinces on the basis of economic geography, or opt for a ceremonial federalism that would not challenge, and hence keep intact, the power of the Kathmandu-centric state. Having exploited identity politics for all it is worth, perhaps this is what the Maoists now want, given their Leninist ideology of democratic centralism and the all-consuming push for a directly-elected president. Nothing could be further from the ideals of a federalism that is meant for the people, rather than for a party.

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