Dumping federalismThe discriminatory immigration rule targeting women only reflects the values of an illiberal, ethnonationalist federal government.
The news that the government was planning to require any Nepali woman below the age of 40 intending to go abroad for leisure to show proof that their family approves of their travel plans along with an endorsement from the ward office was met with universal outrage. So strong was the opposition to the notion of controlling women’s movement yet again that it seems to have just shrivelled away.
Granted that the government has periodically introduced restrictions on women going abroad for work and got away without the kind of outcry we witnessed recently. But proscriptions affecting Nepali women who can afford recreational travel is a proposition quite different from the bans on working-class women. That these latter prohibitions have only ended up penalising the very women they were meant to ‘protect’ is a subject for another day. Incensed as I was, I also felt quite sure that any such regulation stood nary a chance in the courts—not after all the pro-women judgements that have emanated with almost predictable regularity from the Supreme Court over the years.
But the very fact that a bureaucrat, or a group of them, could even conceive of such a measure in the year 2021 indicates the mindset common in the corridors of power. A major part of the problem lies with how the spirit of the political change of 2006 has continually been undermined by those who have come to power in the years since—in particular the ascent of KP Oli and his conservative minions after the new constitution was adopted.
The clean slate offered in 2017 to governments elected at various levels was when a meaningful difference could have been made. It was just our luck that the person chosen to lead the country into a brave new world has no use for most of the attributes used to define a New Nepal—attributes such as secularism, inclusion, federalism, and even democracy. And, taking a cue from the country’s chief executive, almost all federal and provincial institutions, and I am sure that would be true for many of the local ones as well, have served to subvert gains made in pursuit of that ideal.
Thus, while we have reservations for women in electoral politics and in government service, one of the fundamental pillars of the post-2006 compact—proportionate representation in all state bodies—has almost always been ignored by Oli, his government, and his party. To take but one example, all of Oli’s advisers since he became prime minister have been male. That is wholly inexcusable for someone heading a party that has been at the forefront of the women’s movement and produced a number of women leaders of note. Given such a record, it is no surprise that a government department under Oli should feel emboldened enough to suggest that women as a population category can be told how to go on about their lives. I daresay that had the elevation of women to positions of authority at all levels progressed as provided in the Constitution, no bureaucrat would have cooked up such a dumb idea.
Unfortunately, the malaise goes much deeper. Here, I would like to draw attention to an article from a couple of weeks ago by columnist Jivan Chhetri, since it is instructive of where we as a country are. The title of his piece, which translates as ‘Siding with Oli to dump federalism’, is itself rather intriguing. Chhetri begins by relating an exchange he had with a friend, a medical doctor like himself, on the current political scenario. The friend rails against federalism and believes that if Oli were to commit to a referendum on federalism in the upcoming elections and win, it would be possible to get rid of it altogether. Asked why he is set against federalism, the friend mentions the high cost of running the country as a federal state.
As recalled by Chhetri, the conversation then proceeds thus:
‘As an upper-caste male from the hills, you probably find federalism to be useless; not everyone in the country feels so.’
'What if I am an upper-caste male from the hills. My 82-year-old father still toils in the fields. I had to study medicine on a scholarship since I did not have money to pay for my studies. There is no advantage to being a hill Bahun, only disadvantages.’
‘Have you ever lived in Kathmandu?’
‘For six months.’
‘Did the landlord ever kick you out for being of low caste?’
‘Did anyone denigrate you or chase you, calling you madese [sic], dhoti or bhaiya?’
Chhetri writes that he also wanted to ask if his friend ever had to put his career on hold to raise a child. Did he ever have to force his child to forget her mother tongue and learn another language so that she would not be ridiculed? Did his grandfather get swindled out of hundreds of bighas of land and he had to work as a kamaiya and his sisters as kamlaris?
Chhetri admits that it has only been some time since he had begun to argue for federalism, pluralism and inclusion in such terms. He credits ‘staunch feminists’ like Archana Thapa, Sabitri Gautam and Sarita Tiwari as well as the writer Sanjeev Uprety.
I do not know Dr Chhetri personally. Like many others, his is not a name I have been familiar with for long. He first came to public notice as an aide to the public health crusader, Dr Govinda KC, and sometimes serving as his spokesperson. In this other avatar, he also comes across as someone with interest and knowledge beyond the medical world to make for a socially conscious writer.
It could be Chhetri’s seemingly natural humility that drove him to praise others while emphasising points that he obviously feels strongly about. But if someone like him, who would clearly qualify for ‘woke’ status, has only just come around to understanding the essence of the political debates that has roiled Nepali society and politics for a whole generation, there is little point blaming the government official(s) who planned restrictions on women’s travels.
When Oli took a hardline stance against Madhesis and rammed through a rather imperfect constitution five years ago, it should have been clear that it was not only pahadi nationalism that drove him. His disdain for an entire section of Nepali citizenry was sure to manifest itself in other arenas as well, which it has time and again in the past three years, most notably in the consolidation of power in his office—not to use it, mind you, but instead to avoid having to share it.
The good news is that there are now more people talking of the need for another people’s movement to preserve the gains so far, and add to them. Whether a movement actually takes off or not, that people like Thapa, Gautam, Tiwari, Uprety and Chhetri are rooting for the rights of the marginalised means part of that battle is already won.