‘Only a political settlement can solve the Koshi crisis’CPN (Maoist Centre) central committee member Ajambar Rai Kangmang on recent protests against the naming of Koshi province and possible ways to resolve it.
Ajambar Rai Kangmang is among the CPN-UML leaders who quit the party en masse to form the Federal Socialist Party in 2012. The new party’s goal was to champion the cause of identity-based federalism. In 2015, it merged with other forces. Kangmang then joined the CPN (Maoist Centre) and is now the party’s central committee member. The Post’s Nishan Khatiwada talked to the leader from Bhojpur of Koshi Province about the recent protests against the naming of the province and possible ways to resolve it.
Why have protests escalated in the Koshi Province even after its assembly settled the provincial nomenclature by two-thirds majority?
Three factors came into play. First, the naming of the province, an issue that had been pending for five years, was all of a sudden settled in a day on a fast-track basis. That put some provincial lawmakers in a dilemma on whether to be involved in the naming process and to sideline their identity-based agendas. Had the discussions with stakeholders advocating for identity-based names held earlier, there would have been less dispute. So the fast track approach led to the violent reaction.
Second, the provincial Maoist Centre lawmakers voted in favour of the new name without consulting the party’s central leadership. This made the provincial-level identity-based activists and forces feel completely ignored. They felt no one in federal politics cares about their identity-based agendas.
Third, the region has always been a flag-bearer region for Nepal’s identity-based movement. The political parties, however, took the issue lightly as the six other provinces had resolved their names without much contestation.
What would have been the right approach?
For sure, the protesters’ demand for a name representing a single identity would not have been realised. But a common ground could have been found on names like ‘Koshi Kirat’ or ‘Kirat Koshi’ reflecting multi-identity. That would have resolved the issue. At the least, had the identity activists been consulted first, the situation would not have been so bad.
The Maoist Centre seems to have adopted double standards in the Koshi agitation, whereby its provincial lawmakers voted in favour of the new name but later a meeting of top Maoist leaders in Kathmandu said it was a mistake. Why?
The Maoist Centre came into mainstream politics by stepping on identity-based agendas. But after its leaders got used to power and position, they started deviating from such agendas fearing trouble. Poor election results in subsequent elections also enhanced the feeling in leaders that the party would be better served by distancing itself from identity-based politics.
So, of late, it seems the party leadership is finding it difficult to continue to embrace identity-based agendas which once used to be at the core of their ideology.
How should the Koshi protests be dealt with now?
Its name was finalised procedurally and in a haste, without trying to first find a political settlement. So it is vital to have cross-party political agreement.
Province 1 was the flagbearer for identity-based federalism. But the identity-based parties from the same region have failed to garner public support.
I also contested elections twice. Even though the public are pleased with the emerging forces’ agendas, leaderships and political programmes, voters, once they have a ballot paper in hand, find it difficult to renounce their affiliation to traditional parties and continue voting for them. This is a reason for the continuation of the status quo in Nepal. And the identity-based political parties failed to break those traditional vote blocs.
But the recent victories of independent mayors and emergence of new parties has sparked hope that the status quo is under strain. Had public awareness been raised to this extent when we had fought for the cause, identity-based politics would have gained a different height.
Various identity-based outfits have at times been misused by vested interests. Isn’t the deviation from original agendas one reason identity-based politics has failed to gain traction?
It is true that identity-based parties and organisations have failed to carry their agendas forward, even when they have got power and positions. Curiously, if the leaders who advocate for identity issues become popular and show some potential, they then get political positions not to promote identity-based movements but to diffuse them. They then leave the identity-based agendas, and submerge themselves in the privileges of power and politics.
The Koshi dispute has flared up when anti-federal forces are getting increasingly vocal. They argue that the dispute again shows that federalism is a divisive agenda. What do you say?
Laws for effective implementation of federalism, such as those related to education, police and civil service are yet to be enacted. The ministries are struggling to formulate laws, implement concurrent rights and exercise fiscal federalism. The initial two-three years after the country embraced federalism were wasted as an opportunity to build a solid foundation for the federal system went to waste. We are expecting great things from the federal system while the truth is that we failed to nurture it right from its infancy.
How important is the name of a province, really? Is it something worth sacrificing your life for?
If you think long term, you need to have some safety valves in politics as well. At least we now have a safety valve in the naming of Province 2 as ‘Madhesh’. Had we added ‘Kirat’ to ‘Koshi’, we would have had a safety valve in Province 1 as well. Regions in other countries do the same.
You also need to understand public psychology. Though it may not be enough, it is vital to address concerns related to a region’s history, civilisation and identity. While saying so, you also need to lift the lives of common people. The state should give priority to underprivileged sections of the society. We shouldn’t forget the class issue—identity and class should be addressed simultaneously.
Koshi is embroiled in twin problems. On the one hand the agitation is getting more aggressive and on the other, the provincial government has fallen into minority. How can this stalemate be resolved?
Formal and informal negotiations are underway. A three-member dialogue team has been formed to talk to the agitating groups, which is a positive development. We should try to resolve this issue politically. We shouldn’t go for midterm elections just to clear this stalemate.
Given the numeric strength of the political parties in the assembly, forming a new government seems tricky. But all stakeholders should sit down and try to work something out. The name issue will be easier to resolve if the new government is led by leaders and parties having a soft corner for those asking for identity-based nomenclature.
How do you see the use of violence in recent protests?
Victims often don’t carefully plan their actions when they are out in the street. They mainly express their anger. But they should also remember their constitutional limits, rights of other people and restrain themselves from going berserk. A civilised and disciplined protest can be more effective. Truth is heard far and wide even if you speak mildly. On the other hand, if the state uses excessive force, the protesters alone can’t be patient.
The name Koshi was endorsed by two-thirds majority. Do you see any possibility of the assembly undoing its decision?
If you have recent statements of CPN-UML leaders, they don’t seem to be in any mood for compromise with the agitating side, which makes it impossible to get two-thirds votes to correct the decision on naming of the province. But negotiations to explore common ground should continue, even with the UML. If the parties fail to reach an agreement, they can make their stance public and commit to address the problem in due course. Even this will help clear the air.