Under provincial name Koshi, currents of discontent still flowMadhesh is the only province named on identity basis. Many blame erosion in Maoist ideology.
With the CPN (Maoist Centre) changing its stance on identity-based nomenclature of provinces, Province 1, the only province that was yet to be named, became ‘Koshi’ on Wednesday through overwhelming votes in the provincial assembly.
However, this naming of a province after a river system could ignite another movement among the country’s largely dissatisfied indigenous people.
Among the seven provinces, only Madhesh Province reflects the identity of the people living there, the Madhesis. Of the other six provinces, Bagmati, Gandaki and Karnali were named after rivers, Lumbini was named in recognition of the birthplace of the Buddha, while Sudurpaschim was named on the basis of its geographic location formerly known as the Sudurpaschim Bikas Kshetra (‘the Far-western development region’).
The first Constituent Assembly’s thematic committee had in principle agreed that under the new federal system, provinces would be carved out based on two major criteria: ‘Economic capacity’ and ‘identity’. But as Nepal embarked on its federal journey, the task of naming the provinces emerged as the most contentious issue.
The second Constituent Assembly that succeeded in demarcating the provinces failed to name them and promulgated the constitution by identifying the provinces with cardinal numbers.
“In the end, the provinces were named based on neither capacity nor identity,” said Khim Lal Devkota, a columnist for the Post who is also an expert on federalism as well as a member of the National Assembly. “Madhesh was the only province that happened to get an identity-based name because the languages and cultures of the province were more or less similar.”
But observers fear this could ignite another movement by the dissatisfied lot whose members even sacrificed their lives for identity-based federalism.
Indigenous groups, mostly affiliated with the present-day Maoist Centre—which led a decade-long armed insurgency promising an ethnic-based restructuring of the country—condemned the party for giving up on its core agenda.
On Thursday, a group of indigenous people led by the Kirat Rai Yayokkha protested in Dhankuta district while another group of indigenous activists also demonstrated at Maitighar Mandala in Kathmandu.
With a gradual decline of the Maoist party, its leadership seems to have completely abandoned identity-based politics.
People from various indigenous communities cite the most recent “transformation of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist supremo and current prime minister, into a daura suruwal-clad supporter of the status quo” as a sign of betrayal of the groups who sacrificed their lives for an identity-based federalism and of his own commitments.
The first province to get its name after a river system, Karnali, was led by Maoist Centre’s Chief Minister Mahendra Bahadur Shahi.
“The commitment of the Maoist Centre to identity politics started to decline right after the demise of the first Constituent Assembly and the signing of the 16-point agreement accepting eight provinces,” said Govinda Chhantyal, an indigenous activist and former vice-chair of the Nepal Federal of Indigenous Nationalists (Nefin), an umbrella organisation of the indigenous people of Nepal.
When questioned on this, two senior Maoist Centre leaders—General Secretary Dev Gurung and National Assembly member Suresh Ale Magar, one of the founders of Nefin—refused to comment.
After the signing of the 16-point agreement in June 2015, the major parties—Sushil Koirala-led Nepali Congress, KP Sharma Oli-led CPN-UML, Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Unified CPN (Maoist) and Bijay Gachchhadar-led Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Loktantrik—had rushed to promulgate the constitution despite reservations from the Madhesis and Janajatis over provincial demarcations.
While getting all the provinces named is certainly an achievement in view of implementing federalism, the supporters of the new system seem to have forgotten the very spirit of federalism, observers say.
“Instead of saying that the identity movement has failed in Nepal, I would say its proponents could not make people understand the true meaning of identity-based federalism,” said Mukta Singh Lama, a researcher on social inclusion, excluded and minority groups and indigenous politics. “It’s a long process and things could still change when people begin to understand its essence and necessity.”
Lama said giving the new provinces the same-old Sanskrit names is a sign of the state’s failure to honour the identities of its diverse populace.
“It’s an unfortunate and regressive decision,” Lama told the Post. “But the fight for the rights of minority groups will continue.”
After the political parties failed to agree on provinces’ names and capital, the second Constituent Assembly tasked the future provincial assemblies to settle the matter with a two-thirds majority.
As the Maoist party was relegated to a distant third position and the first and the second largest parties in the assembly—the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML–were against the idea of identity-based federalism, the authority to take a final call on the matter was left to the respective provincial assemblies.
The provinces were identified numerically, from 1 to 7.
With the strong presence of the Limbu and Rai communities, members of these communities expected that the name of Province 1 would somehow respect their identities. But their hopes were dashed when the Maoist Centre’s assembly members also backed the proposal to name the province Koshi.
Maoist Centre’s parliamentary party leader Indra Aangbo claimed that his party alone was not in a position to take a strong stand on an identity-based name for Province 1. “Those of us who wanted an identity-based name were reduced to 12-13 percent of the regional assembly’s strength, down from around 50 percent in the previous assembly.”
“But this is not the end. We will look to give the province an identity-based name when we regain our regional strength,” Aangbo said.
The second Constituent Assembly finalised the constitution—amid reservations from some parties—but due to conflict among the leaders, the names and capitals of provinces could not be decided.
In February 2018, Province 6 was the first to choose its name, Karnali, with Surkhet as its capital. In the case of Province 4, its provincial assembly in July 2018 chose the name Gandaki, with Pokhara as its capital. There was little opposition to the decision. In September 2018, Province 7 was named Sudurpaschim and Godavari of Kailali was picked as its capital.
Madhesh was the second last province to get its name, in January last year and set Janakpurdham as its capital.
Province 5 was named Lumbini after the world-famous Buddhist religious site in October 2020 and Deukhuri of Dang was named its capital. Likewise, Province 3 was named Bagmati in January of the same year with Hetauda as its capital city.
Devkota, the National Assembly lawmaker, said completing the process of naming all seven provinces will strengthen federalism—even if the provinces’ names did not reflect regional identity.
“Identity politics can continue, but we can also see recent developments as strengthening of federalism as its acceptance continues to grow,” said Devkota. “Even in Madhesh, you see the once-secessionist parties like CK Raut joining mainstream politics.”
Indigenous activists say the way the identity-related names were cast aside could unite the divided indigenous groups to fight the status quo.
“I have taken this development in a positive light as this will create an environment for the indigenous groups to unite for their identity and rights,” said Chhantyal, the indigenous expert and activist.