Making it workNepali people desire to forge strong national unity above ethnic interests
The current predicament brought on by the Madhesi protests against the constitution’s federal setup, and issues of representation and autonomous rights seems to be pushing the people, leaders and scholars to question whether Nepal’s historical decision to adopt federalism was right. The aspiration to bring back the 1990 constitution with constitutional monarchy is also growing among the people. The exasperation of a growing mass of common Nepalis against federalism is indeed a matter of concern.
However, the decision to restructure the state was a result of the acknowledgement that all the previous governments had failed to address Nepal’s long standing social problems—historical discrimination in terms of class, caste, ethnicity, gender, religion, and region. Federalism, inclusion and secularism were adopted by popular consent in the new constitution to resolve those issues and to transform the country socially and economically. Thus, it now becomes the responsibility of the government, political leaderships and the entire populace to work for this progressive change, rather than dwell on the past.
Federalism can only work in a multicultural country like Nepal if people accept one another, draw on the strength of each other, and embrace inclusiveness, which will help create a sense of belonging and a common national sentiment. But the current state of affairs, unfortunately, is increasing the polarisation between the hills and the Madhes, which is extremely counterproductive for federalism to succeed. Everyone, more so the political leaders, should curb their behavior and speech so as to diminish conflict and encourage a solution. It is very unethical of political leaders to play politics to garner popularity and support at the risk of communal conflict.
With federalism based on identity and capability, Nepal has the potential to succeed as a federal state. A general observation of the society shows that Nepalis are by nature peace-loving and accommodating, with an inclination for justice, dignity and democratic values. It is admirable that this public pulse was recognised during the several understandings reached between the Maoists and the Seven-Party Alliance during and after Jana Andolan II. While the Maoists withdrew their original agenda for a People’s Republic and embraced a democratic system of governance, other political parties extended their support for a federal republic.
The defeat of the identity based political parties in the second constituent assembly elections, including the Maoists who carried the agenda for identity based federalism and the Madhes-centric parties which were voted down by the Madhesi community itself, showed that the majority of Nepalis, irrespective of whether they were Pahadis or Madhesis, favoured an ideology of unity over an ideology of seclusion. People love their culture and language but they do not want their identity to be limited to that narrow spectrum. Nepali people desire to forge a strong national unity above ethnic interests.
Likewise, despite the growing identity clash between the Pahadi and Madhesi communities, the hill people in general see Madhesis’ demand for proportional representation as only fair. The apparent concern of the people at the proposition is largely due to the risk of infiltration of the Indian population into Nepali politics. It is natural that citizenship scams—for instance the news about one Indian village where twenty thousand people carry both Nepali and Indian citizenship, and the prevalence of people near the borders carrying dual citizenship illegally—create concern. But what is not right is the entire Madhesi population having to bear the brunt of the failure of the state to control such scams. What can be more painful and humiliating than being called a ‘Bihari’ or a traitor in your own land? Other critical factors causing humiliation to the Madhesi people are their historical exclusion in the process of creating a Nepali identity and regarding them as a threat to national security due to their close ties with people across the border. It is to reclaim their recognition, justice and dignity that common Madhesis have taken to the streets for the last five months.
But the sheer refusal of the prime minister and some other political leaders to acknowledge the voice of a common Madhesi is infuriating not only to the Madhesis, but also to Pahadis like me. When the caretakers of the state themselves refuse to even hear your voice, your desperation and anger intensify. Such insensitiveness is only pushing the Madhesis into the trap of the gradually emerging separatist forces like that of CK Raut. Sadly, rather than condemning, and making efforts to control, such radical and disintegrating forces from spreading and strengthening, the Madhesi Morcha leaders are smugly using this as a bargaining chip with the state.
To sum, the seemingly growing negativity towards federalism and the desire for the return of monarchy are a reflection of the people’s aspiration for national unity, sovereignty, and quality leadership, which transcends short-lived power interests for the larger national interest. It is now the responsibility of the leaders to gain people’s faith. Although the new constitution still remains short in many respects, the only way out of the current impasse at this point is to make necessary amendments and implement it.
Parajuli is associated with Nepal Youth Foundation