With the presentation of a seven-state model by the Nepali Congress and 12-province federal model by the CPN-UML, the real debate over state restructuring has begun. The disclosure of the federal models by the second largest and third largest parties is a positive move in the sense that they have made public their official stand on federalism and dismissed all allegations that they were hesitating on the issue.
The more positive aspect is that the NC has demonstrated its readiness to compromise on the number of states to be carved out as it has proposed seven states although the party had earlier floated a six-state sketch. The position the UML has taken also shows that the party is flexible in striking a compromise on the number of federal constituents.
The way the second largest party has come up with the federal model indicates that the NC is struggling to expand its role from a party that always reacts to the agenda of another party, especially the UCPN-Maoist, to a party that sets agendas. In fact, ever since the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008, the NC has been more busy in responding to the Maoists’ agenda than formulating its own. The image of the party has been such that it lacks new thought and plans to address the present problems.
Commenting on somebody’s proposal or agenda is far easier than formulating one’s own proposal for solving the given problems or grabbing the opportunities at hand. The NC was following the easier path. The UML had also not fared better.
Of course, even the present proposal might just be a kind of reaction to the Maoists’ 10-province model. Still then, it sets out what the NC wants with regard to federalism. The proposal indicates that the NC is not for giving ethnic names to the states. It is for having the federal states that run from north to south. It is against the so-called one Madhes, one province model.
More than identity, the NC’s federal model is based on capacity. Despite all these positive features, the NC model has one negative feature, that is, it has failed to specify the names of the states. This simply proves how defensive or frightened the party is before the growing demands for ethnicity-based federalism. This is something unfitting for a party with a glorious history of having fought with arms against the 104-year-old Rana autocracy and introduced democracy more than six decades ago in the country.
Surely, it is difficult to flow against the tide in politics. Moreover, the largest party, UCPN-Maoist, has also been advocating for an ethnicity-based federal structure although its recent 10-province model shows that the party is slowly realising that naming the federal states along ethnic lines would eventually invite social conflict.
The way it has named most of the states using two terms - one referring to ethnicity and the other to natural resources or geography - shows that the Maoist party is also swinging between ethnic and geographic names. For a party like the Maoists, which advocated for ethnicity, or what it terms a nationality-based federal structure, it is difficult for it to abruptly detach itself from its earlier stances and thus lose popular support. But the NC has no such excuse to make and can take an escapist stand in naming the states.
Those advocating for identity-based federalism have focused only on one aspect of identity, that is, ethnicity. They have ignored the other four constituents of identity (as defined by the CA thematic committee) such as language, historicity, continuity of geography and culture. They also are brushing aside the sentiments of the other communities that live in the given area and who will feel like outsiders once the area is named after a dominant, not necessarily majority, ethnic group.
Although everybody knows that not a single ethnic group makes up a majority in any existing administrative unit of the country, it is difficult to understand why a state should be named after a particular dominant ethnic group. Equally faulty is the notion that to federate a country on the basis of identity is to give ethnic names to the provinces.
What is the harm in naming a state after a natural or cultural heritage? Will such naming of a province bar inclusion and special rights to the hitherto excluded or oppressed community? Will ethnic naming of a state compensate for the oppression, exclusion or marginalisation of the given group? When the electoral system and other necessary laws are made to guarantee inclusion, why must the states have names based on ethnic or nationality lines?
What the existing parties should understand is that they will be continuing with the exclusionary state policy if they agree on a ethnic nomenclature for the states because the people, other than those of the community after whom the state is named, will feel that the state does not belong to them as it bears the name of a particular group.
Ethnic naming will take a heavy toll of the harmonious social-psychological set up. In the past, the state had an exclusionary policy as it promoted only one religion, Hindu, and one language, Nepali or the Khas language. The parties must act now with the spirit that one wrong policy cannot be corrected by another wrong policy.
What they should understand is, if the states are named after a particular group, the other groups will stop supporting them. And, ethnic groups in Nepal do not make up more than 35 per cent of the total population. Should not the parties be thinking of the sentiment of the other 65 per cent of the population?
Although there is a great possibility that many states will be named on ethnic lines due to pressures from the cross-party caucus of indigenous lawmakers and organisations like the Nepal Federation of Indigenous and Nationalities, the major parties should come together to convince them that identity-based federalism does not mean naming a state after an ethnic group and that an inclusive policy is not determined by whether a state is named after an ethnic group or not. Or else, they can expect a movement from the other groups like the Brahmans, Chhetris, dalits, Thakuris and so on as a counter pressure.