Restructuring Nepal based on ethnicity

Dr Bipin Shah, Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA


A country should be structured into federal states based on its own characteristics. The very truth about Nepal is that it is a multiethnic country with no ethnic group being in majority.


The recent political decision that Nepal would adopt a federal structure is bound to raise many questions, some political while some technical in nature. Whether Nepal should be restructured based on ethnicity or geography has already been creating a buzz, especially in the media. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), the Nepal Limbuwan Front (NLF), the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalists (NFIN) and several other groups have been pressing for the ethnicity based representation system and federalism.

In a recent article published in a leading newspaper, Dr. Alok Bohara argues that the many problems the nation is currently facing, including caste and gender discrimination, economic deprivation, poor governance, healthcare deficits, joblessness, education gaps, child labor, girl-trafficking, feudal hierarchy and rigidities and so on may not be solved by ethnicity based federal structures. He also suggests for geography based federal structures. But his article leaves readers wondering-what magical bullet does the geographical restructuring of Nepal provide to solve these problems?

A proposal of dividing Nepal into federal states that include the Terai, himal (mountains) and pahad (hills) is a geography-based model that, in any sense, is not different from the current division of Nepal in the fourteen zones and the five development regions. This Panchayat era structuring has been widely perceived and criticised as a deliberate move to create institutionalised mechanisms to specifically discriminate against the Madhesis. In new Nepal , would this structure not create frictions between the Madhesi and Pahadi people to grab the state power within each state? This structure will likely repeat the Nepalgunj event again and again in every part of ‘New Nepal.’

Let’s look at the Nepali problems more closely – they are mostly socio-economic problems. And socio-economic problems can be addressed only through a just and inclusive political system and a comprehensive educational system, no matter what the structure of the state is. Now this raises another question as to which federal structure can lead us to have a just and inclusive political system. Without any reservation, I would argue that such a system is possible in Nepal only through ethnicity based federalism. Strengthening people’s regional and national identity and empowering people’s sense of belonging could be the first step to achieve such a political system.

To solve the socio-economic problems, constructive policies need to be formulated and implemented, both at the state and central levels. How can restructuring the country along the ethnic lines stymie those constructive efforts? Why not allow the Nepali people to fight these problems their own way at different levels of governance, with the assistance of an inclusive central government?

There is an argument that there would be disputes over geographical resources if the ethnic lines are followed for the restructuring of Nepal . This is a rustic view and seems to have stemmed from the old school of Panchayati thought. Suppose there are disputes between two states about the water of a river that runs through both states. I argue that such situations would help initiate healthy dialogues between states and would make them realize their interdependence and necessity to negotiate and compromise. Is this not what we want in a ‘Democratic Nepal,’ where people and states feel equal and valued?

A country should be structured into federal states based on its own characteristics. The very truth about Nepal is that it is a multiethnic country with no ethnic group being in majority. Restructuring Nepal based on the ethnic identities such as The Limbuwan, The Tharuwan, The Madhes and so on will instill a sense of empowerment in the people. And this sense of empowerment is what may generate a strong feeling of being Nepali and being a part of greater Nepal . It will also ensure the right of self governance that is the foundation for success of a democratic society.

While restructuring Nepal into viable federal states, India could provide the best example to follow. The existing political system in India provides not only a strong inclusive central government, but also regional autonomy through federalism. The states of India are mostly structured based on ethnic, cultural and linguistic identity. Just look at the states of India – Bengal , Gujarat , Punjab , Maharashtra Orissa, Assam , Tamil Nadu to name some. They have their own cultural heritage, ethnicity and languages. Bengal is of the Bengali people, Gujarat is of the Gujarati people, Assam is of the Assamese and so on. But they all belong to India . The prudent structuring of India has helped preserve the identity of each ethnic group that has been there for centuries.

When I talk about the ethnic restructuring of Nepal , allow me to use the term ‘ethnic’ in a broader sense. The people who are demanding The Limbuwan state may comprise many sub-ethnic groups, but they can be considered an ethnic class because of their similar cultural practices. Similarly, the Madhes is represented by many ethnic groups speaking different languages, but they certainly form a separate ethnic class in the Nepali context. Thus, the restructuring should be based on such a broad definition of ethnicity.

Dr. Bohara also mentions that large parties must make compromise for ‘some form of the proportional system’ to the smaller and diverse voices. There in lies the problem. The lack of sincerity for this has been demonstrated by the pahadi political establishment time and time again. It was widely perceived after the April movement that the government would put forward an inclusive system that would guarantee comprehensive reformation. But then the interim constitution once again established a centralist model of governance.

The recent decision of adopting federalism and proportional representation system, the details of which are still not clear, did not come out of the prudence of the pahadi political leaders. The move was forced only after the lives of more than two dozen Madhesis were claimed in the Madhesi movement. How do you gain the trust of people when you betray them again and again? In this politically biased environment, it is almost impossible to digest the talk of restructuring the country based on geography.

I hope the pahadi political and ‘intellectual’ establishment is not thinking that they have already given too much to the Madhesi, because it is not about giving and taking; it is about bringing every Nepali hand in the making of a new and prosperous Nepal .


Source: – March, 2007

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