External Affairs

Identity Assertion Strikes Back and Nepal’s Leaders Must Take Note of It

A federal structure that fails to touch upon the core issues related to identity will not be acceptable

Credit: Chris Richardson/Flickr CC 2.0

Credit: Chris Richardson/Flickr CC 2.0

The principal parties of Nepal have once again failed to satisfy the country’s disparate ethnic and regional groups. Ever since the publication of the new draft constitution with a model of six provinces — which was later changed to seven —the political crisis in the country has steadily deepened.  On September 1, police shot dead four protestors in the border town of Birganj in Parsa district. Another person was killed in police firing in the neighbouring district of Bara. Till date, the agitation that began on August 8 has caused the death of 20 persons, including seven police personnel. Indefinite shutdowns imposed by various political groups dissatisfied with the way the provinces are being carved out in the new constitution crippled life across the country throughout August.

The agitation has now spread through 40 out of Nepal’s 75 districts. In the Tarai districts, the Madhesi Front and the Tharuhat Struggle Committee of the Tharu janajati have brought life to a standstill. The Tharus had initially called a shutdown only in Bardia and a few other districts to press their demand for a Tharuhat province. After the four-party alliance increased the number of provinces to seven from six but refused to accept their demand, however, the Tharus called an indefinite general strike across the whole of south western Nepal from Nawalparasi to Kanchanpur — covering all the eight districts on the border with India. In the central and eastern Tarai districts, the Madhesi parties called a general strike on August 15, which is still going on. In the nine districts located in the far eastern part of Nepal, the political organisation of the Limbu janajati people have enforced a strike for the last one week, demanding an autonomous Limbuwan state. Three districts are now under the control of the army.

Maoists take U-turn

The ethnic and regional parties of Nepal are demanding a federal structure that would ensure political autonomy to their groups and protect their cultural, linguistic and religious identity. Nepal’s major parties — the Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal UML (CPN-UML) and he United Communist Party of Nepal Maoist (UCPN-M) — have rejected this demand on the grounds that a poor country cannot afford to have too many provinces. They argue that it would be too expensive to maintain so many provincial governments and the division of the country on the basis of ethnicity and identity would increase inter-community tension, jeopardising the country’s unity and integrity. It is interesting to note that the Maoists, who during the 10-year long “People’s War” had championed the demand for the “right to self-determination of oppressed nationalities”, have emerged as one of the most strongest opponents for the demand for federal restructuring of Nepal on the basis of identity and equality.

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had written letters to Madhesi, Tharu and Dalit leaders inviting them to a dialogue. In response, the Madhesi parties asked for suspension of the constitution writing process, withdrawal of the army and a commitment to honour the spirit of the Interim Constitution of 2007 as well as past pacts — demands the three big national parties rejected.

The debate in the Constituent Assembly (CA) on the draft constitution with provision made now for seven provinces was concluded last week. The CA secretariat has been given another five days to finalise the draft incorporating the suggestions that emerged during the debate. The leaders of the big parties met on August 30 and decided not to halt the constitution writing process. After the meeting, UCPN (M) leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha told the press, “We have agreed to address demands of the disgruntled parties without halting the constitution writing process. … The one week allotted for amending the draft will suffice to do this.”

Calling the ethnic and regional formations “disgruntled parties” and making light of the challenge of creating and redefining the essence and identity of a new constitutional democracy exposes the mind-set of the leaders of the big national parties.

The fact is that during the first Constituent Assembly, the senior leaders of the major political parties did not engage in discussions on issues related to federalism until the end of the CA’s tenure in 2012. In the second CA, the Maoists were reduced to third position with the NC and CPN-UML calling the shots. Clearly, there was no agreement on the principles of federal restructuring of Nepal when they began negotiating.

No homogeneous identity

Modern Nepali national identity was developed as a state-sponsored project under King Mahendra. It imposed the culture, religion, and language of the hill-based upper caste elite on all the people of Nepal. As is evident, this imposition did not produce a homogenous identity, but alienated many sections and deepened the sense of the individual’s group identity. The fact that the Maoists have abandoned their earlier position on reorganising Nepal on the basis of identity and equality is a reflection of the power struggle between political parties desperately trying to hold on to state power.

This is a confrontation between the past and the present – between the powerful and the oppressed. It has little to do with economics and issues of development. The social and political reality of identity politics in Nepal is the quest of its excluded communities for agency — their desire to take charge of their destiny. It is a struggle which sees the capturing of political power at the provincial level as the first essential step towards the improvement of their status.

There is no alternative to a federal constitution for Nepal. The idea was accepted politically and constitutionally, albeit reluctantly, by the major political forces as a tool for correcting the ills of the old centralised unitary system. It would have been better if there a wider discussion had taken place before the decision of the six (now seven) province model was hurriedly finalised. That the people of nearly two-thirds of Nepal have rejected this model and are out on the streets demanding a halt to the constitution writing process is an indication of how polarised the country is today. A federal structure that fails to touch upon the core issues related to identity will not be acceptable. It is still not too late. The major parties need to expand the recognition, representation, access and opportunities of all the oppressed communities in the state structure. Promoting all communities, cultures and languages, without denouncing any is the right approach. The state should be designed in a way that benefits all.