Federalism and Ethnicity Issues Critical to Nepal


After many delays and amidst much drama, Nepal’s new constitution is due in two weeks. The hardest issues are yet to be decided.

Federalism of some sort is certain, but its nature – ethnic or geographical – and the details of how to carve out states are not yet agreed. Deep chasms of ideology and self-interest separate the four main political powers and a large number of small parties.

During the last phase of Nepal’s 1996-2006 civil war, the rebel Maoists used ethnicity to stir up unrest that they believed would destabilize the government. Although Nepal has at least 50 ethnic groups and despite a long history of political dominance by just a few of them, ethnic problems had surfaced only rarely until then.

The seeds of dissent that the Maoists sowed a decade ago have grown fruit, and there are scores of pressure groups now calling for ethnic federalism, regional autonomy and more.

Technology has also contributed to the issue. Nepal’s relatively small southern plains are home to about half of its population. That is recent: DDT spraying in the 1950s decimated the malaria-carrying mosquitoes that had kept the region lightly populated previously. In the subsequent two generations, migration from the hills to the north and from the crowded Indian plains to the south have overwhelmed the indigenous Tharu population, who had lived there for centuries and developed a natural immunity to malaria.

The southerners have not been traditional power players in Nepali politics. But the late-2006 peace agreement that ended the war and the April 2008 election that created the Constituent Assembly, acting as a parliament and constitution-writing body, gave them an opportunity to play the main parties against each other.

The southerners’ mantra has been “one Madesh [their name for the plains], one state.” But the indigenous Tharus, who are a majority only in the center of the region, object to the concept, and all of the non-Madeshi parties fear ceding control of the entire southern region, through which the only roads to India pass.

If the southerners were politically united, they would carry a lot of weight – in aggregate they won 144 of the six hundred Assembly seats. But the southern vote went to many parties, and though most of them claim a similar agenda their animosity to one another makes cooperation difficult.

The main center-right party, the Nepali Congress, opposes not only a unified southern state but the entire concept of ethnicity as grounds for statehood. They argue that economic viability requires a division of states that is essentially north-south, combining mountain regions, the mid-hills, and the plains.

The center-left party, the UML, has traditionally been bereft of principle and has consequently found it hard to take a position on this issue: they advocate a larger number of federal states than the Congress want (but have put forth three different proposals) and suggest complicated names for the federal states, which combine both ethnicity and geography.

The left-wing Maoists want 14 federal states with ethnic names. But even they fear the southerners, and propose dividing the south into two “Madeshi” states with a small gap in-between, where Tharus are ethnically dominant and where the main road between the capital and India runs.

Rightist forces in Nepal are mostly royalists, and since the abolition of the monarchy four years ago, they have had little influence. But other anti-federalist forces successfully enforced a transportation strike in the capital for two days last week. A similar strike in western Nepal against breaking up the region has paralyzed transportation for long enough that the UN has intervened, and unrest in the east against ethnic boundaries is rising.

Nepal’s interim constitution requires a two-thirds vote to ratify a new statute and calls for consensus on the terms as a way to promote successful promulgation. Failing consensus, the interim constitution says that a majority vote on contentious issues will decide which version of each clause till proceed to a ratification vote.

That vote should have happened ten days ago by the (much amended) Assembly schedule. The parties have collectively asked for postponements as they negotiated. Last Thursday when the vote was scheduled, the subcommittee responsible for preparing the ballot said that they were not ready.

A day or two of delay may bring some sort of agreement, though the parties’ bottom-line positions are far apart. If the key issues come to a vote, divisions within the parties are so deep that some defections from party-mandated positions are likely. In Nepal a party “whip,” a order for a particular vote on an issue, is mandatory for parliamentary matters but not for constitutional issues.

The ideological divisions are deep enough that a plurality vote on whatever statute is sent up on May 28th is far from certain. But failure to promulgate a new constitution, however flawed, on time would lead to so many potential disasters that the country’s leaders may yet cobble together an agreement.