Just days before Nepal's Constituent Assembly (CA) reaches its fifth deadline to agree on a new constitution on 27 May, the country remains divided over the issue of federalism.
“Debates over federalism and identity threaten to polarize Nepali society,” Anagha Neelakantan, South Asia senior analyst for the conflict resolution NGO, International Crisis Group, told IRIN in the capital, Kathmandu. “At the same time, politics and the constitution-writing process are at an impasse, and a constitutional crisis is possible.”
The 600-member CA, which also acts as the country’s interim legislature, was tasked in 2008 with drafting the next constitution after a decade-long civil war between Maoist forces and the government ended in 2006. Over 13,000 people lost their lives in the conflict and the nation of 30 million has been without an effective government since then.
On 15 May, the CA leaders made a hurried decision to restructure the former Hindu monarchy into 11 federal states, based on “multi-ethnic federalism”, meaning all ethnic groups, not just one ethnic group, would live in a single undivided state.
This rather than “identity and capacity based federalism”, in which a single ethnic group and its ability to be self-sustaining, along with geographical and economic considerations, would be the model used.
Unable to reach an agreement, the CA requested another three-month extension, but this was rejected by the Supreme Court on 24 May, which directed the government to promulgate a new constitution by the 27 May deadline.
“The proposal for 11 federal provinces was done haphazardly, with no names and without any principles,” said Prof Krishna Hachhethu, a prominent expert on federalism at Tribhuvan University, the country’s largest tertiary institution.
The issue has fuelled anger amongst Nepal’s indigenous ethnic groups, known as ‘Janjatis’, who have been staging protests and strikes throughout the country since mid-May in a bid to pressure the CA and the main political parties to restructure the state along the lines of identity-based federalism.
There are more than 100 ethnic and caste groups in Nepal, and according to the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), the Janjatis represent 37.2 percent of the population.
“Most Janjatis have been exploited and still remain underprivileged and neglected by the government,” said Laxman Tharu, the leader of the Joint Tharu Struggle Committee.
There are an estimated 1.5 million Tharus spread across Nepal’s southern Terai Region and the Far West. They are considered one of the most impoverished and exploited indigenous ethnic groups, most of whom who have suffered bonded slavery, indentured servitude and landlessness, according to NEFIN, a non-profit organization formed by the Janjatis.
Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
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Since 2007, the Tharus have been demanding self-government in a Tharuwat federal province in the Far West region of the country, over 700km southwest of the capital. But high-caste groups like the Brahmins and Chettris, who live in the same region, have protested against their demands, fearing ethnic division and a loss of influence.
On 24 May, thousands of high-cast groups took to the streets in the Far West, demanding an “undivided nation” - ethnic-based federalism - which Janjati activists say is misinterpreted by protestors.
"For the first time, the Brahmins and Chettris are protesting against ethnic federalism with the slogan of an "undivided Nepal", which is now a “major national issue", said federalism expert Mohan Manandhar, director of the Niti Foundation, a policy research NGO.
“We all know that there can be no constitution without federalism based on ethnicity,” said Hachhethu. “The debate has started, and this is a good start, but we should not be too speculative, which has spread lot of fear among people about the country being divided.”
The issue has become deeply entrenched in Nepal’s mainstream society and politics. Much of one of Asia’s poorest nations has been at a standstill, with strikes in cities and towns harming an already fragile economy.
“Federalism is key to unite our multi-ethnic populations and provide hope for the marginalized to finally get a better political space and confidence,” said Raj Kumar Lekhi, chairman of NEFIN, which organized an “indefinite strike” last week before calling it off when the government agreed to meet with Janjati leaders.
“Now, politicians and other leaders need to urgently convene discussions with a wide range of groups to resolve their competing claims and enshrine commitments on federalism in the new constitution," said ICG’s Neelakantan.
On 24 May, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Nepal’s political parties and other groups to ensure that its constitution-making process was concluded successfully.
“The Secretary-General is concerned about the prospect of the term of the Constituent Assembly expiring without the adoption of a constitution that meets the expectations and aspirations of the people of Nepal,” Ban’s spokesperson said in a statement that also called for calm and restraint.