Balancing Identity and Prosperity for Federalism

Balancing Identity and Prosperity for Federalism

Globally, there has been a surge of identity-based politics after the end of the Cold War. Most conflicts in the world in recent decades have been inter-ethnic and intra-State. This was understandable as many dictatorial regimes during the post-colonial Cold War period had kept many ethnic and religious groups suppressed in the name of national unity. But the jury is still out as to whether identity or ethnicity-based solutions to conflicts have produced better results for most people and states or whether such solutions have actually worsened the problems they sought to address.

In Nepal too, the advent of multi-party democracy in 1990 and the freedom and open space it provided led to stronger assertion of identity politics that had been kept tightly suppressed during the Panchayat regime. It was not that liberal democracy was not responsive to issues of identity and social justice, but it was not able to meet the rising expectations for rapid change. “Revolutionaries” of various stripes – including the Maoists – sought to discredit parliamentary democracy itself as inherently incapable of addressing issues of identity and inclusion, offering instead promises of more radical change, and exaggerated claims of how identity-based federalism would make all dreams come true.

Identity important but not decisive

Whether in a federal set-up or in a unitary state, identity must be an important consideration in all multi-ethnic, multi-lingual countries like Nepal. With its diverse demography and topography, recognition of ethnic and regional identities and aspirations must certainly be important factors in shaping Nepal’s public administration, and the future state structure. But given the actual geographic settlement patterns of Nepal’s various ethnic communities, it would be unwise and impractical to consider such identities as the main or sole basis for federalism.

Like all other progressive, democratic states in the world, Nepal too must find a meaningful way to ensure equal opportunity, non-discrimination and social justice for all. But federalism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for creating a more egalitarian society. Identity can certainly be one important element, but not the primary consideration in restructuring the Nepali state. More decisive importance must be given to whatever brings measurable prosperity to the largest number of Nepalis – with priority to the most deprived and marginalized groups – in the fastest possible ways.

This spirit was generally reflected in the criteria for determining identity and capacity or potential for prosperity that the State Restructuring Committee of the CA agreed to. But in subsequent efforts to actually delineate the number and shape of the proposed federal units, undue importance was given to the ethnic and regional dimensions of identity, while capacity or potential for economic prosperity, administrative convenience and environmental sustainability got a short shrift.

Thus we had proposals for creating a completely economically unviable mini-state like Jadan without even minimal infrastructure needed for a modern state; an artificially concocted Narayani state which defied any logic other than stringing together widely dispersed ethnic enclaves; one or two mega-states in Madhesh which downplayed ethnic and linguistic considerations while these were considered the main basis for multiple mini-states in the Hills and Mountains.
As with everything faith-based, it is difficult to have a logical debate on the virtues and vices of such identity-based federalism, as its proponents are so instinctively convinced of its virtues that they dismiss rather lightly the issues of administrative convenience and economic prospects. For example, we often hear a common but utterly silly tautological argument that since Nepal itself is so dependent on foreign aid, one should not raise the issue of economic viability of the proposed federal units.

So what would be the basis of identity-based federalism in Nepal anyway? Advocates of ethnicity-based federalism tend to argue that we should revert to the historic “home-lands” of certain ethnic communities which were annexed into modern Nepal two centuries ago. This ignores the fact that over the past two centuries Nepal has evolved in a manner that no single ethnic community is a majority in any part of contemporary Nepal.

Responding to economic opportunities, the patterns of migration and population settlements during recent decades have turned all of Nepal into a multi-ethnic mosaic. Thus, any ethnicity- based federal state would leave a majority of people named after that ethnicity outside that particular state. Moreover, with the growing trend of people beginning to marry outside their own ethnic or caste groups, many Nepali youngsters will have difficulty identifying themselves with any ethnicity-based state.

Does Federalism Matter for Women, Dalits and Muslims?

A main argument in favour of identity-based federalism is that it will ensure greater inclusion and equity for all, especially the marginalized communities. But there is no evidence, nor are there any credible plans to indicate that Nepal’s largest and most deprived and discriminated communities – women, Dalits and Muslims – will derive any more benefits from a federal set-up, whether identity-based or otherwise, than in a non-federal state. Indeed, it is more likely that it would be easier for these groups, supported by other enlightened citizens and the weight of international community, to negotiate more progressive affirmative action and quotas with one central government than with many autonomous federal states.

Many Madhesi and Janajati advocates of identity-based federalism make a rather facile, and by now a tired old argument that since all of Nepal’s social ills emanate from 240 years of feudal rule in a unitary state dominated by Pahadi Bahun-Chhetri elite, that all marginalized communities – including women, Dalits and Muslims – will be better-off in a federal set up where these elites will be less influential. But there are no documented arguments as to how women, Dalits or Muslims would be better off in identity-based federal states. There is no less discrimination and deprivation of women, Dalits and Muslims in Madhesi communities than in Pahadi communities. And while the status of women tends to be slightly better in some Pahadi Janajati communities, discrimination against Dalits is sadly a nation-wide phenomenon throughout Nepal.

Many Madhesi and Janajati federalists claim for themselves a self-appointed role of being champions of women, Dalits and Muslims, implying that somehow these groups would be better off in identity-based federal States, without any evidence or concrete plans. They make largely a faith-based/wishful argument that says: “Trust me, you will be better off in ethnic/identity-based federations”. But there is no rational basis for such trust. On the contrary, since women and Dalits, in particular, are not concentrated in any geographic or administrative enclaves, their equal rights and well-being are likely to be better addressed nationally, rather than having to negotiate province by province.

Let us remember that even authoritarian national governments come under the radar screen of international scrutiny and are duty-bound to respond to international pressure to comply with universal norms of human rights such as equality, inclusion and non-discrimination. But as Pakistan, Nigeria, even India, and several other countries show many semi-autonomous federal states controlled by religious fundamentalists and ethnic chauvinists are less susceptible to international pressure. We have seen many examples of such autonomous states attempting to introduce Sharia laws, disrupting public health campaigns to eradicate polio, and other efforts seeking to roll-back progress for women, children and ethnic-religious minorities undermining more progressive policies of their central governments.

Prosperity is a universally cherished, timeless goal; identity is an important but changing phenomena. Many of us have multiple identities, and these change over time. One identity that unites us all is the pursuit of prosperity.

(Published in the Republica daily of Kathmandu, Nepal on 24 January 2013: