Identity-centric politics have become a fact of life in the Nepali landscape with the emergence of many identity-based political parties and social organizations not only in Nepal but in the Nepali diaspora as well. This has the positive potential of unleashing hidden talents, instilling pride in our rich and diverse cultural heritage, and contributing to end some intentional and unintentional discriminatory practices. But it also has the danger of injecting divisive animosity and fomenting inter-ethnic conflict at the hands of chauvinistic demagogues who thrive on the politics of divide-and-rule to further their personal, ideological or sectarian agenda. The current crusade for and against identity-based federalism is likely to be the crucible for testing which way Nepal will move.
We saw some dangerous battle-lines drawn in the days and weeks before the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in May 2002 with partisans of Akhanda Sudur-Paschim (Undivided Far-West) and the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) whose street agitation paralysed the country and unleashed violence. As Nepal gears up for elections for a new Constituent Assembly this issue is likely to heat up again.
Right diagnosis, wrong prescription
There is no question that in recent centuries the Nepali society has been stratified along caste and ethnic lines and the Nepali state itself has often been discriminatory and non-inclusive. Many scholars, including advocates of identity-based federalism provide a detailed and convincing case about the inequities and injustices of the past. While their diagnosis of what was and still is wrong with the Nepali government and social system is meticulous and largely correct, serious questions can be raised about their prognosis for the future and prescription to tackle what is ailing the Nepali body politic.
Part of the correct diagnosis is that most attempts at “decentralization” in the past have failed. So “federalism” is prescribed as the new, stronger medicine. We can certainly give the benefit of doubt and try out federalism. But adopting identity as the principal basis for federalism involves a risky leap of faith in Nepal’s context.
Like all multi-ethnic, multi-cultural societies, a democratic Nepal must definitely factor in identity as one important element in determining its future administrative apparatus and state structures. Progressive laws consistent with international human rights standards, strong implementation and accountability mechanisms, and pro-active affirmative action, are among measures needed to build a more just and prosperous Nepal, and to honour the aspirations of historically marginalized communities. Whether and to what extent identity-based federalism is the right answer to tackle Nepal’s age-old inequities is, however, highly questionable as its proponents mostly offer faith-based and emotive arguments citing selective examples of a few other countries, rather than any convincing evidence-based rationale.
But true-believers of identity-based federalism are so convinced of its merits that they even ignore independent public opinion surveys that show there is limited support for ethnic or identity-based federalism in Nepal, even among groups whose activist leaders are ardent supporters of such model. But they dismiss any such inconvenient findings – even the national population census data – as “biased” and manipulated by anti-federalist feudal forces.
Advocates of identity-based federalism seem to assume that Nepalis generally follow a “herd” mentality – as if most Bahun-Chhetris, or Janjatis and Madheshis think alike, and that when our federal states are carved in a certain way, people will vote largely along ethnic or some other parochial lines. I happen to think that most Nepalis are actually more individualistic and independent thinkers and will vote their conscience – except for occasionally succumbing to false promises, intimidation, or being lured by certain financial temptations, which, of course, are not unique to Nepal.
One can find a certain amount of gerrymandering of electoral constituencies in all countries, and I suspect that in Nepal too how federal units are carved out will have some marginal impact on election results. But that ought not to be a prime consideration for how the Nepali state is constitutionally restructured for the long haul. The main basis for the long-term restructuring of state ought to be whatever maximizes future prosperity for our children and grand-children, with due respect to righting the wrongs suffered by our ancestors.
Risky generalization of surname-based identities
Paradoxically, some academics and activists who blame all of Nepal’s ills on “Bahun-bad” tend to be very Bahunbadi themselves as they seem to ascribe to the view that people’s identities are irredeemably fixed and unchangeable. To back up such hypothesis a very imaginative academic has even concocted a whole new “ethnic group” called CHHE (“Caste, Hill, Hindu Elite”). This “monolithic” group apparently seeks to impose its mono-ethnic model of federalism, as contrasted with a “pluri-nationalist” model preferred by advocates of identity-based federalism.
The main basis for someone being counted as “CHHE” seems to be the surname of a person. Classifying people’s identity based primarily on their surname, and implying that all CHHEs are privileged – and status quoist – elite, unless proven otherwise; and the presumption that all non-CHHEs are marginalized, discriminated – and progressive in their outlook – is a disingenuous and dangerous generalization.
Truly progressive Nepalis and friends of Nepal ought to be more discerning and skeptical of many armchair academics, columnists and activists with the “right” surnames who advocate loudly for identity-based federalism but whose own personal track record of actually helping empower the poor and deprived communities might be rather shallow and limited to emotive rhetoric. It behooves examining how many such personalities presenting themselves as champions of equity and social justice actually grew up in relatively privileged families taking full advantage of the de facto quota-system offered by Nepal’s old unjust Panchayat system in the name of some deprived communities. On the other hand, many people presumed to be from the privileged elite groups based on their surnames, might actually have had to struggle harder to rise from their humble backgrounds.
The politics of surname-based identity, therefore, merits a little deeper understanding than meets the naked eye. I have noticed that many foreign diplomats these days sound pretty clever in being able to distinguish Nepalis by their surname-based identity. Some of them tend to interpret who says what, and whether what they say is progressive or regressive based partly on their surnames, which also form the basis for their affirmative action policies in the recruitment of their staff and consultants.
Well-meaning but gullible international diplomats, donors and academics with a superficial sense of Nepalese history and the current complexities of Nepalese society ought to be especially careful not to generalize people’s class and clout, or beliefs and attitudes, based simply on their surnames. I am reminded of the wise words of Martin Luther King, Jr who said that people should be judged “not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. The same applies to judging Nepalis by their surnames rather than their true beliefs and character.
‘It’s the economy, stupid’
Nepalis are not as exclusivist and ethnocentric as some advocates of identity-based federalism would like us to believe. It is worth noting that when Tenzing Norgay Sherpa climbed Mount Everest, all Nepalis were equally proud. More recently, Nepalis of all castes, ethnicities and regions, mobilized to support Prashant Tamang, Anuradha Koirala and Pushpa Basnet when they were competing for the Indian Idol and CNN Hero. When there is a campaign to rescue a Nepali migrant worker in distress like Dolma Sherpa or Govinda Mainali the whole of the Non-resident Nepali (NRN) community – regardless of the caste or tribe of individuals – mobilize and show their solidarity.
The long serpentine lines in Kathmandu’s passport offices, manpower companies and Tribhuwan airport where more than 1000 migrant labourers embark on flights to the Gulf and Malaysia every day reflect a microcosm of all Nepali identities. The main commonality among these fortune seekers is not their caste, ethnicity or geographic origin, but what former US President Bill Clinton said so memorably – “it’s the economy stupid”. Indeed, I would argue that it is not the identity-smart, but the economy-stupid arguments that must guide our state restructuring exercise.