19 April, 2009

The United Federation of Nepal

Sushma Joshi
Published in the Kathmandu Post, April 19, 2009
What does the United States of America have in common with St. Kitts (68 square miles wide), a small island in the Eastern Caribbean? Both countries, it appears, follow the federal system. Despite the naysayers who have been saying federalism won't work for Nepal due to its small size and multicultural and multiethnic nature, there is evidence that multicultural countries perform quite well within a federal system. The United States is federated. So is Switzerland, another European country that Nepalis often use as a model of what Nepal should be like. So is India, the world's biggest democracy. None of them are falling apart at the seams, as we are. So why do Nepalis fear the idea of federalism?

After listening to a lecture by advocate Dinesh Tripathi, it appears to me that people are afraid of federalism because they don't quite understand what it is or how it's going to work out. Federalism is not the country splitting off into various ethnic states, as it may appear from current events. Federalism is also not just decentralization, which was practiced in Nepal before and is shown to have failed. In decentralization, the center can withdraw the power, whereas in federated states the power is inherent in the Constitution. Federalism is the actual devolution of power to the local level, which would allow those areas the right to self-government.

“Conflict,” says Mr. Tripathi, “is caused by the inability to recognize diversity. Conflict cannot be solved by bullets, but by developing a democracy which is “of the people, for the people, by the people”” (Original quote from Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln and not Mr. Tripathi.) Periodic elections is not enough, this just leads to a “procedural democracy.” The solution, it appears, is to achieve a substantive democracy by devolving the power from a centralized and unitarian government, as we have at present, to active local self-rule. Federalism is a contract between people and the state, and will be based on voluntary will.

Current models floated by Maoists envision 11 states, with many of them based on ethnic lines. Neighbouring India has been more prudent, splitting its states along the basis of geography (Madhya Pradhesh, Uttar Pradesh), language (Tamilnadu, West Bengal), and ethnicity (Gujarat, Andhra Pradhesh) and combinations of above. In Nepal, we need to take into natural resources and level of development as well when we federate the country.

Setting up a federal system should be mapped out by not just the demands of the grassroots (surely we cannot have one federated state for each 100 languages and 58 ethnicities) but a federalism board composed of linguists, anthropologists, demographers, geographers, lawyers and other professionals with the expertise and stakes in creating a functioning nation-state, goes the common consensus. It is encouraging the government has finally decided to start a Commission on restructuring, according to news reports.

People fear that large chunks of Nepal are just going to float off into the ether, or possibly into India. Others fear Balkanization -- dozens of little states quarreling and killing each other. This shouldn't be the case if we do our homework carefully, and teach and learn on how a federated system will function. In particular, the need to protect minority rights within a federal state would have to be made very clear. A strong Bill of Rights would ensure that anybody can live inside any state with equal political rights, and that minorities will be protected even if they happen to be inside a state based on ethnic lines.

The Constitution, of course, remains the supreme law of the land. The beauty of federalism is that absolute power is checked by different levels of government. The executive, the legislative and the judiciary would be found at all three levels of central, provincial and local levels. The provinces and the center would share power and both will not dominate.

The central government would deal with national security and defense, immigration, currency, foreign relations, custom taxes, and other national level issues. Most other functions would be devolved to the provincial and local government, effectively ending Kathmandu hegemony.

Brahmin, Chettri and Dalits, whose population is scattered all over Nepal and who do not have a majority in any geographical area, could be the “Superglue” to hold the population together. Even the states which advocate division along ethnic lines do not have more than thirty percent majority of their ethnic groups --Nepal is an inexhaustibly multicultural country. According to Subash Darnal of Jagaran Media, 50 lakh Dalits are scattered across the country, and he envisions a model in which an extra-territorial federal state, with two elected Dalit representatives (one male, one female) from each state, would protect the rights and represent the concerns of the Dalit population at the central level.

In the USA, the world's oldest federated country, each state has its own court system. Although the USA has the busiest litigation industry in the world, the national Supreme Court of the USA only sees around 70 cases per year -- a remarkable testimony to the efficiency of provincial and local courts. Localizing courts in this manner would end the present crisis of access to justice, in which overwhelmed appellate courts try to take on too many cases and end up delivering justice to very few.

The federal system can only function when there's respect for law, and that may be the biggest challenge in Nepal. All parties, from central to the local, must obey the law, especially the Constitution which has the final authority.

There have historically been two models of federalism -- the first in which smaller states have come together to form a union, otherwise known as “coming together” federalism. The second model, in which a state about to fall apart adopts federalism, is known as “holding together” federalism. Nepal needs to hold together -- and perhaps federalism may be the best solution for how to go about doing this.

Federalism, Nepal's biggest challenge, may also be its biggest opportunity. The key is to keep an open mind and gather as much consensus on this issues as possible before the window of opportunity closes. Nepal's federated form will probably have some states based on ethnicity (the irrepressible Limbuwan who've already welcomed their neighbours from the neighbouring country of Nepal and who need to understand the rules of federalism -- ie; secession is out of the question, and self-rule comes with the obligation to protect the Constitutional rights of all citizens) while others will be based on geography and language, or combinations. Karnali's natural resources will flow to Nepalgunj, and Nepalgunj have custom duties from the border that will be redistributed by the center to Karnali, balancing out unequal resources. All things considered, federalism might create a wealthier, more equitable country -- and might not be so bad for Nepal after all.
Posted on: 2009-04-17 20:15:11 (Server Time)


Anonymous said...

Simple language

I was truly enlightened by the article “The United Federation of Nepal” (April 18, Page 6). I am grateful to Sushma Joshi for explaining federalism and its implications for Nepal in common man's language. Newspapers are meant to create awareness, but using abstruse political terms only creates half-knowledge. But this article clearly explained to me what a federal state is. Now I would also be able to explain this to others. Simple language is necessary to encourage apolitical youths to take interest in politics.

Asmita Shrestha

Anonymous said...

Grateful for your incisive article.