All signs point to the ethnic demarcation debate getting even more heated and unpredictable in the months before 28 May.
When the cabinet endorsed a new crop of Nepali ambassadors recently, the good news was that many of them were career diplomats. The bad news: most were from traditionally privileged caste groups. Even more worryingly, no one really thought there was anything wrong with that until a parliamentary committee raised the issue.
Every day we see other potent reminders of just how exclusionary the Nepali state and society remains. A list of senior civil servants, politicians at the village and district level, and movers and shakers within each of the big parties continue to be dominated by the traditionally privileged caste groups.
The Constituent Assembly may be the most inclusive legislature in Nepal's history, but just look at who is calling the shots there. Who are the ones who are quarrelling or doing the most talking? Not too many women or members from marginalised communities getting up to speak on the floor of the House. Even on Facebook, where the number of Nepalis with accounts has now crossed 1.1 million, it is the men and the 'high' castes who dominate.
This is natural, and the result of some sections of society having better access to education and opportunities than others in the past. It will take time to change, and will change only if the skewed balance of social justice in Nepal is redressed, there is a more equitable distribution of education, and prospects for progress are equalised. Past exclusion has to be addressed with a systematic change in state policy and an accelerated mechanism to allow the traditionally disadvantaged to catch up through affirmative action.
But in trying to address these imbalances, there are the twin dangers of: a) adopting too simplistic an approach to who constitutes the 'disadvantaged', and b) replacing one form of exclusion with another. A supposedly 'high' caste person living in Bajhang, for instance, is more historically marginalised and economically disadvantaged than a person from an 'indigenous' community in Kaski or Khumbu. The other trap is to try to correct past wrongs with the future blunder of identity politics and ethno-territorial fragmentation.
This is fraught with consequences because it is not just going to be about the hill-plains divide, not even about reducing the dominance of the caste elite, but multiple cleavages among hill ethnicities. It is sad, but not surprising, that the State Restructuring Committee's disputed report is being greeted by protests from janjati and Tarai-based communities who feel excluded. We are sure to see increasingly rancorous disputes about the territorial boundaries of future ethnically-demarcated provinces.
This is what happens when you set up a commission with political appointees, most of whom are made up of NGO founders accountable to no one else but their donors. The absurdities of a 'Narayani' province, a non-territorial 'Dalit' province, and arbitrary boundary-setting show sloppy gerrymandering that are going to create huge problems in the future.
Of Nepal's nearly 4,000 VDCs, not a single one is mono-ethnic. No single ethnic group is numerically dominant in any of the proposed future federal provinces, even in the ones that are named after those dominant there. Since the last census, Nepalis have become even more mobile, living cheek to jowl with each other. Migration, urbanisation and inter-ethnic marriages are integrating Nepal like never before. Some mountain districts have lost up to one-third of their original population.
It could be potentially catastrophic to decide on these complex matters at a time of such political volatility as now. We can't trust such sensitive provisions in the new constitution with potentially far-reaching, long-term consequences on populist leaders who have exhibited a short-sighted and single-minded obsession with power and greed. A new constitution can't be written to suit the personal ambition of one man, or to accommodate the competing claims of those who define themselves through identity politics. Future state structure is too important to be left to politicians.
The experience of other countries that have tried to accommodate identity aspirations through ethno-federalist structures has not been a happy one. Nepal's interim constitution gave us the fait accompli of a federal state, we may therefore have to work within that parameter to make such a structure least harmful to this country.
It may be prudent to remind ourselves why we want to recraft the political order in the first place: for true devolution and self-governance at the grassroots. We are not re-inventing the wheel here, political decentralisation through local elections was a working model in the 1990s, we just need to tweak it so that it is more representative and addresses the genuine concerns of those left out of political decision-making in the past.
All signs point to the ethnic demarcation debate getting even more heated and unpredictable in the months before 28 May. It would be best to put state structure in deep freeze and tackle it when the politics becomes more stable.
Whatever we do, the bottom line should be the unity of the Nepali state. Fortunately still, there is much more holding us together than tearing us apart.
Asking the right questions, ANURAG ACHARYA
Exclusive enclaves cannot make an inclusive state