A debate is raging in the Nepali media between supporters and opponents of ethnicity-based federalism. But instead of being a vibrant discussion on how the country should be restructured, it has turned into an ugly confrontation between those for and against.
One side is not willing to accept anything less than federalism structured along ethnic lines. An otherwise insignificant Janamukti Party stole headlines last week by openly declaring that anti-federalists would be hanged. NEFIN members threatened an armed struggle. On the other side, rigidly orthodox status quoists are needlessly antagonising indigenous groups and minorities by making paranoid ethno-centric remarks.
This has polarised the debate to such an extent that no Bahun-Chettri can critique the 14-state ethnic federalism model without being blamed for trying to "protect their privileges". Few Janajatis or Madhesis can speak about social harmony and national unity without being branded a "surrenderist" and a "traitor". The us-vs-them narrative is now so firmly established that there is no place for moderate, sane and rational voices.
Nepal's ethnic minorities have valid grievances which need to be redressed but fracturing the country into warring ethnic provinces is not the solution. If recent protests by groups demanding and denouncing states are anything to go by, we have opened up a pandora's box of regional and communal fanaticism.The Far West has been shut down for a week now by those for and opposed to a unified province. Tharus have demanded the whole Tarai as their own province and are in no mood to accept Akhanda Sudur Pashchim, and the Madhesis are against the Tharu demand. There is a mirror image of this contestation in eastern Tarai as well.
Four Mithila activists taking part in a peaceful protest in Janakpur were killed in a terrorist attack supposedly carried out by a rival Madhesi group on Monday. Muslims are on a warpath demanding a separate "non-territorial" province for their community, and frankly why shouldn't they? Every minority group fears that without a state, their rights will not be protected.
The feeble political leadership is swayed by those within their parties who shout the loudest. What the future holds is much worse than a caste confrontation between Bahun-Chettris and Janajatis, Pahadis vs Madhesis. We are now heading towards a full-fledged multi-ethnic strife. How exactly do the leaders hope to resolve disputes between the overlapping territorial claims of Newa Pradesh and Tamsaling, Limbuwan and Khumbuwan, Tamuwan and Magarat, and balance the demands for one Madhes against one Tharuhat? These are complex issues and the parties are faced with a fait accompli on a three-week deadline. Forming a new government before May 27 was part of a package deal on power. The future of the country is too important to be consigned to give-and-take between short-term politicians.
We have seen from Sri Lanka, Bosnia and former Czechoslovakia how political accommodation can lead to ethno-separatism and multi-pronged ethnic wars. It is easy to dismiss anyone who talks about a greater national identity as being an elitist, a follower of "Mahendra Path", or a royalist. But ethnic politics is a dead ideology and has been long discarded. How many lives should be lost before we finally accept that there is an easier way to mainstream marginalised communities and ensure greater representation?
Such extremism is the work of a few loudmouth hotheads and goes against popular sentiment. The Himalmedia Poll last year showed that even among Madhesis and ethnic communities, there is little support for ethnicity-based federalism. This year's poll, the results of which will be released next week confirm this. The loudest advocates of ethnic states in Nepal are intellectuals of the elite class who suffer from a guilt complex. They want to wash away their shame with the slogan of ethnic federalism but have forgotten to recognise that it is possible for all communities in Nepal to thrive, prosper, celebrate their uniqueness and enjoy equal rights and opportunities without setting up artificial borders. Experts and policy makers would have done the country a great service if they had worked to reinforce this message instead of fanning the flames of ethnic discord.
Last week after completing the Great Himalayan Trail trek across Nepal, Apa Sherpa and his team reaffirmed to journalists what many Nepalis already knew. That despite differences, there is a great deal of acceptance and goodwill among people of different communities. As Saurav Dhakal poignantly noted: "The mountain people are not warm until the plain people make quilts for them." Any political arrangement that overlooks this heterogeneous harmony and interdependence among Nepalis will lead us to tragedy.