The political parties in Kathmandu may still be undecided about what the "new" Nepal would look like, but here in the east people seem to have already decided at the level where it matters the most. Travelling across five districts of Nepal's east, one gets a sense of what real grassroots aspirations are: a more accountable and accessible state.
Thousands of Janajatis taking to the streets in Kathmandu may have spread fears of national disintegration, but here on the ground the quest for identity is not the bogey it is being made out to be. The national media has been exaggerating fears of communal violence and focuses a lot on negative reports about groups enforcing shutdowns, and social media promotes hate speech. But here, the reality is different. People have become more tolerant of differences and accept the necessity of a more inclusive society.
"They tell me now I am citizen of a Limbuwan state. I don't care what that means as long as we can have politicians we can reach," Purna Shrestha, a 37-year-old daily wage earner from Jorpokhari of Panchthar district told me. Shrestha has never been beyond Jhapa and doesn't really care who rules in Kathmandu.
Yadunath Pokharel has been teaching Political Science for the last 15 years here in Panchthar's local campus, and says most misgivings about local movements stem from a preconceived mindset and failure of outsiders to empathise with people's quest for autonomy.
In the last few years Nepalis in general have become more accommodating in their outlook, developing an understanding for each other's culture and identity. In the Tarai these days, a Madhesi is treated with more respect by a non-Madhesi civil servant, which is quite a departure from the rude and dismissive behaviour of the past. Similarly, from a monolithic state, we have become a nation of diverse cultures where Eid and Udhauli are celebrated with the same enthusiasm as Dasain and Gaijatra.
At a cyber cafe in Phidim, which was in the throes of yet another shutdown called by CPN-Maoists, two young students were critical of the nationalistic backlash on social media against identity politics. "I don't understand why people have to add 'Nepali' to their names to assert their Nepaliness," said one, "when I greet you with 'sewaro' is it any less of a Nepali greeting than 'namaste'?"
What started out as a political demand for a federal state has now moved beyond the political realm to become a social movement which does not seek to undermine nationalism, but to strengthen it by cementing Nepal with its diversity.
In Biratnagar and Itahari, the rickshaw drivers are from the hills and plains, and converse easily in their own languages with passengers who also understand and respond in those tongues. In a bus from Dharan to Dhankuta, or from Panchthar through Ilam, there is a multitude of voices in various local languages that represents a linguistic microcosm of eastern Nepal. No one from the dominant castes in the bus seem to see that as a threat to their Nepaliness. We pass signboards and gates not just in local languages, but in long-lost local scripts that had fallen into disuse.
According to Sunsari-based journalist and writer Bhawani Baral who has published several books on the Limbuwan and other identity-based movements in the east, demands for political autonomy have become more coordinated, restrained and mature. "Remember, these were homegrown movements and lacked leadership, so it is natural that they were anarchic, but that is slowly changing," he told me.
Indeed, the nine factions demanding Limbuwan are now organised under a coordination committee while an armed Khumbuwan movement recently renounced violence and has pledged to enter peaceful politics.
There is no such thing as a righteous stance in politics, there are only politically-correct decisions. Whether we like it or not, identity politics is here to stay at least until we as a nation are prepared to deal with it as a necessary path to redress past exclusivity. To do that, the old-fashioned centralised decision-making must first give way to a more progressive politics that includes all.
Our leaders should stop telling people what is good for them and start listening to what they want: a federalism that celebrates Nepal's diverse identities.