Bahun leadership and federalism – Dr Mahendra Lawoti
KNOWLEDGE AND POWER
If the Nepali polity were to abide by democratic norms, the debate about federalism should have been more or less settled by now because two formal democratic procedures opted for providing autonomy to multiple ethnic groups. The committee on state restructuring of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly (CA) came up with a 14 provinces model, which would provide autonomy to more than 30 ethnic groups, including the Bahun-Chhetris. The State Structuring Commission (SRC), which was formed by the top Bahun political leadership after they were unhappy with the outcome of the CA committee’s democratically adopted model, also came up with 11 unit federal model that emphasises the same principle.
A federal model that has passed two deliberative democratic processes would have been adopted in most democratic polities but that has not been so in Nepal’s Bahun-led and dominated democratic process. The top Bahun leaders are attempting to undermine the outcomes of the democratic procedures because the outcome is not to their liking. If the model is not to their liking, the democratic approach would have been to take the proposal to the full house of the CA. One indigenous intellectual said that the top leadership scuttled the discussion of SRC report in the CA after a large number of members called for adopting “ethnic” federalism. If that was the case, one can understand why the top leaderships are employing non-democratic approach to undermine outcomes of democratic procedures.
Bids to undermine the outcome of the democratic processes by the top Bahun leaderships even by opting to non-democratic methods demonstrate and reaffirm the deep entrenchment of ethnic interests and attachment in them. As before the Bahun leaderships are attempting to protect and promote the ethnic interest of their own group and themselves with the support and egging of the largely male, Bahun dominated media and “scholars” who profess to provide “expert” advice without citing existing bodies of knowledge on federalism.
Putting forward various excuses and explanations, the status quoists are attempting to adopt a 6-8 provinces model where Bahun-Chhetri will become the majority or the largest group in most of the provinces. The 6-8 provinces model is primarily a mono-ethnic model where one ethnic group will dominate the center and most, if not all, provinces and rejects autonomy to numerous other ethnic groups, including by not envisioning local autonomy for many small populated groups.
The 14 province model, a multi-ethnic federal model, on the other hand, would provide autonomy and power to numerous ethnic groups. The labeling of the 11 and 14 province models as “ethnic” is misleading because all federal models are ethnic in Nepal. The only question is whether it will be mono-ethnic (6-8 provinces) or multi-ethnic (11-14 units) (see my Myth of non-ethnic federalism, February 18, 2009).
The mono-ethnic federal model advocates’ major contention is that 10 or more provinces will not be viable in Nepal. This argument appears to be logical intuitively but deeper empirical examination shows its fallaciousness. Experience around the world has amply demonstrated that countries with small number of units have failed much more frequently than countries with higher number of units (see my Viability Fallacies, March 2, 2012). The outcry and threats to tear and burn the Constitution that does not recognise autonomy to multiple groups by indigenous, Madhesi and others has amply shown that federalism with fewer units will not be viable in Nepal also because people will not accept it.
Opponents of multi-ethnic federal model argue that both the CA committee and SRC’s model are not unanimous and minority views should be considered as well. Obviously minority views were considered and deliberated but rejected through a democratic process. Minority rights in democracy can be cited only if the minority can demonstrate that the majority’s decisions have harmed the minority. The proponents of the alternative federal model have not shown how the 11 or 14 unit federal models will hurt them.
In fact, Bahun-Chhetri’s interests will not only be protected in both models but they will continue to dominate the polity but less than before. First, they will be a large group in most provinces and hence their interests cannot be undermined in electorally based polity, especially because the provincial dominant groups will not have majorities, as will be the case in the “ethnic” provinces in Nepal. Two, the Bahun-Chhetri will continue to be the largest group in the country and will dominate central politics. If their rights are threatened in the provinces, the center can intervene to protect them. Third, the Bahun-Chhetri will in fact be majorities or the largest group a few provinces in the 14 province model and will continue to influence politics in multiple provinces whereas other ethnic groups will dominate only one province each. In fact, without autonomy, minority rights of the non-Bahun-Chhetri groups will be violated because they will have to live under the policies formed by the dominant group whose culture, values, needs and preferences are different in many instances.
The above discussion demonstrates that the Bahun leadership is more worried about losing their monopoly in the polity and is making a last ditch undemocratic effort to protect it. This is shortsightedness, however. They will lose more of their political power if they persist to advocate the 6-8 provinces model.
The Bahun-Chhetri leadership lost considerable power when they chose to omit federalism in the Interim Constitution. The Madhesi movement that rose to demand federalism went on to produce Madhesi parties that won many seats and began chipping away at the monopoly of political power and influence of the Bahun-Chhetri leadership. If the Bahun leaderships attempt to impose the 6-8 provinces model, they may end up losing further political power. The indigenous nationalities have begun to launch protests with participation of indigenous nationalities’ leaders hailing from different spectra of society and political parties. If the indigenous nationalities launch a movement against the mono-ethnic model when it is imposed, many indigenous nationalities leaders and activists may leave the larger political parties, especially CPN-UML and Nepali Congress. This may further shrink the two parties and quicken the process of undermining Bahun leaders’ political power that traditionally came with their grip on those parties. Likewise, the leadership’s refusal to address the Madhesi problems may unite the otherwise fragmented Madhesi political parties and reduce or avoid their electoral losses. The Bahun leadership perceives that multi-ethnic federalism would erode their power but ironically it looks like the resistance to it will deliver them a harsher blow at this juncture.