Thursday, January 13, 2011

Nepal: federalism ahead?

Political graffiti in Kathmandu. I'm sure there was much more, but this was iconography a tourist could recognize, though not necessarily understand.

When one visits other peoples' countries as a tourist, it is sensible to avoid questioning people about their local politics. That's not at all my instinct; I'm too habitually attuned to the push and pull of power in communities not to frame questions. But, of course, I am also too ignorant on a short visit to be able to see and engage with whatever is going on from the local perspective.

So I asked no questions about politics during my brief visit to Nepal in November, even though I knew the country had recently emerged from civil war, had no current central government, and was in a process of writing a constitution.

Today the International Crisis Group issued one of its sober briefing papers on Nepal. ICG represents the more enlightened factions of Western internationalism, sometimes acting as a slightly abashed apologist for American and European hegemony, but also often wise to on-the-ground realities in countries not bathed in a Western media spotlight.

Here are some excerpts from the executive summary of the new Nepal report:

Nepal: Identity Politics and Federalism

Federal restructuring of the state has emerged as a major demand of ethnic and regional activists in Nepal. The debate about it is extremely politicised. Federalism is not simply the decentralisation of political power; it has become a powerful symbol for a wider agenda of inclusion, which encompasses other institutional reforms to guarantee ethnic proportional representation and a redefinition of Nepali nationalism to recognise the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

Activists demand the introduction of reservations to guarantee proportional representation of marginalised groups in government and administration. They want provinces to be named after the most numerous ethnic and regional groups and boundaries drawn to make them dominant minorities. Some claim to be indigenous to these regions and demand preferential rights to natural resources and agradhikar -- priority entitlement to political leadership positions in the future provinces.

Ethnic and regional demands were important parts of the Maoist agenda during the civil war; in eastern Nepal, much of their support depended on it. State restructuring became a central component of the 2006 peace deal. ...

Backtracking on federalism is politically impossible. ... deferring crucial decisions, or stalling the constitutional process altogether, could be tempting for those opposed to change. The assumption that the Maoists have both the most to gain and the most to lose from the constitutional process could lend wider appeal to the idea. The risks are hard to calculate. Ethnic and regionalist groups, already suspicious of the major parties’ commitment to federalism, threaten protests and ultimately violent resistance should it not come. Their eyes are on the 28 May 2011 deadline for the promulgation of the new constitution. ...Activists are getting frustrated and the mood is becoming more militant. With an issue to rally around they are likely to coalesce; a politicised population would easily be mobilised for protest movements, should federalism not come.

Not all want federalism. Popular opposition to ethnic federalism in particular is substantial, by virtue of its association with identity politics. Many Brahmins and Chhetris, the dominant caste groups, fear they will lose out from the introduction of ethnic quotas and federal restructuring. But organised resistance is limited and fragmented.

...The structure emerging from the Constituent Assembly, federal but with a strong centre, offers a feasible compromise.
I have no way of knowing whether this is an accurate rendering of the situation. Federalism often seems a mixed blessing in our own country; does it really make sense that so many laws differ between states and that so many responsibilities are so uneasily shared by 50 state governments with the national government? Nepal only has about 35 million inhabitants, though it's people speak 92 separate languages at home and presumably also therefore possess many different cultures.

I can't pretend to understand anything much about Nepal, but I can sure wish this beautiful, hospitable country well as it approaches the deadline for its new constitution.


Lynn Koh said...

Tom Hazeldine wrote a very scathing critique of ICG in New Left Review last year (the May-June issue) -- essentially accusing it of being an NGO arm of NATO or something like that. I haven't read it carefully but I'll send it your way if you are interested.

janinsanfran said...

Here's the article Lynn Koh refers to. There's no question that ICG is a part of the global establishment of empire(s) -- and I still find their on the ground analysis interesting.

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