Federalism in Nepal : Why and what it means ? An attempt to clarify misconceptions.

Amit Ranjan, 08-27-2015 , lalamitranjan@gmail.com

“A federal political order is here taken to be “the genus of political organization that is marked by the combination of shared rule and self-rule” (Watts 1998, 120). Federalism is the theory or advocacy of such an order, including principles for dividing final authority between member units and the common institutions.”

Why we need Federalism in Nepal ?

Nepal is based on Unitary System of governance ever since the great unification by Late P.N. Shah.

Madhesi’s were primarily from Mithila and Makwanpur then a footprint of India

Historically, this entire footprint has been settled by various prominent ethnic groups such as Kirati in east, Newars in the valley, tharus and madhesi in south, magars and Tamuwan in the west, khas Arya in west. These all have their own distinct identities such as languages and culture. I won’t say much about other ethnicity as I have not thoroughly researched on any of them except looking at their population census. I can speak of Madhesi as being one of them. This is an identical group which is comprised of various castes within, but shares similar dialects such as Maithili, Bhojpuri and Avadhi, and a similar culture. History of Nepal suggests that all major ethnic groups have migrated from the parts which are currently in India – According to a book written by Daniel Wrights – History of Nepal – 1877, Khas Aryas are primarily from footprints in India, Madhesi’s were primarily from Mithila and Makwanpur then a footprint of India; Newars entered Nepal with King Nanya Dev from Karnataka after the Rajput Dynasty – then notable king Amsuverma. Gupta, Kirati were the earlier rulers, followed by Rajputs ( Sombansi), Thakuri, Sen Dynasty ( Mukunda Sen), Malla (Newar) Dynasty and Shah Dynasty. This is a long history of about 1500-2000 years.

It is very unfortunate that the government and its leaders are going against federalism which they were committed to in the past

Back to the point again that there are distinct ethnic identities with different languages and cultures existing in Nepal to this day. Shah Dynasty ended in 2008, but essentially, one language and one culture – Khas Arya was promoted in Nepal to this date. Now, in this turn of the century where Nepal has abolished monarchy through various numerous major social and civil revolutions which formed an interim constitution of federal Nepal. It is very unfortunate that the government and its leaders are going against federalism which they were committed to in the past. Nevertheless, it is a good debate to have. A federal mandate was not mere a decision by a party or government, but a mandate of, for and by the people. The leaders essentially are regressing backward as the present status quo suits them the most. This is fundamentally wrong. They do not have right to backup. As a consequence, ethnic minorities are agitated and the protest are leading to much greater civil revolution.


Federalism ensures division of power entrenched in the constitution which neither a member state nor the central government can alter unilaterally

Rationally, we would want to preserve the identities of the ethnic groups who are rightful citizen of Nepal. They have the right of equal treatment of their language, political rights and opportunities. It can only be secured in federal order of Nepal where the distinct identities are recognized. Based on the constitution, the federal province/canton/cities/states (however, we call it) will have division of power for governance with the central government.

“Federalism ensures division of power entrenched in the constitution which neither a member state nor the central government can alter unilaterally.” With due concern to the unfortunate Kailali event where people were killed – both security forces, and protesting people, the unitary Nepal government resisted the protest to begin with. In the aftermath, the government deployed army to quench any further protest in the modern day democracy. Killing is highly condemnable, but forbidding the right to protest and bring political agenda in the middle of constitutional building process is equally condemnable. There were 5 people killed in country wide protests before Kailali event according to OHCHR. Morever, the government stance to not hear any protest from other ethnic communities except Khas-Aryas ( Akhand pakshim) is outrageous and unilateral. Tharus represents 7 % of Nepal’s population and are the fourth largest ethnic groups. It is a disaster recipee to demonize and vilify the ethnic group who were protesting just like others for the place in the federal Nepal. In the aftermath, Tharus houses were burnt in the presence of Security forces as a revenge. Federation will certainly prevent this. “There will be constitutional allocation of powers to federal state to protect unilateral central government action, while the interlocking arrangements provide influence on central decisions via member unit bodies ( Madison Hume, Goodin 1996)”

It has almost been more than month that Madhes ( terai) is enraged after the government intended to back down from federalism and even deliberately ignored Madhesi’s protest and suggestions for the constitutional draft. Madhes represents 50% of the population. People were beaten and 11 people were already killed by the Government security force during various protest all across the nation before Kailali event. There are thousands on the street everyday. Security Forces are ordered to restrain the crowd and bring life to normal. God forbid event like Kailali will happen again. But, is this true sense of democracy. This is clearly a unitary government which is looking to maintain the status quo, which is not giving up for federalism demands and which is prepared to kill protesting people. We are talking about thousands of people every day. This is a serious concern.

This is clearly a unitary government which is looking to maintain the status quo

Now, there is another voice which is in my opinion misrepresenting that federal Nepal will lead to communal voice against each other. Absolutely not, the protest is against the government, not against any ethnic groups,  but unfortunately, it has be characterized by the mainstream media in Nepal. As a matter of fact all distinct prominent ethnic groups are working together for the federal order of Nepal.

Something to clarify that we are taking about distinct ethnic groups that may consist of several ethnicities with a similar identity. Madhes with 50 % of population is comprised of numerous ethnic group. But they are working together in synergy for a single Madhes province in federal Nepal. Tharus recognized as a distinct identities are looking for a federal state. So, we are talking about two states in the southern belt of Nepal.

Federalism does not mean Division of Country based on any caste or ethnicity.

What bad will come out of the federal Nepal ?

Ethnicity is different from Castes. The later is deliberately formed within a group for division of labor. Something, most of us agree that it is meaningless in this modern world. Anyone can choose any profession. Madhesi are deemed useless in army. This was a policy taken by Shah dynasty after they conquered Makwanpur Rajya in south. This is still prevalent today. But, does it make a rational sense that madhesi is physically impotent to be in the national security forces ?

What bad will come out of the federal Nepal ? This is not simple as it sounds, because of the responsibility of governance and new federal constitution will take some time before people have bearing on governance. It may take some time for the bureaucratic and political machinery to perform. But the end product is federal nation with number of federal states united together with an aspiration of greater Nepal. There will be 100% participation from people, free market, competition and economic turnaround. This is the success story of developed federal nation such as USA, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, Belgium, Spain and least mentioning India (I can feel Nepali hate India the most)

The fact about federalism is that it fosters sources of stability – no contest among various ethnic group for unitary power, the legitimate division of power between member state and center, distributive justice, democratic values and the concern about the politics of recognition.

Examples of Federalism elsewhere

Switzerland is about 3.5 times smaller than Nepal. Switzerland is developed and has been federal state since 1848. Authority is shared between the Confederation (central state), the 26 cantons (federal states) and the 2352 communes (status 1.1.2014). Each of these three levels has legislative powers (to draw up laws and regulations) and executive powers (to implement them). The Confederation and the cantons also have judiciary powers (courts), to ensure that the laws are enforced. Ref – https://www.ch.ch/en/swiss-federalism/ These cantons obviously shares ethnic similarity to some extent and in some have identical ethnicity.

Switzerland is developed and has been federal state since 1848

India is a perfect larger scale federal nation comprised of distinct identities based on geography. These states have distinct identities such as languages but, yes they may be comprised of thousands of castes. Again, we are not talking about separation based on castes. To my limited knowledge of other federal exercises around the world, I would think India is a prime example of identity based federalism.

Federalism in USA is interesting as it became a federation by aggregation of several colonies for the sake of goods otherwise unattainable, such as security or economic prosperity. USA has a dark history as well. This is country colonized by settlers from Europe. The ethnic groups called as Native Indians were eventually eliminated with few traces remaining now. There was a dark period of slavery. Abraham Lincoln, who was himself white, convinced northern state to form a Union against Confederates in South in favor of Slavery. This Civil war abolished slavery, but did not change the attitude towards colored people. Martin Luther King, himself an African American, led the protest against injustice towards poor and minorities. The constitution of USA went through several iteration of amendment, but now one of the successful constitution of a federation which prohibits racism and any bias towards a particular ethnicity. The interlocking division of power between a federal state and a central government comprised of all states ensures that there is no unilateral action on any issues. I believe this relieves discrimination and domination of a particular ethnic group to a greater extent. This country is more welcoming and tolerant to immigrants and all ethnic races.

The constitution of USA went through several iteration of amendment, but now one of the successful constitution of a federation which prohibits racism and any bias towards a particular ethnicity

There is very low tolerance for ethnic groups set by the mainstream political leadership in Nepal. Madhesi’s and Tharus living in nepal as legit citizens are treated as outsiders, just because they have an Indian face and darker skin. On the other hand people with fair skins and who can speak Nepal irrespective of where they live are considered insiders and Nepali. This misconception and misrepresentation is led by the government and leaders as they never tried to clear that misconception. This is not people’s fault.

Newari language is toward extinction in Kathmandu because the language never got similar privilege in Nepali and likewise all other prominent languages also suffered. Newars as Malla dynasties in Nepal are associate with rich culture and the bearer of some of our earthquake shake precious heritage. Any state which will encompass Newari territory should promote Newari culture. Is there an issue calling the state Newa State? Absolutely not, this is only to give respect to this rich ethnicity in Nepal. And likewise to every other prominent ethnicity such as Tharus, Kirati’s, Madhesi and so on.

I believe that a federal system will build a stronger sense of nationality with all federal states joining hands for the prosperity of nation.

Thanks for reading !

References :
History of Nepal , Daniel Wrights 1877

A case study of Federalism in Ethiopia – https://www.uni-leipzig.de/~ecas2009/index2.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=1358&Itemid=24