The Marginalized Groups and Federalism in Nepal

By: Avinash Mishra, Deepak Shah, and Puru Shah

How Did The Federalism Debate Begin?

Nepal was divided into 5 development regions by late King Mahendra. Each development region borders China in the North and India in the South. Similarly, each consists of regions that are mountainous, hilly, and flat. This division of Nepal into 5 North-South administrative regions has been under criticism by several groups (far from the center Kathmandu) who felt marginalized from the development and policy making process.

The genie of federalism escaped and entered Nepalese minds during the ten year long civil war. The CPN Maoists promised groups willing to join their ‘Jana Yuddha’ (Peoples’ War) that following a victory, Nepal would be divided into federal states based on ethnicity.

The CPN Maoists were among the first to mobilize many of these marginalized groups and wage a decade long armed conflict. Their goal was to create an ethnicity-based federalism in Nepal. In other words, Nepal would be divided into several states such that the most populous ethnic group in the state would have a majority. The state can then formulate targeted development policies instead of a top down approach where policies are made in Kathmandu by a handful of politicians and enacted in rest of the country. After the CPN Maoists were popularly elected in the first Constituent Assembly elections in 2007, the federalism debate began in Nepal.

The 16 Point Agreement and The Proposed Six Federal States

The federalism debate unleashed heated discussions among major political parties and gave rise to several irreconcilable ideological differences. Since major political parties could not overcome their disagreements about the nature of federalism in Nepal, this pushed the constitution drafting process into a stalemate. The disastrous earthquakes of April 2015 provided a much needed sense of urgency to this process and surprisingly, the four major parties signed a 16 point agreement. Shortly after, without much debate or justification, they proposed six federal states in Nepal. The issue of why they decided on six states (instead of 12 or 14) and what is the basis of this division has still been a mystery to most Nepalis.

The Unrest Following The Six States Decision

The people of Nepal have not unanimously embraced the idea of ethnicity-based federalism or federalism in the first place. The marginalized groups have demanded a federalism based on ethnicity, while some have demanded a federalism based on religion, and yet others do not want a federalism as long as there is equality in the country.

Needless to say, the decision by UML, Nepali Congress and CPN Maoists to divide Nepal into six federal states and its boundaries was rather arbitrary. It was made without consultation with marginalised groups who fought for an inclusive federalism. Several of the marginalized groups, such as Madhesis in the south-east, Tharu in the south-west, Limbus in the east, and Karnali began their agitation from the streets and put forward their demands. This led to frequent strikes, protests, and confrontations between protestors and state’s security forces. The state’s security forces is alleged to have used excessive force against demonstrators and this worsened the situation in many parts of Nepal. The police opened fire against protesters in several areas which led to more death and destruction in Nepal, at a time when the country is still recovering from damages inflicted following the massive earthquakes in April and May 2015.

The Map of Six Federal States in Nepal

The color coded map below shows the six federal states initially proposed by the four major political parties in the constituent assembly.

Federalism Map in Nepal - Six States_Madhesi Youth
Figure 1: The map of Nepal with proposed six federal states. Map created by: Madhesi Youth, using R

There were two sets of reaction following this decision. Either people were unhappy or they did not care. Nobody really was satisfied with what was going on.

The Grievances of Marginalized Groups

Several marginalized groups had grievances because the federal states did not meet their demands and violated the past agreements. The three main parties declared that their 16 point agreement takes precedence over all past agreements. This further angered and frustrated many groups, most notably – Madhesis, Tharus and people of Far-western region.

For instance, Madhesis complained that Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa was not included in State 2. Similarly, Tharus complained that Kailali and Kanchanpur was not included in State 5. In addition, people of far-western region complained that a separate state consisting of Seti and Mahakali was not created. A Nepali party, Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), with close ties to the ousted King and Hindutva groups in Nepal and India, complained against the declaration that Nepal become a secular nation. They protested and demanded that Nepal should remain a Hindu nation.

Terai region was put on strike and alert till the needs were all met. Another protest started in the far-west demanding the current far-western development region as a separate state. Similarly, people of Karnali region wanted a separate state for themselves. Something had to be done to appease these groups. The puppet masters then went back to discussion room and came up with a map of Nepal with seven federal states. This was done in identical fashion, out of thin air, behind an opaque curtain, and without any justification.

The Map of Seven Federal States in Nepal

The color coded map below shows the seven federal states proposed by the four major political parties in the constituent assembly to appease the people of Karnali and far western region.

Federalism Map in Nepal - Seven States_Madhesi Youth.jpeg
Figure 2: The map of Nepal with proposed seven federal states. Map created by: Madhesi Youth, using R

Essentially, an extra state was added in the far-west by dividing the previously proposed state 6 into two. This resulted in Karnali region as its own state and the people of Far western region also had a separate state. Call it political ingenuity, the demands of both of those groups were met.

Why The Tikapur Massacre Happened?

However, nothing was done to address the demands of Tharus and Madhesis. In particular, Tharus felt frustrated and began to ask, “Why were the demands of Karnali and far-west region met within two days after their protests began while ours are still not met after 15 days of protest?” In addition, a Nepali Congress senior leader Sher Bahadur Deuba from Far Western region remarked, “Kanchanpur ko ta rou ni dinna Tharu lai” (“Not even a hair piece of Kanchanpur will be given to the Tharus”). When Tharus learned about this, it added fuel to the fire. This extreme frustration led to an unfortunate incident in Tikapur, Kailali that shook the entire country. During the incident, seven members of Nepal Police lost their lives, including a 2-year old child and three protesters. Tikapur is tense and locals are scared to discuss about the incident. The details of this incident are still being investigated and Tharus have come under attack from all sides for this incident.

The Suffering of Tharus

The curfew has been tightened in many regions to suppress the protests and control unrest. Nepali Home Minister and Defense Minister, Bamdev Gautam has also deployed Nepal Army to enforce curfew and assist the local administration in suppressing the protests and attacks. Despite the curfew, protests continue in many regions. Following the incident in Tikapur, several Tharu homes were damaged and lit on fire by allegedly people of far western region while the curfew was still in place.

There are no signs of unrest coming to an end. A protester died in Rajbiraj after police opened fire. An innocent man aged 25 was shot in Gaur by the police and the government still has not taken any steps to stop it. Instead, the government has decided to proceed with their decision and suppress dissidents by deploying Nepal Army. The marginalized groups are used to dealing with state’s security forces. In the decade-long armed conflict, a large number of Tharu youths joined CPN Maoists and fought against the Nepal Army, Armed Police Force, and Police. Similarly, Tharus account for more than 50% of the displaced and disappeared victims during the armed conflict. CPN Maoists have since stopped advocating for Tharus. Despite a betrayal from CPN Maoists, Tharus have sought to end their suffering and marginalization by demanding a separate state for themselves, namely Tharuwan, under the federal structure of Nepal. This demand is no different than people of Kailali and far western region seeking their own state. Yet, the government chose to ignore Tharu demands and suppress them yet again using more force.

The Path To an Inclusive Nepali Society

One positive development following the unfortunate Tikapur incident is that the Nepali PM Sushil Koirala formally invited agitating marginalized groups for “talks”. Unless the major political parties have a will to find resolution through dialogue and are prepared to address the demands of marginalized groups with honesty, the violence will further escalate. it is our hope that the decisions will be transparent and based on facts instead of whims and fantasies of politicians making decisions. The people of Nepal voted and gave them a mandate to draft the constitution of Nepal that is inclusive, progressive, and paves the way for sustainable peace. Their actions should reflect the aspirations of majority of Nepalis who advocate for the creation of an inclusive Nepali society that cherishes diversity.

Madhesi Youth

Madhesi Youth is a digital platform for young Nepalis to express themselves. We offer fact-based, data-driven and independent analysis on issues that affects Nepalis in general and Madhesis in particular.