Federal structure: Administrative units on ethnic basis

J awaharlal Nehru University professor S D Muni needs no introduction for Nepali intellectuals and politicians because of his long association with political developments in Nepal. Muni is a well-wisher of Nepal and an ardent believer in people’s power and democracy. He believes in the special nature of ties between Nepal and India. For these reasons his observations on current Nepali politics merit serious attention.

During his recent Nepal visit, Muni suggested that the Tarai problem be given due priority to prevent the disintegration of Nepal. The people of Tarai have been raising their voice against their marginalisation since the advent of democracy in 1950. In spite of Tarai’s contribution to Nepali economy, the state has not treated them in a fair manner. Just as a token of gesture some people from Tarai have been picked for high-level posts but not as a matter of their rights. This has been resented by the people of Tarai and particularly after the success of Jana Andolan II, and consciousness of Tarai people has increased manifold.

The commitment made by the eight party alliance to restructure the state on a federal basis has been widely welcomed but the question of the basis of the formation of the new administrative units under a federal structure is yet to be answered. At the same time, the question of representation in the Constituent Assembly and future parliament remains a sensitive issue.

While there is a consensus among civil society members that the country’s future administrative units have to be decided, as far as possible, on ethnic and linguistic basis, the political leaders are still creating confusion about the issue. Even the chief government negotiator has publicly denounced formation of future administrative units on the basis of ethnicity and language. This not only diminishes the credibility of the negotiator but also raises severe doubts about government’s intention.

The Tarai belt has four prominent language groups — Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi and Tharu, with Hindi as their lingua franca. Now, it has to be agreed that only the people of Tarai have the right to opt for either a single Tarai unit as a new administrative entity or four units based on language.

Similarly the question of administrative units in the hills and mountains has to be left to the wishes of the people inhabiting those regions. Although most of the mountainous districts have mixed populations, a particular ethnic community makes for the dominant part of a particular district. Naturally these ethnic communities would prefer creation of administrative units on the basis of the prominence of a particular ethnic community although the rights and privileges of other minority groups would have to be protected too. But to say that since there is no majority of any ethnic community in any district there is no need for units on ethnic basis is like trying to sweep the problem under the carpet.

The fact that culture grows out of a particular language. For the protection of a culture the language has to be protected is a universal truth. It has to be accepted that new administrative units will use their own language and common link language to facilitate the participation of commonfolk in socio-political activities and promotion of their culture. The right to protect one’s identity must be recognised as a fundamental right of the people. Either those opposed to formation of new administrative units have to submit a viable alternative or they should accede to the demands of the Tarai people.

If the government adopts a policy of suppression of the Tarai agitation through force, such measures will boomerang by helping the extremists who want to see the country disintegrate. The same armed forces that assured the King they would be able to quell the Maoist rebellion in six months might try to persuade the present regime that the Tarai agitation could be thwarted by martial means as well. The politicians need to keep this in mind and must open up the vista for mutual understanding.

As long as the government does not show its readiness to create new administrative units on the basis of ethnicity and language and discuss the merits of proportional representation, no meaningful discussions can take place with the dissenters and the question of free and fair CA polls will remain in limbo.

For their part, the ministers must learn to hold their tongue on controversial matters which can only be solved through dialogue. They also need to show their readiness to respond to the demands of the people of Tarai, indigenous groups and ethnic communities, dalits and women. The age of imposition of one’s idea on others has passed. The new awareness among people of their legitimate rights and privileges must be respected. There is no alternative to dialogue and discussion. Use of force is undemocratic and will create bigger problems. Recognition of the sovereign right of people is the only way out of the present crisis.

Upadhyay is ex-foreign minister