Since Nepal’s unification, unitary form of government has existed and even during the periods of democratic regime, the same traditional pattern continued. Nepal is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation. But the unitary government of 237 years has failed to address these varied aspects because of which democracy and nationality have remained fragile. Owing to the existing system of governance, only the elite groups of certain castes have enjoyed most of the privileges under the national system and the Dalits, ethnic groups, women, Madheshis and the backward sections and regions have largely been kept out of the corridors of power.

If we continue the unitary structure by simply forming within it councils/zones with some more delegated powers to accommodate all those who are kept away from the centre of power, it will only help in prolonging the age-long conflict. A unitary government is more suited to a country with homogeneity in race, religion, language and culture. But where diversity prevails, a federal government is more appropriate as it provides equilibrium between centripetal and centrifugal forces and effects unity in diversity. In federalism, since power is decentralised between the federal/central government and those of its units to function independently, it stimulates the locals to formulate and execute their own policies for development in accordance with local and regional needs, aspirations and resources. Federalism also promotes self-rule by making democracy accessible to every section, encourages internal competition for development among federal units, manages conflicts and lessens the danger of dictatorship.

Nepal should opt for a federal system with control over foreign affairs, defence, currency, etc. For a federal state structure, Nepal is neither a small country nor a weak one. Hence, fear of secession is a baseless notion. Even in the historic document of six-point common agenda aimed at soliciting the cooperation of the common people in the Jan Andolan, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) has expressed its commitment to restructure the state to make democracy more inclusive and participatory. In the changed context following the Jana Andolan, almost all the political parties ranging from the extreme Left to the extreme Right have acquiesced in restructuring the state through federalism. Once the issue is settled, the nation should shift from unitarianism to federalism to usher in a new, conflict-free and prosperous Nepal.

The next step is to split the internal territory into federal units, which is a very sensitive issue as the people of different groups can have a clash of interests. Rationale and impartiality is needed in dealing with this issue. It is, therefore, necessary to determine sound criteria for forming federal units. Five criteria — social, cultural, geographical, ethnic and linguistic — mentioned in the document of six-point common agenda of the SPA can definitely provide a genuine basis for a federation. The two criteria — ethnic and linguistic — can take care of the rest. Out of 92 languages, about 70 are indigenous but there has been the promotion of only Nepali. While giving a certain territory the status of a federal unit, the homogeneity of the five criteria should be kept in mind.

Federalists and political parties have postulated various models for the formation of federal units. The CPN (Maoist) has posited nine autonomous provinces including two in the Terai, Tharuang in the west and the Madhesh, resting mainly on ethnicity and ignoring the most vital social resource, that is, language.

The Nepal Sadbhavana Party (A) has suggested five provinces — two in the Terai and three in the hills, ignoring both ethnicity and linguistic plurality. To make the federal structure more democratised, inclusive and to redeem the pledges made during the Jan Andolan, it is necessary for the SPA to provide reservations to Dalits, ethnic minorities, women, handicapped and backward sections or regions.

The Maoists too would support such privileges based on equity. Two major languages of the province, together with Nepali, should be made the official languages of that province. Nepali and other major indigenous languages, which are codified and have a written literature, should be promoted to assume the status of the official languages of the federal government.

Before holding the Constituent Assembly (CA) polls, the interim constitution should recognise the federal structure. The CA, at the time of the formation of the constitution-drafting committee, should set up a commission to determine the number of provinces, the devolution of power between federal and provincial governments, the ratio of reservation, official languages for provincial and federal governments, etc. so that its recommendations can provide a feedback to the constitution drafting committee to help accomplish its task.

Jha is former vice-president, NUTA