As Nepal debates the model of federalism it should adopt, it will be fruitful to review experiences from elsewhere. Not only should we study the various forms of federalism but also we should analyse violent conflicts associated with autonomy and separatist movements, breakup of countries as well as management of autonomy and separatist movements. South Asia is an excellent region to study for this purpose, not only because other countries are similar to Nepal socio-economically and culturally, but also because the region has seen all the abovementioned cases played out.

The Sri Lankan Tamils demanded an autonomous region after the Sinhalese majoritarian governments formulated policies that discriminated against them right after independence. The minority Tamils could not influence policy-making process. In the 60s and 70s, the government signed autonomy accords with the Tamils but did not implement them. Rejection of federalism alienated Tamils further, fuelling the separatist movement. The Tamils began to support the radical ‘boys,’ the Tamil Tigers, after the growth in perception that moderate Tamil parties were unable to deliver autonomy. The irony about the Sri Lankan conflict is that the rejection of federalism fuelled it but today federalism may not be sufficient to settle it.

The concept of Pakistan emerged with the rejection of demand for federalism. During the Indian independence movement, the Muslim League demanded religious federalism. They perceived that without autonomy to Muslims, Hindu values and norms would be imposed on them. The Indian National Congress rejected the demand. In response, the ML proposed a separate State of Pakistan. When the Congress finally agreed to federalism along religious line, it was too little too late.

The independence of Bangladesh too is associated with rejection of demands for autonomy. Pakistan flirted with federalism by granting Bangladesh federal powers, nonetheless power remained centralised in West Pakistan. The Bengalis of East Pakistan demanded greater autonomy. Led by the Awami League leader Mujib, they came up with the famous six-point demands. West Pakistan rejected the demands and imprisoned Mujib. It sparked the independence movement, which Pakistan attempted to suppress. Bangladesh became independent after India intervened on behalf of East Pakistan. The lesson from Bangladesh is that centralised federalism and suppression of autonomy movements can backfire.

Post-independence India managed many of its conflicts by adopting linguistic and ethnic federalism. Nehru divided India along administrative federal units. Linguistic groups opposed it and launched a movement for linguistic federalism. With the bitter memory of partition still afresh, Nehru conceded to the demands and re-divided India on linguistic lines in the 50s. It not only settled the conflict but also eroded the base for the separatist movement in Tamil Nadu. People see no reason to engage in separatist movements, which are costly, if they are granted autonomy and right to self-government. Separatist movements get support when autonomy is denied.

India addressed the separatist Punjab movement by granting more autonomy. Likewise, many separatist and autonomy movements in the North East were addressed by granting autonomy along ethnic lines. Of course all problems of the North East are not settled and some critics in Nepal point this as an inadequacy of ethnic federalism. They are off the mark. Could the violent separatist movements of the Mizos, Manipuris have been managed without regional autonomy? The shortcoming in India, if any, was that the centre used the power of the Upper House to create new regions only after long violent movements. A peaceful way to grant autonomy would have settled the problems, at a lesser cost.

Though India has successfully managed many conflicts, the Kashmir problem has grown. While India granted more autonomy in other parts of the country, the centre took back substantive autonomy granted to J&K. This also supports the thesis that autonomy can mitigate conflicts while taking it away can create big problems.

The lessons for Nepal are clear. When ethnic and linguistic federalism were denied, it led to violent conflicts, separatist movements, and even formation of new states. When demands for autonomy were met, on the other hand, many violent conflicts were settled and separatist movement died down. It is also clear that ethnic/linguistic autonomy, if granted in early phase of the movements, can help douse separatist movements. However, settlement is much harder once the movements gain momentum. And repression only fuels the movements. Autonomy movements are gaining momentum in Nepal. Their trajectories will depend on the response of the state still controlled by a dominant group.

Dr Lawoti is Asst. professor, Dept. of Political Science, Western Michigan University