State restructuring : A horizontal model for conflict management

Ethnic tensions have surfaced in Nepal with the recognition of plural rights that had been denied by the discriminatory policies of the state. One foreign observer has labelled Nepal the “ethnic turntable of Asia”. But the state has heretofore failed to recognise its plural identity. Though some feudal practices were repealed in the 1950s, the concerned policies could not be implemented as the political parties lacked vision for an inclusive democratic process; the obscurantists and stay-putters did not like the progressive policies; and for 30 years, the partyless Panchayat polity denied even basic rights to the people. Surprisingly, the 1990 democratic constitution inherited some of the legacies of the feudal culture, only serving to perpetuate the underlying ethos of Hindu elites.

At long last, the parliamentary declaration last April declared Nepal a secular state. The latent ethnic tensions flared up. It is noteworthy that ethnic divisions are enduring, persistent and emotional, and show a high propensity to open violence. In this context, issues of heightened ethnic nationalism, regional autonomy, federal state, right to self-determination on the basis of race, language, culture and geography have appeared as the thorny issues in the restructuring process. The Maoists exploited the latent ethnonationalism and urged the ethnic groups to rise against the existing social order. It suggested federal structure on the basis of ethnicity.

The Tarai identity crisis is deep and divisive, tending to attract external predators and regressive forces that have exploited internal rifts, adding fuel to the fire. Nepal Sadbhawana Party along with the Madeshi Janadhikar Forum has claimed a union of 20 districts in the plain as a federal unit. The Chure Vhawar region too is clamouring for self-autonomy. Members of Parliament representing the political parties of the Tarai have collectively challenged the validity of the constituency delimitation commission report on the ground that it is biased and discriminatory with regard to the participation of the Tarai people in constituent assembly (CA) elections.

The National Federation of Indigenous Nationalities has been demanding full proportional representation system in the CA polls, based on ethnicity and modalities of restructuring on regional and ethnic basis. However, the government did not agree to proportional representation based on ethnicity and the proposal of electing at least one representative from each of the 59 ethnic nationalities in the upcoming Constituent Assembly polls. Rather, in response, the interim parliament passed a resolution for semi-proportional system under which 240 seats have been set aside for representation on the basis of first-past the-post system and 240 seats on the basis of the parallel system. The Hill-Tarai dichotomy has also appeared as a sensitive issue which has remained as a great psychological barrier to the emotional integration of Nepal over the years.

Those societies that have been successful in reducing ethno-political conflicts have allowed the ethnic groups to share power through democratic process and plural identity has been maintained on the basis of minimum value-consensus. When ethnic groups are provided equal opportunities for sharing the valued resources, they generally function according to the rules of the political game. At the other extreme, when the state responds to ethnic mobilisation with policies of exclusion and repression, ethno-political violence is bound to flare up into a bigger conflict. Provisions of consociational democracy (like in Belgium, Norway and Sweden), federalism (the USA, Switzerland and Canada), electoral reform in favour of minority groups, preferential programmes or quota system, and direct and representative democracy have proven effective in containing ethno-political unrest.

Conflict is a natural phenomenon in any society and violence erupts when state proves unable to establish distributive justice with regard to allocation of goods and services, honours, status and opportunities of various kinds. Conflict is a means for different ethnic groups to

obtain the best position in the society. The theory of conflict management recommends developing democratic institutions and formation of civil society and citizens’ participation in the policy-making process as effective strategies for containing ethno-political violence.

If political parties fail to understand the gravity of ethnic problems while restructuring the society, the already strained harmony could break apart. A horizontal model ensures reduction of inter-ethnic and inter-regional conflicts and antagonism and keeps the level of positive interaction and solidarity high. The model provides equal space and opportunity to all discrete groups in the collective process of nation-building.

Dr Poudyal is professor of Political Science, Tribhuwan University