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Does Khasan deserve recognition?

Bipin Adhikari
The Kathmandu Post, 28 August, 2008
Source: The Kathmandu Post

Nepal has been declared a federal state by the Interim Constitution. Although this does not establish ethnicity as the fundamental principle of the federal system of government that Nepal is going to adopt, there is a strong possibility that ethnicity will be taken as a major criterion in the formulation of the Nepali scheme of federalism. The opinion being floated from different established corners in the country does not give any better indication.

The issue of federalism in several developing countries has often been one for polemic rather than reasoned analysis. This is what is happening in Nepal as well. The lack of congruence between past and present in Nepal—as well as rivalry between competing contemporary federal visions and neighborhood interests—are likely to be brought into play during the conceptualization and implementation of federalism by the Constituent Assembly. It is yet to be seen whether this empowers the people who deserve empowerment, or gives way to those quarters that should not have any voice in Nepal's political process.

A key problem in this regard is the lack of seriousness on the part of the politicians and party-sponsored activists as to what they want out of federalism. So far there is complete absence of mechanisms for dealing with a multitude of conflicting federal visions competing for the same areas. Except the three political districts in the Kathmandu valley, the nation as a whole has no clue as to what is federalism; and if this is what they want as a gift from the so-called 'New Nepal.' On top of this, even if public opinion should crystallize around one particular vision, the current establishment and its loyal opposition do not have strong willingness to prevent others mounting new challenges against it. The danger is that situations like these could create further chaos and chronic administrative instability.

The issue here is the initial Maoist proposal for federalizing Nepal by creating eight states—Khasan, Tharuwan, Magart, Tamuwan, Tamang, Newa, Kirat and Madhesh—which got a further twist when the CPN-Maoist unveiled their election manifesto in early March 2008. This manifesto further proposed to restructure the unitary state into 11 autonomous federal states and two other sub-states within them keeping in mind what they described as the country's "ethnic composition, geographical contiguity, linguistic base and economic viability."

The Maoist manifesto proposed a three-tier state structure — centre, autonomous federal states and local bodies — with specific rights and responsibility among them, but essentially clinging to their strong ethnic territoriality. They have proposed Seti-Mahakali and Bheri-Karnali federal states based on their geographical appropriateness while the rest — Magarat, Tharuwan, Tamuwan, Newa:, Tamsaling, Kirat, Limbuwan, Kochila and Madhes — have been based on ethnicity. Within the Madhes autonomous state, three sub-states — Mithila, Bhojpura and Awadh — have also been proposed on linguistic basis. The Maoists have also reiterated that every autonomous state will have the right to self-determination.

In this scheme of federalism, the only ethnic territory that has not been given its proper name is Khasan. The party has not explained so far why the state of Khasan has been dropped from their original scheme, and why Seti-Mahakali and Bheri-Karnali federal states have been created in its place giving new name to this territory. The identity of Khasan (the abode of Khas people) is no less historical and real than the rest of the other Nepali communities. They are indigenous to the land; and are the principal inhabitant of their region from time immemorial. If ethnic identity is to be stimulated as a political criterion, then there is no reason why the Khas community—which is one of the major ethnic groups of the country—should be knocked down this way from Nepal's political map.

It is not necessary to refer to the written history of Nepal, and their general role in the nation building. If one is to go by Mahabharata epic—something written before the three thousand years before the birth of Jesus —note that Khasas (including Kirants) have fought war even with Krishna, Karna, Yudhistira and many rulers of the South Asian plains to safeguard the independence and sovereignty of their land.

For a Khas, whether one is a so-called Bahun or a 'sanojat,' the whole of Nepal is his or her home, and there is no ethnic loyalty to any particular piece of land inside the country. They don't say this is ours and that is yours. This is how they have lived in this land since antiquity. They live everywhere; they have equal dedication and concerns for the whole country. They do not want to see the country divided into ethnic line.

Additionally, for Khasas, Nepal is too heterogeneous for ethnic federalism to work. While devolution of power to the territories which require this for empowerment and economic development is fine and must be pursued with urgency, federalising the country along the ethnic criteria is definitely a torturous move, which might weaken this land and all Nepalis commitment for it. This does not mean that they do not have an ethnic territory; and do not mind losing it.

This author has always emphasized that Nepal needs devolution of power to the territories—ethnic or geographical—in an objective basis. Federalism is not necessarily the major issue here. Devolution of power is the answer where power needs to be transferred from a superior governmental body (such as central power) to an inferior one (such as at regional level). A genuine desire for devolution can enable different approaches to government and policy-making to develop Nepal without breaking the country into pieces, and opening up processes which could be misused in the present situation.

In the United Kingdom too, devolution became one of the key issues in the build up to the 1997 election to the House of Representatives when Labour Party promised this issue as one of its manifesto pledges and to introduce a devolved form of government for Wales, Sctoland and Northern Ireland. True to this commitment, since 1998, the constitutional structure of the United Kingdom has undergone dramatic changes.

These changes essentially involved the setting up of an elected regional assembly whose powers were carefully and clearly defined by the national government. These powers did not usually include major financial powers such as tax collection, the raising of taxes etc (though the Scottish Parliament has minor tax raising powers), the control of the armed forces or an input into foreign policy decisions. Such issues continue to be controlled by the central government.

For example, Scotland has a Parliament now elected every four years on the Additional Member System of proportional representation. The National Assembly for Wales is also elected by the Additional Member System of proportional representation. It does not have the power to make primary legislation, but enjoys extensive executive powers and may make secondary legislation.

The Belfast Agreement reached in Northern Ireland in April 1998, was approved in a referendum the following month, and also opened the avenues for devolution. One of the new institutions created following this agreement was an elected Assembly with a similar range of legislative and executive powers to the Scottish Parliament.

What has emerged from the long tidal flows of devolution—from the 1998 onwards—is a uniquely rich, open and outward looking culture and a distinctive set of values which influence British institutions. Already one can see—from the new Regional Development Agencies bringing jobs and investment to each region, to greater local powers over housing, health, skills and transport —there is a real and growing devolution of power away from Whitehall and down to individual regions and communities.

There is a pressure to do even more to move away from the old Britain weakened by decades of 'Whitehall knows best', towards a new Britain strengthened by local centers of energy, initiative, dynamism and decision-making. It is a process that goes on without creating havoc.

Sometimes people forget this is devolution; it is not a form of federalism. The essence of devolution is not to be found in a particular set of broken pieces but in the institutionalization of particular relationships among the participants of political life. Nepal is capable of doing this without hurting anybody. Should this country not plan something like this without being too introvert?
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