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FEDERALISM IN NEPAL: INCLUSIVE MODALITIES AND STRUCTURE. Mahendra Lawoti, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Western Michigan University President, the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies Associate Fellow (Non-Resident), Asia Society. PART I: International Experience.


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Federalism in nepal inclusive modalities and structure l.jpg


Mahendra Lawoti, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Western Michigan University

President, the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies

Associate Fellow (Non-Resident), Asia Society

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PART I: International Experience

  • Questions and Concerns about New Institutions

  • Comparative perspective useful

  • South Asian experience instructive

    • Similar socio-economic-cultural context

    • Different events related with federalism like violent ethnic conflict, autonomy and separatist movements, formation of new states, or management of such conflicts and movements have all played out in South Asia

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Federalism, Violent Conflict and Separatism: South Asian Experience

  • Sri Lanka

    • Demand for Federalism by Tamils

    • Rejection by Sinhalese – considered as “slippery” that could lead to separatism

      • Tamil-Sinhalese agreements not fulfilled

    • Radicalization of Tamils

      • the Tamil parties considered ineffective by the Tamil Population

      • Radical “boys” got wider support

    • Separatist Movement

    • Federalism may not be enough to end the Conflict

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Rejection of Federalism and the Formation of Pakistan

  • Demand for Federalism based on Religious groups before independence by the Muslim League

  • Rejection of the demand by the Indian National Congress

  • The Muslim League began to demand for a separate State for Muslims

  • The Indian National Congress agrees to Federalism but the movement for Pakistan has gained momentum

  • Concession comes too late – Muslim League rejects the offer of federalism and goes on to form Pakistan

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Rejection of Demand for Autonomy and Formation of Bangladesh

  • The center in Pakistan “runs the show” in federal Pakistan

    • Center overwhelmingly uses resources of the regions

    • Center imposes Urdu on other language communities

  • Bangladeshis demand more autonomy

    • 6 point demands by Awami League

  • Rejection of the Demands by West Pakistan

  • Repression of the Movement for Autonomy

  • Independence movement, Violent Conflict, and Formation of Bangladesh

  • Lessons

    • How not to practice Federalism

    • How not to respond to autonomy movements

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India: Federalism and Conflict Management

  • Attempt to divide India along administrative lines by Nehru after Independence

  • Violent Movement for Linguistic based Federalism

  • Nehru re-divides India along Linguistic communities

  • The Movements die out after demands met

  • Even the Tamil Separatist movement dies out

    • Why engage in a costly separatist movement when you have jurisdiction to govern in matters that are important to you

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India: The Rise and Decline of Separatist Movements

  • Punjab

    • More autonomy has managed the separatist movement

  • Northeast

    • Re-division of the region managed some autonomy and separatist movements

    • Some movements still going on - some Nepali critics argue it as the failure of autonomies

    • The Right question is – would the violence that were managed would have been possible without autonomy?

  • Kashmir

    • Autonomy reduced

    • Violence and Separatist movement

  • Lessons

    • Linguistic and Ethnic Autonomy can manage violent movements and empower groups

    • However, India has provided autonomy only after huge costs (deaths etc.)

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Lessons from South Asia

  • All struggles for autonomy were based on ethnicity/language/religion and they cannot be addressed by administrative federalism

  • No struggles for administrative federalism

  • Denial of ethnic/linguistic autonomy may lead to separatist movements and formation of new States

  • Repression can fuel separatist movements

  • Centralized Federalism and reduction of autonomy may fuel conflict

  • Ethnic/Linguistic Federalism can address autonomy movements and manage violent conflicts

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Part 2: Rationale for Ethnic Federalism in Nepal

  • 31% Bahun-Chhetri population – largest ethnic group- domination at the center

  • Other groups become permanent minority and cannot influence public policy at the center

  • Has built majority coalitions in different socio-cultural spheres

    • 80 % Hindu with madhesi Hindus and dalits

    • Nearly 50 % Khas-Nepali speakers with hill dalits

    • Nearly 70 % Hill Nationalists with hill indigenous nationalities and hill dalits

    • 85 % ‘higher castes’

  • Bahun-Chhetri become majority/plurality in all areas while other groups are discriminated against in specific areas

  • Thus, Proportional Representation alone will not work

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Democracy, Autonomy and Self-Determination Rights

  • An individual can better look after his/her interest – thus autonomy is important

  • Self-determination rights ensures autonomy

  • Self-determination right is thus the foundation of democracy

  • In multicultural societies, each group is better able to look after its interest because different groups have different norms, values, lifestyles and worldviews – thus group autonomy is important to protect differences

  • Federalism guarantees group autonomy

  • Denial of self-determination rights cannot prevent separatist movement

  • Self-determination rights can prevent separatist movements by forcing the center to be sensitive to regional/ethnic concerns and interests

    • Switzerland, self-initiative rights, and less number of people’s initiatives

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Proposed Models: Reviews

  • Most models have analyzed district population

  • Various ethnic groups have been divided into different districts

    • Chepangs, Dhimals etc. divided into number of districts

  • Need to look at smaller units

  • This proposal analyzes VDC level population

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Administrative or Ethnic Federalism in Nepal?

  • Administrative Federalism does not address ethnic aspirations of people

    • Administrative federalism have been used in very big countries to increase efficiency in governance

    • Ethnic Federalism has been adopted in multi-ethnic countries

  • Administrative Federalism rejects multi-ethnic nature of the Nepali society

  • In multicultural societies, whatever the façade, one or the other group will dominate in administrative federalism

  • Administrative Federalism may lay the seeds for violent autonomy and separatists movements in Nepal

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Regional Planning Models

  • Regional Planning has been a failure despite its theoretical appeal

  • Failure cause - Ignores the aspiration of people

  • Fallacies of the Regional Planning Model

    • Separate needs of Hill region and Gorkhaland Movement

    • Karnali and famine (hunger may not have been reported)

  • Defacto Bahun-Chhetri domination even in regions

    • Negates the rationale for federalism in multicultural society

  • Is it a sophisticated strategy of resisting autonomy?

  • A few large regions contributed to ethnic violence in Nigeria

  • Regional integration can work only if people support it – EU as an example

    • It can occur if different groups are equal and negotiate as such

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Criteria for Federalism in Nepal

  • People’s aspirations and Mobilization

  • Culture (Ethnic, linguistic, regional, religious and caste)

  • Population distribution

  • History and Land

  • Resources

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Multi-cultural (linguistic, ethnic), Regional Federalism in Nepal

  • Bahun-Chhetri dominate the center

  • Allow as many regional groups to self-govern in the regions

  • All regionally concentrated ethnic-linguistic groups are only plural (around 30 %)

  • Regions will be governed by a coalition of ethnic-linguistic groups who are permanent minorities in the center

  • No single group dominates the region

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Elements of Multi-cultural Federalism for Nepal

  • Sub-autonomy within regions to smaller groups

  • All ethnic and linguistic groups are empowered

  • Protection of minority and human rights

  • Individual rights within groups

  • Indigenous rights over land and natural resources

  • Democratic Process (political and civil rights) to determine the governance process

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30% and above

Data Source : Survey Dept./CBS

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MODEL ONE (11 provinces)



Mithila Pradesh


Nepa Mandala



Bhojpuri Pradesh

Abadhi Pradesh


Khas Pradesh

MODEL TWO (13 provinces)


Kochila Pradesh


Mithila Pradesh

Nepa Mandala



Bhojpuri Pradesh

Abadhi Pradesh


Karnali (or Upper Khaasa)

Khas Pradesh (Lower Khaasa)

Tentative Models: First Stage

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Illustration of Sub-autonomy

  • Limbuwan One

    • Meche (Bodo)

    • Rajbansi

    • Lepcha

    • Kisan

    • Dhimal

    • Sherpa

    • Magar

    • Gurung

    • Tamang etc.

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  • Powerful House of Nationalities to bring together regions to the Center – both at the center and regions

  • Powerful – deal with issues that concern the regions

  • Different Constituencies to elect it

  • Over-representation of Smaller groups and regions

    • 10 % elect nearly 40 % senators in the USA

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  • Centre and Provincial power distribution will be regularly contested and have to be interpreted

  • Nepali Judiciary Male Bahun dominated and bias

    • Public Commission Exam

    • Local Language Rulings

    • Citizenship Issue

    • Women’s Rights

  • Separate Constitutional Court

  • Inclusive and Representative of Regions

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The Right to Form New Regions

  • Ask concerned groups – representative associations

  • India formed new regions only after violent conflicts

  • Switzerland formed a new region peacefully

  • Nepal may witness demands for new regions as new political dynamics rise and new identities are constructed

  • Peaceful mechanism to address the movements should be devised

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Popular Initiatives to Form New Regions

  • A certain percentage of signature petition from the proposed regions

  • Referendum to decide the issue

  • Second stage process to allow groups within the region to opt out of the region

  • Prevents violence

  • Allow formation of new regions or regions to join together

  • People have economic and other senses – will create new regions only if it looks beneficial to them

  • The process can be managed during regular elections – it is not a costly and slow process

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Part 3: Response to Critiques

  • Groups are scattered in Nepal?

  • Bahun, Chhetri, Dalit etc. are scattered

  • Tamang, Limbu, Gurung, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Tharu, etc. are territorially concentrated

  • Federal structure should address both realities

    • Autonomy to territorially concentrated groups

    • Provision of minority rights, democratic norms, and protection of human rights

    • Sub-autonomy to smaller groups

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Ethnic Names for Regions

  • It is a tool that can help diffuse ethnic grievances

  • Need to view things positively

  • Ethnic names carry history and identity of different regions and people – they are national resources

  • All mobilizing groups’ names will be recognized

  • Rejection may only fuels resistance

  • History and Relation to land carries additional mobilization power

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Space for Bahun-Chhetris?

  • Federalism is a mechanism to make groups who are minorities at the center as regional majorities/plural groups to allow them to self govern in matters that affect them

    • Minorities cannot influence public policies at the center – they become perpetual minorities

  • Bahun-Chhetri (31%) are the largest group in the Center – they will dominate the center and protect their interests through the center

    • Regional groups will only have around 30 % domination in their areas

  • Bahun-Chhetri form majority in different spheres with different groups- religion, language, nationalism, ‘upper caste’

  • Hence Bahun-Chhetris do not need separate regions to protect their interests

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Ethnocracy or Multiculturalism?

  • Some fear that federalism will introduce ethnocracy

  • However, contemporary Nepal is an ethnocratic state and society- one ethnic/caste group has hegemonic domination of different spheres of the state and society

  • Federalism will promote multiculturalism by recognizing more national/ethnic/caste groups

  • Does not extend the central problem of domination to regions -Diamonds cut diamonds

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State-Nation or Multination State?

  • State-nation concept was developed after the second world war

  • By the end of 1960s, scholars realized that it was an important cause of violent ethnic conflict occurring in the world

  • Dominant group captured the state and defined the state institutions or ‘state-nation’ with its values and norms

  • It became a sophisticated tool of exclusion

  • Nepal is a prime example

  • Multination state fosters Multiculturalism

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Resource Viability and Slow Process

  • Meena Acharya

  • Harka Gurung

  • Global experience of agricultural federal countries becoming industrialized

  • Economic efficiency thesis

  • Sustainable process- more egalitarian process – Lijphart 1999 findings

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Federalism and Secession?

  • Break up in the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Pakistan

    • All were dictatorial federal countries

    • Absence or weak negotiations between groups and elite

    • All were relatively young countries

  • Large Democratic Federal countries have not broken up

    • Aspirations change and negotiations continue

  • Nepal does not share characteristics with break up countries

  • Lessons from South Asia

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Multiple Identities?

  • National/Ethnic/Caste identity should be recognized

  • Identities are formed in response to State policies as well

  • Discriminating state and social policies has contributed in the formation of National/Ethnic/Caste identities in Nepal

  • Equal Recognition could lessen their salience

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Will the center become weak?

  • Only power that are necessary to the regions will be awarded to the regions

  • Power that are necessary to the center will be kept at the center

  • Powerful Upper House will bring the regions together at the center

    • Over representation of smaller groups

    • 2 senators for all regions (big and small) in the US

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Federalism and Beyond

  • Federalism is the most important structure but is not sufficient to include multiple groups with multiple layer of problems

  • Federalism does not directly address the problems faced by women and dalits

    • But takes government closer to people

  • Other institutions are needed to address multi layered problems of multiple groups whose make ups and needs are different

  • Non-territorial federalism, reservation, affirmative actions for dalit, women

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Reforms in Society

  • Media

  • Human Rights Groups, NGOs, and Donors

  • National Symbols and Public Holidays

  • School curricula

  • Redefinition of Nepali Nationalism

  • Elimination of Cultural Discrimination

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Secure compliance, Minimize dissent, Lend legitimacy

Efficiency, Enlist Contributions, Delegate responsibilities, defuse opposition, enhance responsiveness

Build political capabilities, enable equitable decision-making, enhance accountability

Inclusion for Equality or Cooptation?

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