In Favor of Ethnic States

February 20, 2007 at 7:09 am 2 comments

In Favor of Ethnic States 

 -Rakesh Mishra
Fulbright scholar and student
Resource and Regional Economics
Pennsylvania State University, USA

“Most experts on divided societies and constitutional engineering are in broad agreement on several points.  First, they agree that deep ethnic and other societal divisions pose a grave problem for democracy and that ceteris paribus it is more difficult to establish and maintain democracy in divided than homogenous societies. Second, the experts agree that the problem of ethnic and other deep divisions is greater in countries that are not yet democratic or not fully democratic than in the well-established democracies.”  — Arend Lijphart 

This quote from Liphart is from a chapter titled “The Wave of Power-Sharing Democracy” published in a book “The Architecture of Democracy” by Oxford University Press. This quote reflects the strong roots of the western value system in academicians and “experts,” who theorized that ethnic states and democracy can not go together. This seemed to be an attempt to justify their colonial occupation. I sense a strong smell of the same psychological conditioning in so called Nepalese “experts” too. 

After the success of the Madheshi revolt, I see a dramatic rise of experts writing in the Nepalese media on subjects mainly concerning federalism and ethnic issues. This is a positive sign that people have started discussion. But the contents of most of those articles also reflect an imaginary fear and a traditional bias of the elites of Nepal, who as a group has been ruling the ethnic groups of this country for centuries. I would not categorize this to be deliberate. But it seems knowingly or unknowingly an effort is on to discredit the demand of ethnic federal states that was freshly reinforced by the success of the Madhesi movement.  

Selective Ignorance 

In many articles published in the Nepalese media during last couple of weeks, examples are presented that there is no existence of ethnic states in the whole world. The gist of some articles go further in explaining that “thugs and criminals” (borrowing the words from comrade Prachanda) who are demanding creation of such states are “jihadists” and need to be dealt the way the Palestinians have been dealt by Israel for decades. Let me put forward some examples – federal structure of Belgium, existence of many states in India like the north eastern states, the southern states (based on language and ethnicity), recent creation of the Jharkhand and Chhatisghadh states in India, existence of the Quebec province in Canada – to awaken those “experts” from those drowsy dreams. These all are examples of successful democracy thrived on ethnic federal structures. 

Economic dimensions 

In a recently published article in “The kathmandu post” Alok Bohara subtly suggests that if a separate Terai state is created, people in Hills will have no access to the resources available in the Terai. This is simply far from the reality. When the constitution will be drafted, I suppose there will be sufficient discussion about resources sharing among different states.  In many other countries too, the system of resources sharing has worked effectively and has provided economic justice to all of its citizens.  

Of course, the state, where the resource is physically present, will have the first right. This is the principally accepted norm world wide that is practiced to facilitate resource sharing between countries and also among states within a country. We can chalk out our own strategies based on this principle during deliberations of the Constituent Assembly.  

People in the Terai needs hydropower produced in Hills and people in hills need rice produced in the fertile Terai lands. Simple economics tells us that this is a sufficient condition for exchanges which will benefit both the parties. Nobody is denying that there will be a need of an impartial regulator, and the central government can perform exactly the same role of the impartial regulator. The clear cut rules ought to be established too. Creating the states based on ecological and ethnic similarity will also promote specialization of those regions to produce a particular product with greater efficiency and economic return. 

Socio-political dimensions 

There are efforts to spread a fear that ethnic cleansing of minority groups will occur if ethnic states are established. Contrary to that minority groups can co-exist with the majority ethnic groups in those states. Sometimes the minority groups can even dominate if not controlled by constitutional provisions. Examples of many north Indian states point out in that direction. Domination of the Asamese people by migrants from Bengal and Bihar has given popularity to organizations like ULFA.  

Uncontrolled and state induced migration from Hills to Terai has led to political subjugation of Madhesis.The phrase “freedom of movement” sounds very fancy but in practice it becomes a bane for disenfranchised groups to exercise their political rights. During the last parliamentary election, out of 88 parliamentarians elected from the Terai where Madhesis are in majority, only about 50 % of them were the Madhesis. The case is almost the same where other hill ethnic groups are in the majority. Having said that, I am not of the opinion that all those hill people who migrated to terai should be sent back. I am just trying to analyze the recent revolt in Terai. After we have already admitted that under representation of those groups has been systematic and sad, mere cosmetic changes will not work. There needs to be constitutional provisions to safeguard the political rights of ethnic groups. Creation of separate ethnic states will be a major step in that direction.  

Another issue raised about internal discrimination among the Madhesis can be better addressed by an ethnic state because the discriminated groups will have more and immediate control over the state government.  The state legislatures can even start to enforce the policy of positive discrimination to enhance participation of those groups in the state affairs. Consider, how difficult it will be for a Sherpa of Solukhumbu to come to state capital, say Rajbiraj, if we follow the federal structure like the current development regions which many agree was introduced with the aim of keeping the Madhesis in the political minority. Autonomous regions within a state may also be created for a geographical area which is socially, culturally and economically quite different.  

Another propaganda waged against proposed ethnic states is their sizes. I think this is just a psychological problem of dealing with unfamiliar subjects. For example, the population of the Terai state will be almost 15 million, which is much more than many prosperous countries in Europe. Same can be true for the smaller states of hills.  

There is also a myth being circulated that ethnic groups are not concentrated in any particular ecological belt in Nepal. It is understandable that population is mixed in few Terai districts like Jhapa and Morang. But the majority of the Terai districts from Mechi to Mahakali have predominantly the Madhesi population, if you exclude the urban centers where majority people from hills have settled for different reasons. According to the latest census, out of approximately 13 million people residing in the Terai, 10 million are the Madhesis.  

I have heard and read from many learned people that the term “Madhesi” does not have clear cut definition. To me it’s the crudest lie without any cover. You just need to be honest to identify who are the Madhesis. If an “academic” definition is needed we can refer to any history book except those written with the royal patronage after B.S. 2017. Even you can refer to infamous “Basai sarai Pratibedan” prepared for the royal government in B.S. 2042 by late Dr. Harka Gurung. Like the Newar community which is also comprised of many casts, “Madhesis” are also a culturally, socially and geographically distinct community with some casts at the center and some towards periphery. 

The point we forget the least, when we think about new federal structures, is the heroic sacrifices on the streets of the Terai towns. We may differ on pros and cons of different models as academicians and “experts” but democratic politics has never been guided by self satisfying academic discourses; neither should it be. The voices in the media about non ethnic nature of states are grossly ignoring the demands of the Janandolan II and the Terai revolt. Being swayed away by this false notion of “rationality” may prove fatal for territorial integrity of our country. After all people matter the most in democracy and popular revolt is one way of expressing the public opinion. 


Entry filed under: Articles.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nityananda Khanal  |  February 23, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    Dear Rakesh Jee,

    I agree with some of the facts you have given in your succinct discussion, but there are not many new things from what we have heard from political activists advocating Terai Regionalism. I fully agree that the state mechanism had always been corrupt and safeguarding a handful of people in the past. Though Madheshis were more suppressed psychologically , but people of every caste and ethnicity share the plight of oppression and economic exploitation by the state mechanism and its aides. So it was natural and necessary to have series of people’s movements in our history. It is the same frustration of a section of young people that launched a decade long civil war resulting in the cessation of Feudal Monarchy. Now the society seems to be in the transition from Feudalism to people-centred federalism. This needs visionary and fair thought on the part of leaders and good discipline on the part of people, but what I see is prevalence of total anarchism among both leaders and relatively active proportion of people. Ironically, the highly educated experts and scholars are aggravating the anarchism through fueling the racial epidemics.

    While I strongly support the pro-poor perspectives, I am a strong opponent of any form of exploitation as well as racial epidemics creating ethnic borderline among people.

    In your arguement, the very reality you have neglected is ecological sustainability, which is more scientific aspect pertaining to livelihood of people today and in the future.
    Nepal has still agriculture-based economy and there are limited economic alternatives. The ecological carrying capacity of Nepal for agriculture-based livelihood can barely sustain about 18 million people. The carrying capacity of hills without degration of resource base is less than 5 million. It is only the prime land of Terai and a few hill vallyes which allow technological transformation to expand carrying capacity up to 40 million people at the most. It is possible only through sustainable transformation of agriculture and allied sectors.

    Besides socio-cultural identity, there is ecologically interdependant linkage between hills and Terai because of the the fragile watersheds. Overexploitation of Hills ecology accelerates soil erosion resulting in nude terrain in Pahad and at the same time making fertile Terai land into barren stretch through rampant alterations of river courses with huge sediment loads. This type of land degradation has already been unmanageable in China and tremendous effort of modern China have been going in vain.

    So I propose that , land use in Terai be sustainably intensified and overexploitation of hills ecology discouraged. The most fragile siwalik range should be evacuated with people and converted into national parks and reserves, while Mid hill region should be promoted with perennial horticulture. It’s a national burdon to charter airplane to feed the people in Karnali and other high mountain Zone. This population should be encouraged to migrate to Terai.

    You can read the old book “Himalayan Dilemma” by Jacks and Messerli to realize few episodes of land degradation in Nepal, if you have not observed yourselves. The economic speculation without regards to fragile resource base does not help at all.

    I agree that Federalism can at least shorten corruption-channel in governance. So it should be based on sustainability of resource management and livelihood systems. I cannot support ethnic based division of people which labels elite people like you as “oppressed” and an uneducated, landless hill-Bahun youth who is portering for his livelihood as “ruling-class” and a subject of subjugation of Madheshi.

    In fact, the ethnic-based movements that erupted in European countries were simply the strategies prudently fabricated by Neo-colonial Capitalists to defeat the socialism. The diversion of agenda of economic disparity to ethnic agenda in Nepalese politics has also the same motive. Undoubtedly it will bring disaster if it goes on.

    One can make a huge treatise of arguements on this matter. But the truth is that our reality dictates cultural harmony and ecological rationality in decision making.

    Thanks for your time and effort. Sorry for my straightforward writing, it is not as “sweet” as that of politicians.

    Nityananda Khanal
    Apt 3-2720 Main Street
    Saskatchewan, S7H 0M3
    Phone: 1-306-373-3411

  • 2. ranjan  |  February 24, 2007 at 9:17 am

    well. the government shoulg encourage migration and nationalise but what about the people of terain. they have become sukumbasi from aadibasi from their own land. people from are heavely prejidiced against madhesi. they see no diff. between madhesi and indian. its very common to see pahadi children abusing madhesi as madhise, marsya, dhoti, forget abot exploitation from government side( institutional exploitation). at king mahendra period land of terai were distributed to pahadis (who were already having land in pahad) in the name of sukumbasi. these migrants of pahad are always against the interest of terai and its people though they get their bread and butter from it. so its not surprising for us to see pahadi migrants in terai opposing election constituency based on equal population. they live in terai but are against increasing no of seat of terai based on population. seemes the pahadi government and reactionary force have already aready started working on this unoffocial policy of ethnic cleansing. but beware! madhesis are rising against the historic injustice.

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