Ethnic Democracy III

April 7, 2009 at 11:02 pm 1 comment

Ethnic Democracy III

Pramod Mishra
Decentralized ethnic federalism must co-exist with guarantees for the marginalized in central structures 

Before figuring out the details of ethnic redress, the Constituent Assembly needs to know the historical reasons behind ethnic groups’ demands for autonomous areas.  At present, various groups make claims and counter claims about their identity, discrimination and measures to address them.  On the one hand, the government, run on party politics, seems to be giving in to every demand to maintain peace; on the other, ethnic groups suspect deception in constitution formation.  A panel of well-respected multiethnic, multiparty experts needs to conduct in-depth historical analysis of the structural, ideological and day-to-day injustices inflicted upon the marginalized groups.  It will clarify fully the degree, duration and kind of specific measures apt for addressing past and preventing future inequities to specific groups. Without such an understanding of the past and a clear picture of inclusivity at the central state apparatus, autonomy alone seems to have become the panacea for ethnic grievance because it is immediate and palpable.  By putting all their eggs into the autonomy basket, however, the ethnic groups risk at least two pitfalls: ethnic self-rule turning into Bantustan and/or leading to ethnic cleansing.  In this age of Nepal’s dependency on foreign aid, and government and overseas employment as primary source of individual wealth creation, ethnic areas will shrivel up without national level resources and mobility. 

If groups are locally empowered but federally shortchanged, local empowerment will not amount to much — even culturally.  On the other hand, if they are federally empowered and locally allowed to promote their language and culture and assume shared political leadership, the federal inclusivity would mean both local empowerment and nationwide upward mobility.  Federal inclusivity assumes potency over local exclusivity also because it alleviates sole pressure on local autonomy and so avoids risks of ethnic cleansing.  But all this will not speak to the ethnic movements until they know what they will get at the federal level. 

Therefore, addressing the grievances of ethnicities must go beyond local autonomy.  It is not enough to give certain regions ethnic names and be done with while the federal state apparatus remains structurally biased in political representation and government jobs.

A new idea of ethnic democracy needs to be imagined, a model that goes beyond the Western model, where consent of the governed or government by the people, for the people and of the people did not elaborate the ethnic and cultural nature of the people and their group identity and difference, assuming people to be homogenous economic animals of the left, right and center.  In the classical Western model, at its best, differences (of all kinds) were subsumed within the individual-based universal adult franchise because the majoritarian Western democracy was based on mono-ethnic nationalism.

The history of the West as well as the non-West in the past two hundred years has shown that this Enlightenment-based structure of democracy makes the dominant culture the national culture and fails to acknowledge and accommodate the cultural identity of minority/marginalized groups into the framework of democracy.  The Western democracies have struggled with this, making their system increasingly inclusive of peoples with unassimilated identities after protests, marches, lawsuits and even wars by and on behalf of the discriminated groups since the 18th century. 

The challenge for the world today is to come up with a model of democracy that understands people both as individuals and as part of a group or groups — and class, in addition to a dialectic of abstract labour and faceless capital, as a product of caste, ethnicity, culture and so on as well.  This model, which can be called democracy based on difference, possesses a blend of individual and group identities, rights, duties, protections, and privileges.

What is the harm in naming traditional Limbu-inhabited areas Limbuwan if it nurtures dignity, preserves culture and empowers the group politically as long as non-Limbu groups, too, have their rights there?  Why should others worry if Rajbanshis and Dhimals of Jhapa and Morang, impoverished by various acts of the mono-ethnic state, regain their bearing if the two districts are called Kochila or whatever with provision for teaching their language in schools, promoting their culture and allowing them guaranteed political power? 

But this local autonomy alone will not truly empower the ethnic groups.  In the past fifty years, the primary source of individual wealth creation in Nepal has not so much been agriculture as access to the power and resources of the state and the outside world.  For example, many hill nationalities acquired middle class status by becoming Lahures whereas the Dhimals, Rajbanshis and others went downhill because they had no income from outside — nor did they have political power at the center.  When they visited the district level offices, they felt lost because of language difficulties (lack of cultural power) compounded by the arrogance of many Nepali-speaking officials (lack of access to Kathmandu).

In order to truly empower the marginalized, therefore, decentralized ethnic federalism must co-exist in co-operation with federalized national state with guarantees for the marginalized groups in central decision-making structures.  What this means is that in the federated ethnic areas named after the majority or traditional ethnic groups, such as Limbuwan or Madhes, etc., provision must be made for the representation of local minorities (non-Limbus and non-Madhesis, for example) in the local administrative structures within these areas.  Similarly, the federal level institutions, such as the organs of the state — the executive, the judiciary and the legislature — must make structural provisions for ethnic inclusiveness and multicultural practices in order to make them non-discriminatory and inclusive so that members of the marginalized ethnic groups may identify with them to claim their Nepali national identity.  This empowerment of the marginalized groups at the central level will mitigate the ethnocentric, separatist pressure on the ethnic areas. 

At any rate, the entire federal structure must be thought out carefully in a way that helps everyone in Nepal to enjoy their multiple identities — individual, group, national — separately or collectively, one by one or all at once, contingent upon the time, place and need; and that eradicates all discriminatory ideologies, structures and practices from the state’s relationship with individuals and groups.

Ethnic or grievance politics is inevitable in a discriminatory state structure. The challenge is how to avoid ethnic exclusivity, ethnocentrism and interethnic hatred while accomplishing the goals of equality of opportunity, justice and inclusivity –and how not to make identity, of any kind, forever fixed and unchangeable.  High caste Hindu ideology has failed to make high castes’ or others’ identity fixed and unchangeable despite two millennia of its dominance.  Ethnic identities, too, must remain provisional and functional rather than primordial and eternal in order to create a truly pluralist Nepal.

The Constituent Assembly, therefore, needs to setup a mechanism to understand fully and undo completely the prejudices, discriminatory structures and practices of old Nepal.  But ethnic activists equally need to understand the dangers and prevent the pathologies of ethnic chauvinism, because ethnic democracy does not mean falling into the trap of Bantustan, nor should it allow the spread of ethnic hatred and exclusivity that leads to ethnic cleansing.  Ethnic democracy means the creation of many small gardens within a big garden of equally thriving flowers.

(The first two installments of this article appeared in The Kathmandu Post on March 24 and 31.)source::


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Sufferings of indigenous people Closed minds

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Dirgha Raj Prasai - Nepal  |  April 8, 2009 at 4:58 am

    Dear editor,
    This article ethnic democracy is very useful for all. Now, I ma presenting a short view here-The leaders of Maoist, Congress, UML and Madhesi are not for the sake of the country. They are catering the desintrigated agendas of the country. In Nepal, in the issue of republic, seculalism and federalism will be most difficult task. Actually, the constituent assembly will be the missile to destroy Nepal. The Maoist model of federalism based on ethnicity can disintegrate the unity of the country.The federalism can’t develop the norms of democracy. Similarly, Professor David Seddon of London (keen observer of Nepalese perspective ) has said-‘ federalism is a big mistake, for Nepal.This is not necessary in fact to defend the interests of majorities or the interest of minorities, where women, or Dalits or Janajatie-s that can be done in other ways. The Madheshis- whoever they may be- can divide off and be a relatively autonomous state immediately provokes movements against this. I would argue very strongly that there is no need for federalism, that there is undesirable,undemocratic and profoundly divisive.(The Kathmandu Post 16 Mar.2009)
    Thank you.
    Dirgha Raj Prasai

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