Multiethnic Federalism

May 28, 2009 at 1:43 pm Leave a comment

Multiethnic Federalism

 – Pramod Mishra

 Ultimately, the nature of federalism in Nepal will depend on the political judgment of the Constituent Assembly and the bargaining power of the ethnic movements.  As for the argument about natural ethnic boundary as logic for ethnic federalism, it is a moot point in history.  There are hardly any natural boundaries for any ethnic group anywhere in the 21st century, whether that of a sovereign nation-state, provinces or smaller units; nor has a boundary named after an ethnicity solved all its problems.  Yet, the world over, nation-states, provinces, and enclaves have been negotiated and fought for in the name of ethnicities.  The idea of nation-state itself emerged based on mono-ethnic nationalism in 18th century Europe, and after the wave of political decolonization in the twentieth century, ethnicity (whichever way one defines it — race, nationality, religion, language, etc. — remained the core logic behind the demarcation of nation-state boundaries in Asia and Africa.

Because the European colonial powers had used divide and rule policy by using, and often exacerbating, race, religions, tribes in the colonies against each other, concerned themselves primarily with their own benefits at the expense of the colonized and hastily and haphazardly retreated from the colonies at the time of decolonization in Asia and Africa, the colonized suffered as in, to give only major examples, the Hindu-Muslim massacre during Partition in India and Hutu-Tutsi genocide more recently in Africa.  In the aftermath of decolonization, the postcolonial states, such as India or Sri Lanka, have learned or suffered by trial or error to manage questions of ethnicity and cultural empowerment on their own since Western nation-states offered little by way of example.  If one takes the example of India, probably the best case study anywhere, a struggle between language and ethnic groups and the central state has resulted over time in linguistic and ethnic states.  In some parts of India, this tug of war between the center and ethnic groups still continues.

But to allow political units based on ethnicity or culture is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, and cannot be made to embody any ultimate essential value save for the logic of history.  Ethnicities have seldom confined themselves within their own political boundaries of the nation-state, provinces, autonomous areas, etc., even after such a boundary is established in the name of a particular ethnicity.  Within a nation-state such as India, Telugus, Tamils, Punjabis, Jharkhandis, Uttarakhandis and others struggled for years for their own linguistic and ethnic states.  Does that mean that they don’t live and prosper outside their ethnic and linguistic states?  Punjabis prosper not only in India but all over the world.  Despite Jharkhand getting carved out of Bihar, there are sizable adivasis with last names such as Murmu, Oraon, Hansda, Marandi and so on in such districts of West Bengal as Birbhum, Purulia, Bardhaman or in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj and Sundargarh districts or in small pockets in northern Bihar and eastern Nepal.  And this principle applies to people of any such political boundary based on ethnicity.  But it does not invalidate the emergence of a political boundary based on ethnicity.

Looked from another angle, in each of these ethnicity-based boundaries, not everybody belongs to that ethnicity in whose name the political boundary is created.  For example, India is for Indians, yes, but there are non-Indians also who live in India and can become Indians, such as Nepalis.  In most European countries, once established solely on mono-ethnic nationalism, there are sizable number of minority population from Asia and Africa.  And now, the creation of the European Union is dissolving the logic of mono-ethnic nationalism of 18-century nation-state for which so much blood was shed for over two centuries in Europe.  Migrant workers from all over Eastern and Southern Europe work in Western Europe happily now.  The ethnic composition of settler states, such as the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, that had adopted at one time or another racial, denominational or linguistic policies of mono-ethnic nationalism, has been changing fast.  In Jharkhand and Chattisgarh of the newly created in the name of adivasis, non-adivasis have done so well that there is an active Maoist insurgency going on against oppression as strong as in adivasi areas in West Bengal and Orissa.  Creating an ethnic state alone, thus, does not prove a panacea; cultural, political and economic empowerments are even more important.

So, people from ethnicity-based political units (nation-states, provinces, enclaves) have lived happily outside and outsiders can live happily in others’ ethnicity-based nation-states, provinces, and enclaves if conditions are egalitarian and favorable.  If conditions are not fair and just, that’s when struggle for separate ethnicity-based political boundary begins in its absence or insurgency starts despite its presence as mentioned above.

The trouble in this process has occurred mainly on three counts: one, when there has been much mayhem, years of struggle, bloodshed, and suffering in the process of obtaining an ethnicity-based unit, people who identify with the unit may become bitter, conservative, exclusionist and ethnophobic.  Violence against outsiders in the Indian north-east could be an example. Two, those who feel themselves superior to others, in terms of caste, race, religion, and have had a sense of entitlement to their territory tend to dislike the other within their political unit.  They try to devise explicit or implicit ways — structure, ideology, practices — to legitimize discrimination or inflict violence.  Racial states of the West in the past and Islamic states based on shari’at or the old Nepali Hindu state could be examples.

Three, those who have historical grievance, real or imagined, against the other and have lost their past position of privilege can cause trouble.  The Hindu nationalists in India could be an example here.  The Hindu majority rules in India.  High castes among them, or castes historically in power, are losing their grip over Hindu society as a result of the rise of middle and lower castes, and in order to recapture their past glory and caste hegemony, they are waging an ideological war by raking up the issue of five hundred years of Muslim tyranny over Hindus and partition of Mother India to vilify Indian Muslims.  Hutus in Africa and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka could be other examples.  The British privileged the Tamils over the Sinhalese and European colonialists raised the status of the Tutsis over the Hutus during colonialism under their divide and rule policy.  Both Hutus and Sinhalese had grievances against Tutsis and Tamils respectively.

So, how does all this apply to Nepal and its present situation?  The fact that Nepalis live outside Nepal does not invalidate Nepal’s existence.  In fact, it can reinforce it.  At times, expatriate Nepalis could be more patriotic than many in Nepal.  But it also does not mean that only Nepalis (whether you define them civically or ethnically) should have their rights in Nepal.  Similarly, the fact that Limbus live outside the traditional Limbu areas and outsiders live in Limbu areas does not invalidate the existence of Limbuwan as an ethnically-based state nor does it legitimize it in essentialist sense.  There are still many ethnic groups in the world that do not have their own political units (nation-state, state, or enclaves).  In some cases they are still struggling, as the Kurds in Turkey, but in others, if the state is egalitarian and liberal, people should be satisfied with guaranteed rights and compensations.   So, emergence or disappearance of such ethnicity-based units depends on historical expediency and exigency.  But the fundamental issue here is people’s cultural, political and human rights wherever they live.  Any political arrangement worth its name in the twenty-first century must guarantee them.  Political autonomy of some form has been the easiest road to achieving these rights and redressing historical injustice but these could be achieved in other ways also if all parties concerned agree to find them and ensure such guarantees.



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कवि शिरोमणिको मधेश अनुभूति Interview with Paramananda Jha

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