Managing territorial claims

June 2, 2009 at 3:05 am Leave a comment

Managing territorial claims

– Mahendra Lawoti
Claims over the same territory by different groups in the people centric (based on people’s aspirations) federal models appear to be thorny.  In some instances, like the one Madhesh Pradesh versus Tharuhat, the entire Tarai/Madhesh region has become an issue of contest whereas claims over bordering territories by contagious groups have emerged in several other instances.  Some of the claims could be posturing for better bargaining position but in other instances they are genuine demands of different groups.  The problem is complex and if not handled with care the contesting claims could even turn into violence at the time of demarcating the borders, if not in the future, especially since groups on both sides of the contestations, for example like Tharuhat and Madhesi protagonists, can mobilize people for bandhs and engage in violent activities to pressure Kathmandu for meeting their demands.  It appears that whatever is decided could invite conflict.One way of solving this complex issue is giving verdict by non-contestants.   In this case, the elite at the center could create regions and demarcate the borders of the regions. This process, however, may not work in Nepal because both Madhesi and Tharus, for example, do not trust the government and whatever is decided may be objected by the group whose demands may not be met and bandhs, violence etc. may erupt.   The weak and incompetent state may not be able to contain the protests and conflict could spiral out of control and may even threaten the transition process and viability of the weak Nepali state. 

A mechanism to address peacefully the claims and counter claims of different organizations and groups should be developed.  Asking the concerned people what they want is a democratic method of settling the claims and will also be more peaceful and durable.  We should ask the concerned people where they want to live.  For instance, if residents of the entire Tarai/Madhesh from Jhapa to Kanchanpur want to remain within a single state, then such a state should be formed and the hill people and others should accept that.  However, if the residents of the region do not want a single state in the Tarai/Madhes, then the groups demanding a single state should also accept the people’s decision.  It will be difficult, if not impossible to govern a people forcefully.  If the people want a single region and the contest is over what to call it, we can again let the people decide. If they want to call it Madhesh, Tarai or Tharuhat or whatever else, let there be a referendum on it and whatever the people decide should be accepted by all.

How do we decide what people want?  Referendum is the obvious way but referendums could be used as a tool to impose a simple majority’s will. Mechanisms should be developed to protect minorities.  For instance, if some people within sub-regions of a region do not want to stay in that region, they should not be clubbed together in the larger region.  A mechanism similar to that adopted by Switzerland to create new region peacefully could be adopted.  First the people of a region should be asked whether they want to remain within a state in question.  If the answer is yes, then one-fifth of the electorate in the given region should be given the right to demand a second poll to be held on the question of whether they want to be part of the larger region or form a new separate region or be part of another contiguous region.  This will allow minorities within regions to decide whether they want to stay in the larger region or not. 

This mechanism could also be used to settle contestations over boundaries.  For instance, Limbus and Rais/Khambus have made claims over certain common territories in their borders.  The people living in those contested territories should be asked whether they want to be part of Khambuwan/Kirat Pradesh or Limbuwan.  Likewise, this mechanism could address other contestations, such as whether to establish a Limbuwan region encompassing all territories east of Arun River or to establish Limbuwan in the north and Kochila in the south.

It is essential that marginalized groups that are contesting over territories manage their claims and counter claims peacefully. If they do not, then the traditionally dominant group will continue to benefit from the divisions and conflicts.  They may say that it is not possible to provide territorial autonomy to different groups and instead impose Bahun-Chhetri dominant regions all across the country. 

One reason the dominant group has dominated in Nepali politics despite being a numeric minority is due to division among the disenfranchised groups.  For instance, the hill nationalism helped to exclude the Madhesi and residents of Tarai by aligning the hill indigenous nationalities and Dalit with the dominant group. Likewise, Madhesi Hindus aligned with the ruling hill Hindus to exclude non-Hindus.  On the other hand, all non-Dalits oppressed the Dalit while Hindus (including ‘upper caste’ and Dalit) benefited from the promotion of Khas kura and marginalization of other native languages.  The lesson is clear for the marginalized groups — if they do not settle their overlapping claims and continue to remain divided, the disproportionate domination of the traditionally dominant group will continue even in the new Nepal established by the Constituent Assembly.   

The reliance on people’s will to settle issues would benefit the country by managing conflicts and preventing other potential ones.  Asking the concerned people may appear messy and costly but it might be the only legitimate way of addressing the thorny issues.  This method should be adopted while forming regions and demarcating the boundaries in the first instance but also should be made available in the future to address emerging mobilizations, which are bound to occur because of changing societal dynamics.  The costs could be minimized by holding the referendums during regular elections.  In a multicultural society where many groups are still in the stage of becoming aware of their rights and forming identities, this method may be the only peaceful mechanism to address the current and future overlapping claims and contestations.  

{Lawoti’s recent book is Government and Politics in South Asia, sixth edition (Westview 2008).}source::


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