Linguistic federalism

July 8, 2009 at 12:09 am Leave a comment

Linguistic federalism


Many people have expressed their opinion on how provinces in new Nepal should be demarcated. Rarely, though, have they shown any support for demarcation along linguistic lines and have, instead, often warned of grave consequences if it happens. The biggest fear, they argue, is that demarcation along linguistic lines will fuel an ever-increasing passion for a distinct identity of various language groups, will corrode the existing Nepali identity and may even lead to disintegration of the country.

Passion against division along linguistic lines runs so high that many are unwilling to listen to any kind of benefits such division might entail. Some have even gone to the extent to argue against any kind of federalism at all. It’s time we spared some time and evaluated the costs and benefits of demarcation along linguistic lines with more reason and less passion. Demarcation along linguistic lines may not be bad for our country as it is made out to be. Instead, it may be the very thing we need for long-term political stability.

With division along linguistic lines, more ethnic groups will feel at home. The danger of suppressing any particular group is inviting trouble in the future and that’s why the idea of One Madhes, One Pradesh is flawed.So, what are the benefits? For one, it would give a major boost to a number of language and culture groups. For example, a state which is dominated by Tharus will be a major boost to the Tharu culture, language and it will make Tharus feel that they are an important part of the Nepali identity. All of us would agree that Tharus would feel good about this situation. But, wouldn’t it benefit all of us if Tharus feel that their culture and language is an indispensable part of the Nepali identity?

So, why is there so much opposition to the creation of a province with a Tharu-speaking majority? The most common concern is that non-Tharus living in such a province would feel out of place and discriminated living in a majority Tharu state. Well, this might be true but isn’t it better than the Mahendra version where every non-Nepali speaking, non-daura suruwal wearing citizen feels out of place! It is impossible to design a system that will please each and every one of us but that does not mean that one should sabotage a system that benefits the majority of Nepali citizens. Isn’t that what democracy is all about? With division along linguistic lines, more ethnic groups will feel at home in Nepal and this is vital for long-term political stability and economic development. The danger of suppressing any particular group is inviting trouble in the future and that’s why the idea of One Madhes, One Pradesh is flawed.

Also, it is important to tackle the argument for and against federalism along linguistic lines head-on. Often, an alternative model is suggested downplaying the ongoing struggle by various linguistic groups in the country.

A group of highly-regarded intellectuals and journalists have championed the idea of having federal states similar to the five development regions we have today. They argue that their model will allow for homogeneous division of resources (i.e Mountains, Hills and Tarai) in all the provinces. This, they argue will make sure that all states are equally divided in terms of resources and have all they need for sustainable development. This logic is too simplistic. For one, this will hurt specialization.

For example, when a state consist of only the plains, it is easier to specialize in grains produced in those regions. Second, development has more to do with how you use resources for productive use. Also, research shows that ethnically-homogenous societies have greater social capital and make more efficient use of their resources. So, even from a purely economic standpoint and ignoring political realities, demarcation similar to the existing five development regions may not be the best one.

As far as inclusion of ethnic groups goes, their model further allows for “ethnic enclaves” in each of these federal states, which is supposed to assure that other ethnic groups other than “pure” Nepali are not treated like second-class citizens as they have been so far. In other words, in their model second-class citizens remain at the mercy of the first-class citizens to make sure that such distinction is eliminated. How likely is that?

As a Nepali citizen, whose mother tongue is not Nepali, this model appears like a total set-up. It will perpetuate hegemony of Nepali-speaking people all over the country and will continue to stifle the opportunities for the rest. Just think about it: What are the chances of a Tharu being elected as a chief minister in a state that includes Bardiya as well as Khaptad? And how realistic is it to believe that some non-Tharu chief minister of the state would understand Tharu’s plight and work to end the Kamaiya system in that region. And how realistic is it to believe that it will give a boost to Tharu identity? Contrast this with a situation where there is a separate Tharuwan state. The possibility of a Tharu chief minister rises significantly. With a Tharu chief comes a big boost to the Tharu identity and a place for them in Nepal just like any other community.

In many ways, Nepal is at a point where India was about 60 years ago. India, like Nepal, is a diverse country with numerous ethnic groups and languages. Not many people believed that it was possible to hold India together as nation as we see it today. Yet, India has survived as a nation and nobody is talking about India disintegrating in the future. The Indian constitution gave space to one’s language and culture and devised a mechanism where Indians could be proud of their mother tongues and cultures and be a proud Indian citizen as well. We need to learn from the Indian experience and think long term.

(Writer is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Finance at Texas A&M International University in Texas, USA.)



Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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