Federalism in Nepal

Nepal political development has always been resonating with concepts much similar to Federalism whether in the name of regional development or balanced development. Federalism entered into Nepal’s political discourse soon after the success of the Second People’s Movement of April 2006. It is also claimed that the federal system of governance was in practice in the 6th century in the republic of Shakyas in Kapilbastu and Koliyas in Nawalparasi area of present day Nepal. The history exemplifies that Licchavis, Bajjis, Videhas and Mallas had formed a confederation during the 4th century BC (CA, 2009a). During the much of Nepal’s history under monarchy and oligarchy, the debates on federalism took a back sit. There were also instances of rebellion especially in eastern region of Nepal where indigenous population demanded autonomy in land rights. The Nepali state had granted far-reaching autonomy to Limbu headmen through a royal decree in 1774 allowing them to collect land tax through their own system on a contractual basis; continue the communal land tenure system and permission to keep militias and dispense justice (Sagant & Scott, 1996). In the initial days of Nepal’s democracy during 1950s, a Madhes-based regional political party by the name of Terai Congress under the leadership of Bedananda Jha is said to have floated the concept of federalism after the advent of democracy (Hachhethu, 2017). It demanded to identify ‘madhes’ as autonomous state; Hindi as administrative language, and more jobs in government for people of Terai origin (Chakravarty, 2014). These demands, however, remained limited in their effects to augment changes in the political discourse. From 1960s onward the partyless panchayat system encouraged a homogenous culture among its citizens considered equal by offering positions of authority to some representatives from minorities (Chakravarty, 2014). This did not provide any space for regional autonomy or self rule as government promoted creation of homogenous culture. The end of partyless panchayat system during 1990s opened up space to discuss about issues such as self rule and shared rules maintaining the national integrity of the State. Similar demands for federalism was raised by a Nepal Sadbhavana Party, along with Rastriya Janamukti Party and other Janajati groups (Khanal, 2017) (Bhattachan, 2003). The demands were mostly focused on regional autonomy, self rule and end to discrimination. The Nepal Sadbhavana Party and Rashtriya Janamukti Party, which were demanding a federal Nepal, contested the general elections in 1991, 1994, and 1999 with these demands and secured nominal votes for them to push forward their agenda. The debate on federalism gained momentum from 1996 with the Maoist insurgency although Maoists demand were also focused on state restructuring through establishment of ‘autonomous regions’ . The Maoists actually declared the division of the country into nine ‘autonomous regions’ all based on ethnic identity (Ogura, 2008). The voice for a federal state with ethnic autonomous provinces gathered momentum, especially after the 40-point demands of the United People's Front Nepal along with demands for autonomy of regions, regional autonomy to backward areas and the end of regional discrimination. In this way, the issue of state restructuring was brought to the forefront . The 40-point demand called for the end of ethnic oppression in general and for a secular state, the equality of languages, and regional autonomy in particular. A deal was brokered in the November 2005 between an alliance of major political parties who were agitating against King Gyanendra’s direct rule in Nepal and CPM Maoist in New Delhi. The agreement provided foundation to overthrow monarchy in Nepal and conclude decade long insurgency. The agreement led to political movement in Nepal April 2006 which reinstated the parliament. The new parliament brought about end to monarchy and opened up space for leaders of Communist Party of Nepal Maoists into the parliament as members of parliament. The Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) was signed between the government and the Communist party of Nepal Maoists in November 2006. Major elements of the accord were – Interim Constitution promulgation, 330-member interim legislature, mixed system of election voting, election of the constituent assembly and observance of human rights and transitional justice mechanism among others. The CPA called for a democratic restructuring of the state and social, economic and cultural transformation through the decisions of a constituent assembly. As Nepal was moving towards a progressive agenda of new constitution, there were groups which demanded state restructuring along ethnic and linguistic lines. An umbrella organization of indigenous nationalities (Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities) proposed for a secular democratic republic nepali state with provisions for autonomous regions possessing legislative, executive and judicial authority. Similar demands for proportional representation in politics and bureaucracy were also heard in terai region providing boost to issue of federalism. However, federalism was not even mentioned in any of the core documents of the peace process, such as the Comprehensive Peace Accord 2006 (CPA) and the first iteration of the Interim Constitution 2007 (Thapa, 2017). These documents lay the foundation for discourse on federalism in Nepal. Interim Constitution 2007 admitted of the existing discriminations in Nepal along caste, class and geography lines which resulted from events such as - the Maoist insurgency (1996–2006); the April 2006 popular uprising; the Comprehensive Peace Accord; and explosion of ethnic movements (Hachhethu, 2017). Immediately after promulgation of the Interim Constitution 2007 protest erupted in terai region. Joint protests by Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and the Nepal Sadbhavana Party were conducted demanding amendment to the interim constitution and creation of a single province in Terai. The leaders of MJF forwarded list of demands such as: federal democratic republic; proportionate electorate system; autonomy to Madhes region; end of internal colonization; regional autonomous governance system that includes right to self-determination; rights on the land, natural resources and biological diversity of madhes; racial and regional discrimination; provide citizenship certificates to all madhesis without discrimination (ICG, 2011). The Nepal Sadbhavana Party proposed a region-based federalism dividing the Terai into two parts, East Tarai and West Tarai. The protests continued from January 2007 to April 2007. The protests quickly spread across the Tarai and turned violent. Protests and violence persisted until the legislature-parliament on 12 April 2007 passed the 1st amendment to the Interim constitution, leading to state restructuring into a federal system. Further three political parties from terai (Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum, Terai Madhesh Loktantrik Party, and Nepal Sadbhavana Party ) formed a loose alliance, the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), and launched a new wave of protests from 19 January 2008, demanding greater representation in the CA polls and a single Madhesi federal state even before the election to the first constituent assembly could be conducted. Thus, it can be concluded that the Madhesh Movement (along with a movement by the Janajatis) erupted after the promulgation of Interim Constitution 2007 forced the state to accept federalism as the basis of state restructuring, and to revise the constituencies . With this background none of the political parties could avoid taking about federalism at the time of election to the first constituent assembly election. Political parties which were relatively new mainly CPN Maoists, Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum, Nepal Communist Party, Tarai-Madesh Loktantrik Party identified unitary state as the problem and proposed federalism as the solution. Political parties with long history accepted federalism on popular demands (Karki, 2014). During the initial phase, the CPN Maoists envisages a federal structure with twelve provinces, established on the basis of “caste, language and region” and provisions for autonomous regions. The Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist was more close to demands of Janajati activists in terms of the model of federalism and specifically with the provision of agradhikar . While Terai based party demanded federalism based on a region-based federalism in Terai , the CPN (Maoist) proposed division of terai into a Madhesh region and Tharuwan region with a combination of ethnicity and regionalism. Others political forces, mainly Nepali Congress and CPM UML argued that the provinces should reflect mixed settlement patterns of the population and Nepal’s economic and development reality. This different stream of thoughts regarding state restructure based on ethnic identity and viability was contested and it took a different turn then initially imagined by groups which advocated for ethno-federalism in Nepal. The federalism model adopted in Nepal is a mix of ethnic identity and capability giving slightly higher weightage to ethnic identity because the idea of transforming Nepal into a federal state is a byproduct of janajati (ethnic groups) movement and Madhes upheavals (Hachhethu 2014). The distinction between state restructure and federalism is blurred in Nepal. The discourse had started with state restructuring but it ended with federalism. In Nepal, the state restructuring aimed at ending discrimination, centralized and unitary form of governance, social restructuring, political restructuring, and fiscal restructuring (Karki, 2014). Despite adoption of federal model of governance, there are still different opinions regarding completion of the process of state restructuring in Nepal. As a result there are still dissenting voices in the political spectra.