Compatibility Problem: Missing “Peace-Lens” Behind Problem of Federalization in Nepal
After ten years of violent communist insurgency, Nepal entered into a peace process in 2006 under international auspices and with domestic pressure. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) agreed to join peaceful competitive politics if a new set of rules, mutually agreed by key actors and endorsed by the people, were set. An alliance of seven political parties, which were in the parliament since 1990, agreed to set new rules, as a reciprocity to the Maoists’ demands. Thus evolved a new political course, the abolition of the monarchy, formulation of a new constitution through popularly elected assembly and restructuring of the state as a point of compromise. Some strong sectoral forces emerged in the meantime to exert pressure on the parliamentary forces and the Maoist insurgents to address Nepal’s ethnic and geographical diversity in the new state structure to ensure that every minority group is able to participate in the state affairs. The concept of federalism, in this way, was introduced in Nepal’s political discourse.
In essence, restructuring of the state through federalization was a tool adapted to Nepal’s political discourse as a compromise among the “People’s Republic” demanded by the Maoists, “consolidated parliamentary democracy” demanded by the democratic forces, “regional self-rule” demanded by the groups operating in the southern plains, and “ethnic self-rule” demanded by more marginalized communities. This compromise gave birth to “participatory democracy” in the place of the existing “representative democracy”. It was the mandate of the entire peace process that includes the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (Nov 2006) and other agreements signed by the parties in power with traditionally marginalized groups. I term it as the “software of Nepal’s peace process”.
After seven years of hectic negotiations in two consecutively elected Constituent Assemblies on the content of a new constitution, Nepal hastily promulgated the new constitution in September 2015 when the country was in a state of mental shock caused by the devasting earthquakes of April 2015. There was resentment in the southern plains that has been dominated by groups historically and culturally close to India. The post-constitution resentment was interpreted as a conflict between Kathmandu’s ruling class and Madhes’ ruling class. India tacitly supported the groups in the southern plains and imposed an un-declared economic blockade on Nepal, cutting all essential supplies through legal routes. The Madhes-based party’s call for the creation of a province stretching from east to west in the south was interpreted by Kathmandu’s powerful elites.
Because of the resentments felt in the southern plains, Nepal could not hold elections for federal, provincial and local governments for nearly two years. The conflict in the aftermath of the constitution promulgation was between Kathmandu’s ruling class that believed the political groups operating in the southern plains intended to control major supply routes via India as part of their control exercise, and the political actors in the south who believed they were being treated as second-grade citizens and denied any place in the national decision-making by confining them to a small chunk of land in south eastern plains. While crafting new politico-administrative structures, dominant Kathmandu-based political actors considered how to weaken the “capacity to control” of the groups operating in the south.
Several existing local units were merged to create new municipalities in the name of strengthening their governability and reducing administrative expenses. The number of representatives also were reduced remarkably. There were 54 elected representatives in the past in a Village Development Committee (VDC), but now the entire VDC has been converted into a ward with five representatives in most of the local government units. The creation of huge administrative units has made it impossible for small minority groups to get elected. When rooms are too large, voices are at times too small and cannot be heard easily. To ensure one’s voice is heard, one has to either shout or rise up from their seat and come to the center of the room. The act of shouting and rising from one’s seat symbolizes one’s revolt against the existing system. Nepal’s new administrative structures at the local levels have been crafted in a way that small voices are hard to lift up and be heard.
Now, given these dynamics, there are two methods for ensuring people’s participation in the government systems: 1) the creation of space, and 2) the formulation of an inclusive process. If space or the structure is not favorable for the participation of smaller groups, the process design should facilitate more inclusive participation. Electoral systems and systems for people’s participation during key decision-making can help people more effectively engage in decision-making platforms and outcomes. Nepal has claimed to have adopted an inclusive democracy to advance the goal of participation of the minority groups in decision-making platforms. However, this inclusiveness is limited to the reservation of a seat for a women’s representative and a Dalit woman at the lowest administrative unit. Local elections are held on the basis of the “winner takes all” type of electoral system, unlike at the provincial and federal levels. So, the local governance system in Nepal undermines the basic requirements of a participatory democracy. There are serious compatibility problems between the software or the notion of participatory democracy and the hardware or the space or structures of local government.
Major factors that led to the formation of structures incompatible with the mandates of the peace process agreement is a result of the absence of a conflict-lens in Nepal’s state restructuring, especially at the local levels. The main objective of introducing federalism was to address Nepal’s centuries old hierarchical socio-economic and political order that frequently gave birth to conflict, the latest being the communist insurgency from 1996 to 2006. When people are given the impression that their government is at their doorstep to hear their grievances, many root causes of conflict are addressed, with such causes being localized, spatialized and addressed locally. It stops the conflict from spreading to and escalating in other parts of the country.
Federalization has been used as a means of conflict resolution in many countries over the past decades. Nepal opted to utilize the federal system to end all sorts of discrimination and to promote inclusive democracy. The end of discrimination and the promotion of inclusive democracy are meant to address the root causes of conflicts while managing any existing conflicts. However, federalization has been interpreted through the lens of governability or the lens of good governance. If only governability and good governance were the key objectives of federalism, there would be no need for terming the local and province administrative units as “governments”. The term “government” offers psychological security and helps localize and spatialize the conflict and apply a local remedy. So, I have been looking at our federalization process through peace lens.
While in the rural areas of Nepal, interacting with traditionally marginalized groups, I often used to grapple with a question: “what did the political change in Kathmandu deliver to people in far-flung villages?” My question was natural. They are neither counted as stakeholders within the entire political change process, nor are they entitled to any peace dividend.
While engaged at Chulalongkorn University as a Rotary Peace Fellow with Class 30, I was almost naïve in theoretical aspects of peace despite nearly two decades of direct or indirect work in conflict management. I could hardly relate my experience with the conflict world view and did not have an idea of how peace processes globally have tried to address the concerns of individual citizens. The theory and tools of conflict and development analysis, community-level peacebuilding, inclusive peacebuilding, identity, religion and ethnicity in peacebuilding, means to address violent extremism and media’s role in peacebuilding were only some of the issues that we have explored. The Peace Program has exposed me to more global experiences, and has provided me with an extra lens with which to analyze Nepal’s peace process as successful on the political front and how it has yet to deliver a dividend to rural citizens.
Importantly, the theory
linking practice instructors and resource persons who are strategically engaged
to facilitate the program have shared examples from dynamic contexts globally,
from the Philippines, Northern Ireland to Colombia. In complement, the Class 30
Peace Fellows from different backgrounds have provided me with a wide range of
lenses from which to analyze conflict, peace and development. Exploring non-violent
peace movements, the power of storytelling and transforming stress through
selfcare has equipped me with some additional skills as a peacebuilder. Now I believe I can use these various lenses together
to look at a conflict and apply my skills for peacebuilding accordingly in
better way in Nepal.
 Upreti, B.R., Töpperwien, N. and Heiniger, M. (2009), Peace process and federalism in Nepal: Experiences, reflections and learning. Kathmandu: NCCR North-South.
Yuvraj Acharya – Nepal
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30