While the relative deprivation of non-caste Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups, now generically known as janajati groups, vis-à-vis the Hindu high caste groups, mainly Brahmins and Chhetris, is increasingly being used as a political agenda at the hands of the “ethnic” leaders, it has since been adopted as such by various political parties too particularly after Jana Andolan II of 2006. Ethnicity as the basis for federalization of the country along with the provision of so-called “preferential rights” for specific Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups has now become the ever too intractable subject of political debate in the Constituent Assembly and outside with no unity of view in sight even as the latter’s extended tenure is drawing to a close. Those in favour generally maintain that ethnic groups, both the janajati and Madhesi, have long been disadvantaged due to Hill Bahun Chhetri political, social and economic hegemony even as the Janajati people in particular have been the ones indigenous to Nepal with many regions in Nepal historically named after them such as Magrat where Magars live. They argue that a time-bound provision of preferential rights is necessary to enable them to come at par with the Bahun Chhetri combine. Those against retort that given the immense ethnic diversity (100 plus caste ethnic groups) and ethnically mixed communities countrywide, ethnicity-based division of the country would be chaotic and would result in inter-ethnic animosities, including its possible disintegration. It is further argued that deprivation is not limited to ethnic groups alone. While it is quite widespread among Bahun and Chhetri too, the dalits are by far the most deprived, although no specific region can be allocated to the latter due to their countrywide geographical spread that also deprives them of the power that otherwise comes with numbers. Besides, Hindu caste groups, generically being referred to as Khas more recently, predominate numerically in western regions, but the proposal does not name any province after them, thus suggesting that the exercise is inherently biased against caste Hindus.
Anthropologically, however, there is no conceptual difference between Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups and Indo-Aryan caste groups. From the viewpoint of the discipline, both are "cultural groups" that are generally but non-exhaustively characterized by such shared attributes: endogamy (i.e. all caste ethnic groups are the largest endogamous units), distinctive social structure and kinship arrangements, specific lifecycle ceremonies; economy, mother tongue, distinctive food habits, religious tradition, and political decision-making apparatus. Each of the cultural groups, by definition, occupies "cultural areas" where their various cultural activities reflecting the above attributes are carried out and where their cultural symbols or icons exist. However, given the denseness of ethnic diversity in the country (100 plus ethnic caste groups crammed within a limited space of some 141,000 sq kms), these “cultural areas” have intensely overlapped for centuries, engendering an accommodative attitude and shared practices and mutual respect among them, including the sharing of their cultural icons and practices. This co-habiting in the shared cultural spaces for millennia against the backdrop of the overwhelming sway of orthodox Hinduism has further resulted in the close identification of Tibeto Burman ethnic group with Hindu caste system in that the former too are assigned a rank in the caste hierarchy and have traditionally observed untouchability against the dalits.
The janajati claim to indigeneity too remains largely untenable because all people arrived at what is Nepal today through waves of pre-historic migrations, Sherpa and most Madhesis being the latest to arrive. Although various Tibeto Burman groups have a dense presence in specific geographical regions such as Gurungs and Tamangs in what are now branded as Tamuwan and Tamsaling respectively, their eastward migrations as also of those of Indo-Aryan caste groups have continued over the centuries, resulting in their wide geographical dispersal in the country. Today, almost all caste ethnic groups are present in almost all the districts. No single caste or ethnic group is in the majority in any of the districts except Newars in Bhaktapur.
Furthermore, all caste ethnic groups except the dalits have traditionally remained hierarchies in terms of distribution of economic resources and political power with a handful of elites positioning themselves at the apex of the pyramid. Whatever be the kind of polity in the country, it has been these very elites who have ascriptively remained the power centers and power brokers in the communities. This ascriptive nature of traditional leadership has largely been at the root of the chronic lack of transparency and accountability in our political classes and the continuing elite capture of development resources in the communities. The problem has been aided and compounded by the fact that most voters are poor and uninformed in the country, and that money plays a rather decisive role in elections, thus providing these politicians with the alibi to make money while in power. As things stand at present, a successful politician in Nepal generally comes from among these traditional elites and in most cases, remains necessarily a corrupt man. Therefore, the implication of this exclusionary nature of our political leadership at various levels is that federalization of the state without structural reforms to make it responsive to people's needs and aspiration would only result in the geographical dispersal of feudalistic governance that has largely been at the heart of the country’s progressive deterioration over the decade4s. And the so-called “preferential rights” on top of it would only further reinforce the powers of the feudal elites whatever their ethnicity. Therefore, federalization of the country with or without the so-called ethnic priority rights under the existing conditions would only perpetuate the vicious cycle of continuing elite capture of resources and failure of development programmes, thus further depriving the poor and the marginalized in all caste ethnic groups. For the dalits themselves, the proposed federalization would amount to jumping from the frying pan into the fire, because their cause would most likely stand to lose the national limelight that it currently enjoys.
However, it should also be emphasized that, despite all the above problems, Nepal has a few very successful achievements in inclusive development that have earned her international plaudits too. The introduction of forest user groups in community forestry in 1988 not only brought the country back from the brink of desertification, its community managed forest wealth mainly in hill Nepal has been internationally acknowledged as an exemplary success story. Similarly, the introduction of Mothers’ Groups and the Female Community Health Volunteers in 1988 too has helped Nepal excel in the world in meeting MDGs in Child Survival and Maternal Mortality Rate Reduction. Nepal won international award for Child Survival achievements in Vietnam in 2009 and for MMR reduction in Washington in 2010. in the same vein, micro finance groups too have helped the poor from all caste ethnic groups make significant strides in self-help socio-economic advancement, although the dalits still lag behind on this front too. All these successes have been possible due to one single political reform, namely devolution of authority to the stakeholders themselves. Under these initiatives, the stakeholders themselves possess the exclusive and inalienable right to participate in their decision-making irrespective of class, caste, ethnic or gender differences, and this has, in turn, assured transparency of management and accountability of leaders, leading to the optimal use of all available development resources.
It should be noted in this regard that Nepal’s village communities are characterized by the co-existence of two inherently contradictory institutional arrangements, the exploitative hierarchical one presided over the traditional elites on the one hand and the egalitarian ones in which all the community members including the elites participate for fulfilling shared existential needs such as construction and maintenance of community infrastructures on the other. While the successful development experiences cited above are inspired by and modeled after the traditional egalitarian institutions, they also point to the fact that there are limitless possibilities in terms of inclusive national development and poverty alleviation through a wider devolution of authority that is clearly targeted at the stakeholders themselves and does not stop, as usual, at the level of the Village Development Committees which, as indicated above, are generally ruled by the traditional caste ethnic elites with all their feudalistic penchant for staying in power and making money.
It should be further argued that the demand for preferential rights in an ethnicity-based federalization of the state has its roots in the sustained failure of our polity to address the problem of deprivation in the country due largely to self-serving politics practiced by the traditional elites. But the system of federalization being purportedly mooted by Constituent Assembly at present would most likely only reinforce the clouts of those very elites and thus would result in the further prolongation and aggravation of woes of the poor and marginalized in all cultural groups including the janajati. It is so very unfortunate that the political parties that, at least in terms of rhetoric, profess to work for the people have failed to see the possible havoc that their less-than-careful pursuit of federalization could wreak for the country. So, to conclude, what is needed at the present juncture in Nepal's history is NOT federalization; what is unequivocally and most urgently needed is the all-out devolution of authority directly to the stakeholders themselves at the grassroots most of whom continue to languish in chronic poverty and deprivation.
Summary of the presentation made by Bihari Krishna Shrestha to the Symposium on Ethnicity and Federalisation organized by the Central Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu (April 22-24, 2011)