As the centuries-old Nepalese state undergoes fundamental changes, there have not surprisingly been voices for and against such change and transformation. The federalism debate has not been immune from this. The historically oppressed groups of the Nepalese society like the indigenous nationalities, Madhesi, dalit, non-Hindus and non-Khas Nepali speakers are raising their voices for a rightful share in a polity that has traditionally marginalized them. For a few groups like the indigenous nationalities and the Madhesis, a restructuring of the Nepalese state along federal lines is a means to protect and promote their identity, language, culture and way of life, within the existing Nepalese state. Federalism, they hope, will provide them with the public space to do so even within the borders of Nepal.
The federalism debate in Nepal basically boils down to the issue of identity-based or administrative federalism (This is excluding the option of reverting to a unitary sate, something that individuals belonging to the dominant groups of the Nepalese society might well wish for.) An administrative federalism means giving continuity to the one people/nation, one language and one culture policy that Nepalese state has espoused over the last two centuries, especially during the three-decade long partyless Pachayat system. It means negating the multi-ethnic/multinational, multicultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious and the multiregional reality of the Nepalese society. Federalism based on identity, on the other hand, means accepting the diversity of the Nepalese society and the building of Nepalese state institutions accordingly.
Federal means a fundamental departure from the past. It means not only a change in cultural attitudes but also in the way the Nepalese state and its institutions have functioned over the years. Given this, the debates related to federalism that the Nepalese society is currently experiencing are not entirely unexpected. It is not an exaggeration to say that the most difficult task before the Constituent Assembly while writing a new constitution is related to the federal restructuring of the state. "Nationalities" and the "nationalists" rhetoric that the Nepalese state has traditionally exposed have even raised the specter of fragmentation and dissolution of the Nepalese society in this context.
A multi-cultural society and a multinational state like Nepal face challenges that are quite unlike relatively homogenous societies and sates. The importance of inclusive policies and programs in a country like Nepal is self-evident. The inclusion of the various groups and peoples/ nations in the polity will strengthen the Nepalese state and will weaken fissiparous tendencies. These inclusive policies and programs are also integrating elements of federalism, which curb the fragmenting tendencies that may be aroused by the autonomy arrangements in a federal set-up. Of course, in a diverse society like Nepal, federalism by itself is an inclusive element. In today's global system of "nation-states," it might be difficult to provide each and every people/nation with state of its own. Nevertheless, federalism can provide these peoples/nations the "public space" to manage their affairs by themselves within the existing system of "nation states."
Federalism has been called a self-rule as well as shared rules of the various groups in the polity. These groups, people and nations not only exert sovereignty over their own affairs through self-rule but also have a share in the government of the center.
(Excerpts of Sherchan's book The Federal Experience, Nepal and the World, published by S-SIRF)