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An alternative view of federalism

It is about getting rid of the structure of powers steered by the forces behind colonization

An alternative view of federalism

Can an academician from South America, who just retired this month after 30 years of teaching at Yale, be useful in proposing an alternative view of federalism in Nepal? 

Walter Mignolo, for 30 years a professor at Yale, is one of the most foremost theorists on decoloniality, a concept much broader than decolonization. At its foundations, decoloniality is about getting rid of the structure of powers that are still shaped and controlled by the same hegemonic forces that were the drivers of colonization. 

As we know, over the last few years, there has been a lot of noise about amending the constitution that Nepal adapted in 2015. The regressive forces are asking for a return of a centralized state under the emblem of the monarchy and return of Hinduism as the official state religion. 

The forces obstructing the enforcement of federalism are driven by an attitude or mindset that rows against devolution of powers to local levels. Pushing back, there are those who have, essentially, embraced federalism but want to twist it, making it more effective. 

There are also forces like the Rastriya Swatantra Party that want to dramatically reshape the federal structure by curtailing the power of provinces. The most common-sense position is one centered on implementing the current provisions as they stand. Amid this complex and sensitive debate, we often forget to hear the voices of indigenous nationalities of the country. It is here that Mignolo’s ideas come to the fore. 

I asked RK Tamang, an indigenous rights activist and a strong follower of Mignolo’s ideas, how the concept of “decoloniality” can be turned around in the context of Nepal. His answer: “Making Nepal a plurinational state”.

“This constitution failed to address the aspirations of indigenous nationalities, which have been fighting for a plurinational state for long”, he explained to me. Indigenous people represent the largest part of the population and because of the unequal power relations that still prevail in the country, most of their voices and concerns remain disregarded. A large, though not the whole section of indigenous people of Nepal, consider themselves as members of different indigenous nationalities.

The National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act defines “indigenous nationalities (Adivasi Janajati) as distinct communities having their own mother tongues, traditional cultures, written and unwritten histories, traditional homeland and geographical areas, plus egalitarian social structures. One of the major confusions about empowering indigenous nationalities is related to the often-misunderstood concept of ethnic federalism that is perceived as a dangerous tool that could disintegrate the nation.

Yet at the core of the aspirations of indigenous nationalities is the concept of a plurinational state. There is still a lot of theoretical and conceptual work that must be addressed and there are still several open questions on how indigenous nationalities can be shaped up and organized and guaranteed their statehood. According to Tamang, indigenous nationalities have been facing internal colonization for centuries and are stateless nations and despite the abrogation of monarchy and the creation of a more inclusive federal polity, the structure of power has not changed. “The state-bearing nations promulgated the new constitution in 2015, surpassing the stateless indigenous nations, which legitimized the coloniality in the federal democratic republic of Nepal”, he told me in an interview.  

First his perspective, those indigenous activists calling for a recognition of their nationalities do so within the framework of a present Nepal. None of them is calling for a breakup of Nepal as a state. It means that the concept of indigenous nationalities, while recognizing their traditions and practices belonging to different ethnic groups, is not exclusive in nature but inclusive, rather. “All groups, including those who have been historically on the top of Hindu hierarchy, have an equal role to play” Tamang explains to me. In short, no one is excluded.

All citizens are equal, so even citizens not belonging to indigenous natalities, like Chettri, Madhesis and Brahmin will have full rights like anyone else. This is a major key point: No one is calling for a dissolution of Nepal as a state but rather there is a call for restructuring the present Hindu hierarchy into social engineering based on national sovereignty. “Within a plurinational state, nations will exercise their power according to a new constitution based on the concept of shared sovereignty,” he added. Importantly and essentially, both in theory and practice. 

The plurinational state will guarantee two aspects of stateless nations: First self-governance and second self-determination of their future. Let’s not forget that self-determination is already a key cornerstone of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People of which Nepal is a signatory. Importantly, we cannot simplify and generalize self-determination with independence. State-bearing nations have to revendate the state in order to end colonialism, given Mignolo’s maxim that coloniality is “not over but it’s all over”. 

Plurinational democracy will revendate the democracy to the stateless nations, and based on it, the plurinational state will revendicate the state as the decolonial state. “If the Nepali state-bearing nation fails to satisfy both past grievances of the Indigenous nationalities and future aspirations for greater self-determination, the political flux will prolong, and Nepal will fail to develop in the 21st century as well” Tamang believes. In short, Tamang proposes for Nepal to allow political autonomy that reflects the historical and cultural presence of the main ethnic groups living in the area. There is still a lot to discuss about what this means in practice. One of the key points being proposed is the fact that traditional rules and forms of governance belonging to Indigenous nationalities should be, somehow, in place. 

Again, it is important to clarify that such embracement of Indigenous governance system does not create a new hierarchy of power where those belonging to indigenous groups or as Tamang prefers to refer to them as nations, have equal powers and privileges as the state-bearing nations have today. Another theoretical framework at the base of the concept of plurinational is provided by Professor Michael Keating who wrote a magistral book in 2000 titled “Plurinational Democracy: Stateless Nations in a post-sovereignty era”.

At the core of its work, there is the idea that there is no just one concept of sovereignty that is self-perpetuating and imposed upon the people. “I have used the term ‘post-sovereignty’ not to indicate a world without any principles of authority and legitimacy, but to indicate that sovereignty in its traditional sense, in which it is identified exclusively with the independent state, is no more. Rather there are multiple sites of ‘sovereign’, in the sense of original authority”, Prof Keating writes. 

One major caveat is that the book mostly refers to western settings, specifically efforts to transform central states into plurinational entities. The focus is, for example, on Canada, Belgium, Spain and Italy. So, transferring the ideas of plurinational states in a diverse country like Nepal is another level of challenge, especially where ethnic and cultural groups are vastly intermingled. 

Imagine an area where indigenous populations have a clear and undeniable historic presence. There, some customary laws could be adopted if they are aligned with key foundational values and principles of human rights. 

Some indigenous forms of governance could also be implemented as long as they are respectful of the rights of those not belonging to the indigenous group, who is, numerically speaking, more predominant. Such a system could hardly do away with the existing model of liberal democracy based on political parties even though deliberative democracy could offer an answer to accommodating different groups and perspectives. The same deliberative democracy model could be used in urban settings where it is almost impossible to even conceptualize the indigenous nationality model. Yet, for example, in the case of the Kathmandu Valley, where Newari culture has been for centuries the only one on the ground, some accommodations of traditional and customary laws could be imagined.

I have severe doubts and reservations on the modality of reshaping Nepal based on indigenous nationalities. Yet it is important to understand a point of view that has been neglected for so long. Ultimately, listening to the concerns and demands of indigenous activists willing to reshape the governance of Nepal without dismantling it is a worthy thing. The journey toward creating a functional model of local governance co-existing with modern legislations that also include human rights is not going to be easy. 

All in all, I believe that it is essential to make an effort and try to answer the following question: Can Nepal imagine re-building its core structure from an indigenous perspective?