Federalism isn’t the vehicle to solve all inequalities

Chaitanya Mishra hardly needs an introduction. He has spent over thirty years teaching and researching sociology at the Tribhuvan University. He has also written extensively on development, politics and society and often deploys a Marxist perspective. As the debate over the new constitution and federalism based on ethnicity occupies the centre stage in politics, Gyanu Adhikari met with Mishra to get his views on the changes we’re witnessing and their causes and implications. Excerpts:

The government decided to classify Bahun and Chhetris as Khas-Aryas a few days back. As a sociologist, do you think it makes sense?

I think no decisions of ethnification should be supported, especially in the federal context. I’m not saying that ethnicity is nothing, or that identity shouldn’t be recognised, but where does identity belong? For example, the politicians said that women should be given space. Then there’s positive discrimination. That’s legitimate. Bringing in ethnic-ness, and caste-ness for positive discrimination is good. But I think the use of ethnicity for determining

federal structures is wrong. Federating on the basis of single ethnic identity is absolutely wrong. Everyone has multiple identities. Do people recognise me because I’m a bahun? Is that my identity?
But sociologically and anthropologically-speaking, are Khas-Aryas indigenous?

Let’s put it this way, modern state shouldn’t make a distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous. The distinguishing criterion of modern state is citizenship. The state shouldn’t divide people like this. The people were already divided along caste and now the state has added indigeneity. This will only lead to clashes.

Do you have problems with the definition of indigeneity?

Who is indigenous? Let’s say one of Rai’s ancestor came really long time ago, perhaps

the earth split open to give him birth. So are all Rai’s his children? Or did other Rais come different times?

Isn’t indigeneity about way of life and how society reproduces itself, rather than who came here first?


Yes, but today’s claims is this: we’re from here, everyone else came from outside. The popular discourse is that the outsiders took everything. The Bahuns took everything. But even Bahuns have been here for at least 800-1,000 years, from the time Simja empire. And there are ethnic groups, or members thereof, who arrived just 300-400 years ago. We don’t really have

historical records for all the claims made by all ethnicities. It’s a trickery slope. We’re going

back in time and are engaging in myth-making. I’m not saying that there aren’t inequalities among ethnicities. There are, and there are ways to solve them. We shouldn’t make federalism the vehicle to solve all inequalities. It can’t take that heavy a burden.

Isn’t the demand for ethnic states a political demand? If people organise around class lines, why can’t others organise around ethnicity?

Let’s break it down like this. Inequality is one thing. We say, this person, or this ethnicity is unequal. The modern state uses many techniques to address that inequality. For example, to address religious inequality, we have secularism. To address linguistic inequality, we start teaching other languages in schools and use it officially, and that language will gain equality. Same with culture. Previously only Bahun-Chhetri festivals were holidays. But the ethnic argument today does not ask for inequalities to be addressed, it asks for difference to be made primary. That difference is essential difference, ie, racial difference.

The demand is: we need a separate state because we are different.

But isn’t the demand for self determination—to be governed however one likes by whoever one likes—the peak of democracy?

Are we a party system or an ethnic system? Can we be self-determining ethnically? Should Nepal’s politics go in that line? Are there ethnic groups in parties or parties in ethnic groups? What’s our primary framework? It’s the parties. So self-determination is done by local governments, not ethnic groups. Kathmandu municipality will exercise autonomy, not Newars.

The new constitution is scheduled to come out in a week. Will it give us a clean break from the past and actually lead to new Nepal?

It’s extremely uncertain, although I’m optimist enough to believe that the leaders will come with a bare framework. But a constitution will give a certain path for the country to move along. It doesn’t prescribe how it should be in detail. This thing has to evolve, and if the evolution is restricted then parts of the constitution will have to be changed.

Will the constitution mark the end of Nepal’s transitional process?

A transition is the end of one process and beginning of another. It’s not the end of history. What hopefully it’ll do is allow people do things autonomously. The thing is real transition is happening at the household level. In the past 20 years, a generation of youths have emerged who aren’t looking at their parents’ occupation.

No one is a just a farmer anymore. Others have left for cities in Nepal, India or further. Three or four million young people are said to live outside the country. There has been a foundational change, in their livelihood, world outlook and politics. Current tumult, including ethnic tumult, is a part of that.

Are you saying politics mirrors the household?

Exactly. It’s not only that people left old occupations; they also left behind old values, like that of casteism (Jatpat). It’s there, but in a weaker form. A new mode of livelihood is at the centre. Around that many things are changing, including relationships with parents, the village pundit or chief, wife and children. Entire range of social relationships are in flux. For example, hereditary privileges are being destroyed. End of monarchy is just an element of that.

Does global capital have anything to do with these changes?

Capitalist global economy is a part of that. We’re, for example, supplying cheapest labour to growing economies. Our livelihoods are being changed from the growth of global capitalist economy, no doubt about that.

How will this be reflected in the constitution?

It shows. For example, the Maoists sometimes bring up concepts of public-private partnerships in order to constrain private capital.

But then we’re so undeveloped that in this huge tumult, the FNCCI (a union of businessmen) hasn’t said anything. Ethnification also restricts capitalism. I don’t think they’ve considered this fully.

How does ethnification affect capitalism, can you explain?

Well, exchange of labour and commodity is the lifeblood of capitalism. There might be barriers to free movement of labour, or other measures like tariffs on commodities from state to another. Capitalism imposes homogeneity; people are either consumers or workers. Things for capitalism are bad if people start rejecting commodities or workers based on ethnicities or other differences.

In character, will the constitution be capitalist, socialist or communist? I ask because the communists (at least they claim to be) are the biggest forces in the CA.

Primarily, it’ll be a capitalist constitution. But there’ll be safeguards. For example, the law will prescribe free education up to high school and primary health care. Measures of social welfare will be developed. Inclusion and power-sharing come out strongly. So not only capitalist—but with measures to tame capitalism. Internationally, this goes by social democracy. It short, it gives the flavour of capitalism with social justice. But that’s not to deny that it’s essentially capitalist. Not much socialism there.

Why didn’t the debate on property ceiling take off, I remember it being discussed in early days of the CA.

People thought the Maoists were going to raise this issue. Some were quite scared initially. But there were no real debates because the Maoists are, to some extent, changing. They understand the present world, what’s happening in India or China, for example. They must have decided at some point to go for a capitalist constitution. There’s nothing there about class. There’s social justice element but the class element is not there. They’ve made the ethnic issue stronger instead.

Do you expect a power shift away from Bahun and Chhetris after the new constitution?

It has to and it will. That process is underway. For example, after people moved to the Tarai, it’s electoral strength is greater. Similarly, the claims of ethnicities in Pahad are on the rise. That’ll also lead to a power shift. Then there is proportional representation, which will force parties to accomodate different ethnic groups.



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