Nepal – Federalism


“The historic Jana-Aandolan II culminated into the declaration of the republic in Nepal on May 28, 2008, after the constituent assembly polls. 560 of CA members voted in favor of the republic, ending 240 years of monarchy. However, the question remaining in many Nepalese minds even after several years down the lane is how is it that we ended up with the declaration of the federalism in our interim constitution without having sufficiently debated or discussed the viability of federalism in Nepal?
Nepal is a beautiful country.

aerial photography of community on mountain



Obviously, the ultimate goal of any administrative and political structure of a nation revolves around strengthening national integrity, enhancing prosperity, empowering people, protecting society, and promoting culture and tradition.

The 2009 Federalism article read:

“The historic Jana-Aandolan II culminated into the declaration of the republic in Nepal on May 28, 2008, after the constituent assembly polls. 560 of CA members voted in favor of the republic, ending 240 years of monarchy. However, the question remaining in many Nepalese minds even after several years down the lane is how is it that we ended up with the declaration of the federalism in our interim constitution without having sufficiently debated or discussed the viability of federalism in Nepal?

This issue of national significance, unitary vs. federal, is critical for Nepal’s prosperity, pride, and national integrity. As a matter of fact, available literature suggests that a unitary system of governance is followed by about 170 nations, including England, France, Japan, and Bangladesh.

Decentralization is extremely important for the success of a unitary system. I believe even if the interim constitution declares Nepal as a Federalist nation, it is still worthwhile and not too late to debate the pros and cons of federalism and take the right course of political action that ensures national integrity, empowers the people, protects our societies, enhances prosperity, and promotes our culture and traditions. While acknowledging the federalist’s views of the empowerment of ethnic groups and communities, right to self-determination, decentralization of governance, enhancement of the competition for development among the federal states, and even control on increasing population growth of Kathmandu Valley, I firmly believe that we need to seriously debate and discuss the viability and long-term impacts of federalism on national integrity, prosperity, equity, and resource allocation.

Some of the issues and concerns regarding federalism in Nepal are as follows:

1. Danger of national disintegration:

The issue of national disintegration is perhaps the most important and frightening one. Available literature suggests that more than two dozen states have already disintegrated, including Somalia, Russia, Congo-Kinshasa, Nigeria, and Yugoslavia among others. Many of these states have gone through ethnic violence, chaos, and finally disintegration.

Yugoslavia can be cited as an example for disintegration due to ethnic federalism. Marshal Joseph Broz Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia, acted on the devolution of powers from central government to ethnic and linguistic communities through the 1974 constitution. This eventually resulted in ethnic tensions and the disintegration of the state.

Thus, the once kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-41) has now turned into seven different nations (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Kosovo). The series of conflicts and the political upheavals resulted in the dissolution of Yugoslavia that had a similar population size as Nepal. Kosovo was declared independent in 2008, resulting in the final obliteration of Yugoslavia. It is important to understand the ethnic and linguistic composition of Yugoslavia prior to its disintegration.

It had eight major ethnic groups: Serbian (35%), Croatian (19%), Muslim (8.9%), Slovene (7.8%), Albanian (7.7%), Macedonians (5.9%), Yugoslavs (5.4%), and Montenegrins (2.5%), and six major languages: Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, Macedonian, Albanian, Hungarian, and Italian. Not having a national majority of any ethnic or linguistic group and the imposition of ethnic federalism was perhaps the major cause of Yugoslavia’s eventual disintegration. Bolivia can be cited as another example of a nation with political turmoil and chaos due to ethnic federalism and indigenous nationalities.

2. Size of the nation:

Just by looking at neighboring Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, we can see how small Nepal is in size as a nation. Do we really need to divide this nation for efficiency in governance or other reasons, especially during this age of inclusiveness, globalization, information technology, and communication?

3. Equity issue:

Not all the federal states will emerge as equally prosperous. States that are better endowed with natural resources and better economic policies and programs would prosper more than those with a lower natural resource base and incompetent developmental endeavors. Skilled manpower will have a similar scenario. Most qualified and dynamic individuals will congregate in the state(s) that can provide the most attractive benefits while other states may lack the trained manpower for even minimum fulfillment of states services such as health, education, engineering, etc.

The poorer states will remain poor since there is no reason for the national government to substantially divert revenues generated from prosperous states. Prosperous states still need federal funding for their further development. This will certainly propel the equity issues among the federal states. While our concern is minimizing the gap between the rich and the poor, how is federalism going to positively contribute to social justice and equity?

4. Cost of governance under federalism:

It is obvious that additional governance mechanism will increase the cost of governance. While the nation is starving for resources to supply food, medicine, hospitals, and other critical facilities, how logical will it be to embark upon a system that results in a substantial increase on administrative budgets and expenses due to federal infrastructures and logistics?

5. Allocation of available natural resources:

There is no doubt that Nepal’s economic transformation relies on the sustainable utilization and the development of agricultural and natural resource base. A federal state without access to a sufficient natural resource base would undoubtedly lose its competitive edge for economic transformation. Conflicts in resource ownerships and utilization among the central government and the federal states may often be very serious and complicated. How does federalism ensure this very issue of equitable resource allocation among the Nepalese from Terai to the Himalayan region is extremely challenging. The author feels that it may never happen.

6. Type of federalism:

What type of federalism are we talking about – “Layer Cake” or “Marble Cake” or a different one? Will the state be more powerful than the center (Layer Cake) or the center will be equally powerful (Marble Cake)? Although initially federalism was envisioned as a weak Center, and more power was vested among the states, it is not presently happening. Whether it is China or the United States, major environmental programs, infrastructures, natural resources conservation and development initiatives, socio-economic transformation agendas, welfare programs, and research and development activities are increasingly federally funded and managed. This means even if we embrace the ideology of the autonomous state or empowered state, in the absence of significant involvement of the central government, there is no possibility for the states to develop. Hence, national government still has to continue its heavy involvement of infrastructural, industrial, educational, and socio-economic development of the nation.

7. Economic growth

There is no doubt that poor economic conditions are one of the major causes of political unrest, upheavals, and revolt in Nepal. It is noteworthy to observe our neighboring nations of India and China for their political structures and their recent economic development. While India is a federal nation with federal states based on languages and ethnicity, China is a nation with a unitary system. Despite being under these two contrasting diverse governing systems, both nations have realized amazing economic growth in recent years and are emerging as major economic powers in the world. Both nations are becoming the global hubs of science and Information technology. What is the common underlying factor between the two nations that has caused both to successfully achieve magnificent economic growth? Certainly, it is not federalism or political structure.

It is their embracement of globalization, development of private sector for economic growth, generation of employment, political stability, peace and security, and governmental commitment. On the other hand, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, one of the nations with ethnic-federalism, is seriously struggling for economic growth. Thus, federalism does not necessarily ensure economic growth and prosperity, nor is it necessary to have federalism for a nation’s development.

Without any doubt, we are passing through a critical phase in the political history of Nepal. It is our obligation to think deeply, understand correctly, analyze the situation objectively, and take the appropriate future course of actions aptly keeping in mind the national integrity, the society, our norms and values, as well as our culture and traditions. Looking at the views presented in Constituent Assembly and vision for the new constitution, it is not difficult to assess that there is a national need for an in-depth analysis, discussion, debate, and conclusion with respect to federalism in Nepal. While we must envision the development of a Nepalese society that is free from any kind of subjugation and discrimination, it is important to have an appropriate political structure and governance system for a fast paced, overall socio-economic transformation of the nation. Restructuring of the state, that has been under the unitary system of governance for the last 240 years, on the basis of ethnicity, language, or even natural resources will obviously pose a great challenge.”

Nepal – 2011 – The right to self-determination thus provides autonomy to individuals by allowing them to decide what is best for them: which political party or leader they will support, which dress they will wear, what organization they will join, a faith to follow or not, and so on.  Those who argue that the right to self-determination is useless principle expose their undemocratic tendencies.

Autonomy entails protection against external threats but not the right to dominate members or other groups, according to Will Kymlicka in his modern classic Multicultural Citizenship (1995).  Individuals and groups seeking autonomy should be ready to respect the autonomy of other individual and groups.

The group differentiated rights is for protection against external threats that will undermine self-governance and not for dominating or encroaching others’ right to self-govern.  If we accept this formulation, Nepal should adopt various mechanisms to provide autonomy to its diverse population: territorial autonomy to those who are territorially concentrated and are large enough to maintain a provincial government, local autonomy to smaller territorially concentrated groups (including non-native groups that are territorially concentrated) in the provinces, non-territorial autonomy to groups that are scattered across many parts of the country.


14 June 2019 – In Nepal, May 28 marks Republic Day, commemorating the date in 2008 when an elected Constituent Assembly brought an end to the country’s centuries-old monarchy and declared it a federal, democratic republic. This year, the president and a minister marked the holiday by inaugurating a new Republic Memorial at a park that was symbolically carved out of the old royal palace grounds, known as Narayanhiti, in central Kathmandu. But after the VIPs left, the monument did not open to the public as planned. Like many state construction projects, it has faced repeated delays since it began in 2012, and workers are now completing finishing touches and removing scaffolding.


Pessimism about the state of Nepal’s politics is common these days, despite the fact that the country has experienced significant changes since the declaration of the republic in 2008. At that time, an alliance of civil society leaders, democratic political parties, and ex-rebel Maoists had just finished leading a popular protest movement that overthrew Nepal’s King, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev.

The alliance was a somewhat uneasy one because its members envisioned different goals. The major political parties called for a return to democracy and civil liberties that had been suspended by the King in 2005.

The Maoists, who were coming out of a decade-long rural insurgency, called for a federal state structure, radical transformation of Nepal’s caste-based society, and secularism. All parties agreed on the need to end the economic stagnation gripping the country since the civil war began in 1996, but they disagreed – in theory, at least – about the route to growth and the need for redistributive policies. Today, 11 years on, certain promises of the new republic have been fulfilled. But others, like the construction of the Republic Memorial itself, remain incomplete.


During their insurgency, the Maoists pushed for the creation of a federal state structure to decentralize power from Kathmandu. Later, in 2007-08, Madhesis – a historically marginalized group from the southern Terai region – also led protests in favor of federalism. Federal governance was seen not only as a way to ensure greater local accountability for office holders, but also as way to give ethnic minorities control over government in local constituencies where they formed a majority of the population.

The Constitution of 2015 met some, but not all, of these demands. It created seven new provinces and several hundred local government constituencies. However, most of the provinces were delineated based on geographical rather than ethnic boundaries. Since they were formed in 2017, local and provincial governments have been stymied by disputes with the federal government over concurrent powers, such as those related to taxation and natural resources. The central government, which has the most revenue, has been reluctant to fund provincial governments, and it has delayed reassigning bureaucratic staff to the local and provincial levels. Many question whether central-level officials are genuinely committed to federalism.

Secularism, another hallmark of the new republic, has also had mixed results. During the constitution-drafting process, the Maoists and religious-minority activists pushed for ending Hinduism as the state religion.

The Constitution of 2015 declared Nepal secular, but it defined this as “religious and cultural freedom, along with the protections of religion and custom practiced from ancient times,” implying special protections for Hinduism and Buddhism but not newer religions like Christianity.

A ban on cow slaughter remains in place, which the Supreme Court has accepted on secular grounds, and opinion polls show that the Hindu majority is unsupportive of secularism. Some mainstream political leaders have even called for a referendum on the subject.


Previous eras of Nepali history have been marked by bans on protests and censorship of the press. Perhaps one of the most important promises of the new republic was the possibility of a more free, open society. However, the government has had a mixed track record regarding civil liberties since the declaration of the republic in 2008.

The constitution-drafting process saw several instances of suppression of speech. When Madhesis erupted in protest against certain aspects of the 2015 Constitution, the police cracked down with excessive force, killing several dozen people. From 2013 to 2016, the government’s powerful corruption watchdog organization was led by a corrupt official who sought to silence media criticism of him.

In the first elections after the promulgation of the new constitution, held in 2017, the Maoists formed an alliance with another party that had hitherto been its rival, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (UML). The Left Alliance won in a landslide, gaining nearly two-thirds of parliamentary seats. The parties merged in 2018, forming the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

Since coming to power, the NCP government has had rights groups worried. It has used a decades-old law designed to regulate electronic transactions to crack down on online news and social media, arresting six journalists in 2018. In the last few days, Nepali Twitter has been abuzz with calls to release a comedian arrested on charges of defamation for posting a negative film review.

More worryingly, a proposed bill could reduce the autonomy of the National Human Rights Commission, an independent government body that plays an important role in monitoring and calling out abuses. In the future, press freedom could be further curtailed by a proposed law that would give government officials the authority to jail or levy hefty fines on journalists they deem to breach a code of ethics.

The NCP government has defended its speech restrictions as necessary to control online abuse, pointing to instances of “fake news.” Following an incident last week when police used water cannons against people protesting an unrelated bill, Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa told parliament, “It is the people’s right to peacefully oppose or to support the government, and the government is committed to supporting that right.” However, many people believe the NCP is seeking to control freedom of expression.

Aditya Adhikari, the author of a history of the Maoists, thinks that the current government’s authoritarian tendencies are not unique to the NCP, as some anti-communist critics claim. Instead, he says, a lack of democratic culture among Nepal’s political class was exposed after the NCP gained an unprecedented super-majority.

“Before, no one party had the ability to establish itself as the most powerful – there were always competing coalitions,” he says. “But as soon as one entity comes in and has massive power, then of course they are going to start imposing restrictions, because liberal norms have not been institutionalized in Nepal, ever.”

Biswas Baral, the editor of the Annapura Express weekly newspaper, says that NCP leaders may look to Nepal’s neighbors for inspiration.

“In [Chinese] President Xi, [Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad] Oli sees a Communist leader who has centralized all powers, and that might inspire him,” says Baral. Likewise, Oli might look to Narendra Modi as a model:

The recently re-elected Indian prime minister has also consolidated power and gets generally positive coverage from corporate-controlled media. “I think that must also make Oli think: This is the way you win elections, this is the way you cement power,” says Baral.


Following the declaration of the republic, Nepal’s GDP grew slowly but steadily until 2014. There was an economic slowdown in 2015-16 due to an earthquake that devastated rural areas, but growth has since rebounded with increased aid and other spending for reconstruction.

However, domestic job opportunities are lacking, and the economy has become one of the most remittance-dependent in the world. The Department of Labor has issued over 3.5 million travel permits since 2008 – mostly for Nepalis bound for the Middle East and Malaysia – while an unknown number of workers travel through informal channels.


Though the Maoists advocated radical economic change as rebels, virtually none of their promises, like land reform, have been carried out since they joined mainstream politics. The current NCP government speaks of passing “progressive budgets” and recently increased the state’s old-age pension, but the social safety net remains extremely weak.


Growing inequality and corruption has led to popular disaffection. Recently, a rogue group of former Maoists, headed by the dogmatic communist Netra Bikram Chand a.k.a. “Biplav,” took up arms against the government. In February, the group planted a bomb next to an office for Ncell – a major telecommunications company accused of evading taxes – that killed an innocent bystander.

In response, the government arrested hundreds of suspected cadres, although many were later released. In one case, the police were accused of summarily executing a suspected Biplav supporter. Home Minister Thapa – a former comrade-in-arms of Biplav – has used harsh rhetoric against the rebels, claiming they are “not citizens.”


“Thirteen years later, a lot of the former [Maoist] cadres are realizing that nothing really has changed, and things are as bad as the mid-1990s, despite a new constitution, in terms of discrimination, inequality, and exclusion,” says Dixit. “Biplav’s group would not have been able to exist if there wasn’t that disillusionment.”



Nepal – Failed federalism

3 gedagtes oor “Nepal – Federalism”

  1. Again well said. “Nationism” is under threat all over the world as global elites try to undermine the whole concept of nation states. Europe is a case in point and the sooner the UK leave the EU the better, but Europe is fighting hard to trap us into remaining a part of this horrible federal grouping.


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