In the tumultuous days of the April 2006 Revolution, the symbolic assertion of people's power over autocratic monarchy was the hoisting of flags on the defaced statue of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of the Shah dynasty. The flag that flew higher than all others was that of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), also known as the 'janajati'.
Om Gurung, NEFIN general secretary, explains the prominence of the new group: "Generally, the 'janajatis' are not much concerned about politics. But this time round the autocratic rule of the King had directly affected their ability to pursue their life cycle rituals." While the Jana Andolan I (1990), the first democratic uprising that resulted in a constitutional framework, was essentially Kathmandu-centric, this time round there was a countrywide mobilization and convergence on Kathmandu, and the 'janajatis' came in huge numbers.
The dominant wall graffiti in Kathmandu is all about ethnic assertion, and particularly the Madhesia community's right to self-determination. Newspapers have been quoting indigenous Madhesia and Dalit community leaders demanding that their rights be reflected in the restructuring of the state. They are convening mass meetings in the regions to mobilize ethnic consciousness.
The consequences are manifest in the new assertions: The Chepang community (52,000) wants 'self-determination with autonomy' in 29 village administrative units spread over four districts. The Tamangs are claiming some of these districts. Maoist central leader and head of the Madhesh republican government, Matrika Yadav, warns that if the Madhesi people do not get citizenship before the elections to the constituent assembly, they would boycott it.
Upper caste columnists decry the populist manipulation of identity politics and blame the Maoists for promoting divisive ethnic federalism, while ethnic rights activists like anthropologist Krishna Bhattachan argue, "If you offer genuine autonomy, it won't bring separatism. In fact it will prevent it." Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda, defensively states, "Ethnic struggle is also a form of class struggle", and that self-determination is being advocated within a federal structure on the basis of not only ethnicity but of regionalism as well. Meanwhile, the Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM) that splintered from the Maoists, is violently asserting a separatist agenda.
During the decade of 'Peoples War', the Maoists focused on mobilizing the indigenous nationalities, women, Dalits, Madhesias - oppressed and marginalized communities. The Maoists established people's governments in nine ethno-regional autonomous areas. On the 10th anniversary of the 'Peoples War' in February, 2006, Prachanda proclaimed the dismantling of "the unilateral structure of governance based on feudal Hindu chauvinisms, by granting the rights of self-determination to the peoples of oppressed class, caste, region and gender, and by forming regional autonomous republican governments" as a significant achievement. He said that this would be a prototype of a union of states with Nepali features and that it would serve as the foundation of national unity.
A crucial goal of the April peoples' uprising, says political scientist Krishna Khanal, was to restructure the Kathmandu-centric administrative system of the last 237 years that "provided no opportunity for those living outside the capital". Social scientist Mahendra Lawoti calls it a system of 'institutionalized exclusion' of 84 per cent of the population to privilege the Bahun Chetri upper castes or CHHEM -Caste, Hill, Hindu, Elite Male, which form 16 per cent of the population.
In 1999, an index of power and exclusion estimated that the Bahun Chettri castes make up 31.6 per cent of the population, and monopolize 66 per cent of positions of public, professional and cultural institutions. The indigenous people, with 22 per cent of the population, get only a seven per cent share in the power structure. And the Madhesis, who constitute 31 per cent of the population, occupy a mere 11 per cent space in the power sphere.
In the official narrative of the kingdom, Prithvi Narayan Shah united the petty feudal principalities and nurtured "a garden of four castes and 36 ethnicities". The reality was that more than 100 caste, ethnic, religious, linguistic and regionally differentiated groups were held together in a unitary, Kathmandu-centric, Hindu upper caste-dominated state. The challenge for the new 'inclusive' Nepal is to accommodate the aspirations of the officially recognized 21 caste groups, 59 indigenous nationalities and 93 different language communities.
Politics is transforming regional identity into an ethnic one. The tussle between the hill (parbatiya) and the plains (terai) is seen in the denial of citizenship to more than 300,000 Madhesis. The Citizenship Bill goes some way to meet this grievance despite its cut-off date of April 1990, and its gender discriminatory provisions which specifically impacts upon the social practice of Madhesi women seeking husbands outside Nepal.
Restructuring of the state remains a hotly debated issue. The Comprehensive Peace Treaty signed between the Maoists and the government makes no mention of federalism, though it mentions "ending the present centralized and unitary structure of the state", and the need to address the problems of oppressed social ethnic groups, referring specifically to 'janajatis' or indigenous groups.
But old anxieties have been raised by the adoption of the 'mixed system' of elections for the constituent assembly. The first-past-the-post rule and the 50 per cent of seats to be given to political parties on the basis of a proportional representation system perpetuates the distortions of the old system.. "Constraints have already been imposed and you want to discuss inclusivity?" asks Sarita Giri of the Sadbhavna party. She is skeptical of political parties demonstrating the political will to transform the dominant patron-client culture.
Political analysts warn that failure to respond to the mobilized social consciousness of the oppressed people could see the danger of a new axis of conflict that could displace or redefine the old struggle between the forces of the monarchy and democratic republicans. This time, the struggle would revolve around dominant castes pitted against oppressed castes and ethnic groups. The class war of classical Marxism is set to become a caste and ethnic war in Nepal.