INTERVIEW WITH OM GURUNG: 'We must keep our integrity intact'

Dr Om Gurung, who heads the Napal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NFIN), is an assistant professor of Central Department of Anthropology, Tribhuwan University. Dr Gurung holds PhD degree from Cornell University and loves to call himself a social activist, rather than assistant professor of TU. NFIN has begun to stage a peaceful protest since Saturday to exert pressure on the government for granting autonomy on the bases of language, ethnicity and geography. He says that this protest should not affect the holding of constituent assembly polls. Dr Gurung spoke with Puran P Bista of The Kathmandu Post, shedding light on how the state should be restructured and ethnic groups and subgroups be empowered in this country.


Q: Why has your organization been fighting for ethnic rights when the interim parliament?

Dr Om Gurung: In the current political process, we have given priority to ethnic rights. The rationale is that in the last 238-year long history, the rights of the ethnic groups have been denied by the state. The state never tried to address the problems of the ethnic groups. For example, tribes such as Tharu, Magar, Gurung, Rai, etc are the indigenous people but their stakes in state administration, judiciary and armed forces, as per the population, have been minimum. They have been suppressed, oppressed and marginalized. The state has limited their growth because of the denial of the socio-economic and political rights. The state continues to exclude them from all kinds of state welfare schemes. The state benefits directly go into the pockets of those who are in power. And I think you know who are benefiting from such state-run programs.

The ethnic groups became poorer. Their languages have been pushed toward extinction. The indigenous groups have endured the state suppression for long. We can no longer tolerate such practices. We want our rights to be guaranteed in the constitution to be drafted after the constituent assembly polls. The first thing is, the state must acknowledge this fact and restructure it to ensure the rights of indigenous communities. To do so, we must have stakes in all the decision-making bodies. In other words, our representation must be granted on the basis of population.

And we have adopted a peaceful means to exert pressure on the government.

Q: Could you be more specific on your demands?

Dr Gurung: The reality is that the state has failed to accommodate us and recognize our languages, culture and tradition. This is very clear. So long as the current policy of exclusion or discrimination lasts, the indigenous communities will continue to suffer. We think that the three aspects should be taken into account before we restructure the state: Language, communities and geography. Distinct communities settled in particular geographical areas have distinct languages. The state should be restructured on these bases. The theoretical objective is to have provisions of self-determination. We have been claiming "along with the provision of self-determination", which means that an ethnic community does not enjoy the right to determine the fate of the area it dominates. There are differences between the "along with self-determination and the provision of self-determination".

Q: What are the differences between "the along with self-determination and self-determination".

Dr Durung: If we say the provision of self-determination, it can go to the extent of having a separate state. "Along with self-determination" means the autonomy granted to a unit that does not enjoy the right to be a separate state.

Q: Does your version of self-determination mean that any ethnic group enjoys no right to hold plebiscite on whether or not a unit can be part of Nepal?

Dr Gurung: "Along with self-determination" cannot be equated with the demand made by the Sri Lankan Tamils who have been fighting for a separate Tamil state. "Along with self-determination" means a separate geographical unit within the country. We have to take into account the country's integrity and social structure before restructuring it. We have stayed together for so long. Now, we cannot demand for a separate state. Secondly, if we look at the geo-political situation, it is very fragile. Our country has been wedged between two Asian giant countries—China and India. We have to learn from them and live together. If we demand separate states, there are chances of swallowing these states by either of these two Asian giants. So, we have to be careful and should not let the separatist groups have upper hands in deciding the fate of this country. We do need self-determination but not to the extent of granting the ethnic groups to opt for a separate state. It is impossible to think so both in theory and practice.

Q: But one of the demands made by Madhesi People's Rights Forum and Terai Janatrantric Mukti Morka is of provision for self-determination. Don't you think so?

Dr Gurung: We, too, have demanded self-determination. But it is absolutely different from that of MPRF or TJMM. We differ on this count with MPRF. MPRF wants a separate terai state stretching from Jhapa to Kanchanpur, where over a dozen ethnic communities are living. They speak different languages, practice different cultures and traditions. We never let terai be in the hands of a few feudal lords who want to rule the weak and poor.

A few groups want self-determination for a separate state. We have to grant autonomy on the basis of language, community and geography. It empowers every community and provides an opportunity to develop this country.

Q: That means the country does not need to be federalized. There are other political mechanisms as well, to empower the indigenous communities.

Dr Gurung: No, we are very much for federalism. The structure of the country should be federal.

Q: What kind of federalism you think will be suitable to this country? Do you see India as the best example?

Dr Gurung: Again, we define it on the basis of how we draw provisions for self-determination. We are not looking for a union sort of federalism as the Soviet Union had, nor a confederation. Grant autonomy to the unit and empower the local people. We need a loose and indivisible federal structure, where our sovereignty is kept intact.

Q: Don't you think that we got to look into the economic aspect as well, while federalizing this country? Is it possible to grant your kind of self- determination to 90 ethnic communities?

Dr Gurung: It should be based on ethnicity. The separate regions are dominated by separate ethnic communities. For example, Solukhumbu is dominated by Sherpas. If you visit Manang, you find Manages. In terai, Maithelis, Bhojpuris, Awadis, Tharus etc speak different languages. So, if it is possible to grant autonomy on the basis of language, then let us do so. But take for granted that it is not applicable to all parts of the country. Terai cannot be made a single unit citing Hindi as a binding language. We can grant autonomy to western and far-western regions on the basis of geography. Whether you call it Karnali Pradesh or Western Pradesh, we have to make it a separate unit on the basis of region rather than language. The rest can be split into different units on the basis of ethnicity. For example, Gandagi Pradesh is dominated by Gurungs, it should be made a separate unit. Similarly, let us have Magarat Pradesh for Magars.

Q: Economically, the curving of such Pradesh may not be possible as some of them, you just mentioned, lack adequate resource for sustaining themselves as separate units of this country.

Dr Gurung: Yes, we have to see into economic aspect as well. But how are you going to protect language, preserve culture and practice tradition? Many units could sustain and revenues generated by some of the units should be allocated to the weaker units.

Q: You have discussed on three aspects—language, ethnicity and geography. Granting autonomy or self-determination on these aspects may lead to ethnic cleansing as there would be several minorities living within each unit, and they may face the same sort of exclusion.

Dr Gurung: All forms of exploitation should not be based on ethnicity. Let us say that there are several subgroups within the group. The majority represents the unit but the minorities should also find space in decision-making bodies.

Q: How is it possible?

Dr Gurung: We have to make special arrangements for the subgroups to ensure that they find voice in all decision-making bodies.

Q: You mean introducing a reservation system as India has done so?

Dr Gurung: Yes, we can go for that. And let us not take only the backward and poor communities. Within the unit, there could be other communities as well, provided they fall in the category of minority groups. So, there is no question of ethnic cleansing. We must accommodate all the communities into the unit to address common problems. We cannot deny the basic rights and displace them simply because they happen to be subgroups living in a particular region.

Q: Such ethnic cleansing may not take place in Limbuwan, Khumbuwan or Gandak region. Can you rule out such possibility in other parts of the country?

Dr Gurung: I have a special reservation. I call it an ethnic violence. We have to dissociate from such ethnic division and those who promote violence. What is happening in terai is dangerous. It is gradually taking a shape of ethnic violence whatsoever the leaders of terai claim it.

Q: Why do you support MPRF then?

Dr Gurung: We have supported on certain issues only. The state exploited the Madhesi community. It suppressed the rights of the Madhesis for long. We support the organization that is genuinely fighting for the political rights. We have been unable to reach an understanding with MPRF because of this reason. First, MPRF talks of federal structure but on the basis of geography only. They want to have three federal units—terai, hills and mountains. How can the entire terai be a single unit only? At the most, they can compromise on a vertical division of the country into 14 zones and 54 districts only. We do not agree with such political agenda. Don't take that only Madhesis are in terai. Second, our interpretation of Madhes is different from that of Madhesis. We want to know where Madhes is. We indigenous communities think that Madhesis are there in this country but there is no land called Madhes in Nepal. These Madhesis have come from Madhyadesh. It is a place between India's Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. So, we call them Madhesis. The rulers of this country brought them into Nepal. Now they are demanding a separate Madhes.

The third thing is that the Madhesis want the entire terai to be a separate state. There are several ethnic communities living in terai. MPRF must acknowledge this fact and seek our cooperation. Otherwise, we are not going to back the movement, no matter what they claim and demand.

MPRF talks of proportional representation of total terai. We have told them that proportional representation should be based on the population of ethnic communities. The intention of MPRF is to deny the rights of Tharus, Rajbansi, Shanthal and other minority groups living in terai. It will be dominated by Yadavs, Jhas, Shahs, Mishras, etc who have been wielding power. (TKP, March 19, 2007)

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