When Do Minorities Get Autonomy, And When Do They Not? Marginalized Groups and Movements for Federal Autonomy in Nepal
Even though a broad spectrum of scholars studying ethnic conflict agree that autonomy should be awarded to territorially concentrated ethnic groups to manage conflict in multiethnic societies (Lijphart 1976; Horowitz 1985; Elazar 1987; Gurr 1993; Kymlicka 1996; Watts 1999), the idea is highly contested at the political level. Thus, even though many ethnic groups around the world have demanded autonomy, the ruling groups controlling the state have seldom granted it. Many minorities continue to struggle for it, peacefully as well as through violent means. In this context, this paper asks when do minorities become able to attain autonomy and when do they fail? This paper answers this question with the case study of Nepal where the 2015 Constitution awarded autonomy to a group (Madhesi), even though in a truncated form, while rejecting the demand of other minority groups (Hill and Tarai indigenous nationalities). Nepal is a suitable case for answering this question because it contains two set of groups that have achieved varied outcomes (attainment versus failure), enabling examination of the necessary as well as sufficient conditions for attaining autonomy following Mills’ Method of Difference.
I will compare population concentration and proportion, international support, cohesiveness of identity, commonality of language, history of political movement, history of political party formation, education, and material wellbeing between Madhesi and indigenous nationalities (Limbu among Hill and Western Tharu among Tarai groups, the two most mobilized among respective groups) to examine factors that contributed in attaining autonomy. Common language and cohesive identity appear to be necessary but not sufficient condition as not only Madhesi enjoy cohesive identity and share common language (Hindi) but also Limbu and Western Tharus (Tarai), who failed to get autonomy, share language and enjoy cohesive identity. What seems to make the difference is territorial concentration and proportion of population. A majority population in the eastern Madhes enabled the group to launch effective movements in the region while the lack of majority in respective regions hindered the Limbu and Tharu from sustaining movements, especially when the state and ruling groups countered them. The long history of political movement (Limbu) did not appear to enable a sustained movement while the longest history of political party formation (Madhesi) was crucial in the mobilization of the Madhesi masses while shorter history probably hindered the Tharus from effective mobilization of their moderately sized population. International support to the Madhesi may have also played a significant role. The paper will trace how common language contributed to formation of cohesive identities, which in turn contributed to launching movements. However, the longer history of party formation enabled the Madhesi to mobilize its majority population effectively to force the state in awarding autonomy whereas the Limbu and Tharu, who were not majority in their own regions, were not able to sustain long movements and thwart counter movement of the ruling elite, which then rejected their demands for autonomy.