It’s been thirty years since I left my post in Nepal, so that now I observe events there almost as if I was on a different planet. As ambassador I came to know royalty and top government officials, and earlier, in my first posting, I was able to meet many humbler folk. The people I knew are gone now, almost all of them, so when I read about recent activities I read about strangers. There are a lot more of them, the jungles of the Terai have vanished like the puddles on a hot pavement after a shower, the rice fields in the valley have been replaced by ugly modern buildings, and smog and traffic jams have spoiled the pristine beauty of the valley that I remember so well. But some things haven’t changed. The breathtaking majesty of the high Himals, for example, and the cheerful, industrious, and sensible nature of the average Nepali.
I see the birth of Nepal’s new constitution as the culmination of a process which has led an absolute monarchy through several stages to a new-born democracy. The society was still feudal when I first arrived. Mahendra governed loosely through a cadre of competent civil servants, while a gaggle of political figures pretended to run the place. I was there for his funeral and for the installation of young King Birendra, who made the first serious moves toward a more modern form of governance. I had left when the Maoist civil war bloodied what was left of the feudal overlords, paving the way for something new and different. But what? The transition could have been more orderly, but the Palace massacre in 2001 decapitated what was left of the old system. The body of feudalism remained but without the support popularly accorded to royalty, it fumbled while others stepped to center stage.
A new constitution was needed to define the nature of the new Nepal. It was a moment of truth where even the necessary questions weren’t clear at first, let alone the answers. Federalism emerged as the sine qua non, but how many states should there be within the new federation? Should boundaries be drawn to provide homelands for ethnic communities? The population in the newly deforested Terai had grown explosively, how to accommodate their special needs? There were many other issues up for grabs, but these were among the most important and these are the ones where I shall venture to offer some thoughts.
Geographically, Nepal is like a comb with spines sticking out from one side. The Terai, a 500 mile strip that is an extension of the north Indian plain, is the base, with its spines running north into the high Himals where they feed from monsoon rains in summer and glacial melt in the winter. Each of these great rivers has its own drainage area, defined by watersheds separating it from adjoining river systems. If you think of these parallel river systems as fingers, they fit into the flatlands to the south like fingers into a glove.
If you think of dividing Nepal into provinces, these riverine systems constitute natural units, with the watersheds between them acting as the boundaries. I learned many years ago that defining political units by watersheds has serious advantages, whenever the mix of topography and politics permit. It solves a lot of problems by making it easy to define the boundaries; after all it isn’t easy to misinterpret a definition when it’s right there on the ground. And if the river system can be developed for whatever purpose, like power, or irrigation, or flood control, you don’t have competing managers arguing with each other.
A federal arrangement that lumps hill people together with the plains people down the river is more likely to lead them to cooperate with each other. At least they’ll have economic incentives to cooperate. And within the hilly regions the cultural divisions will play out on a smaller scale than would be the case with boundaries drawn mainly on ethnic lines. Nepal is entering a period when the need is for unification not further splitting. We in America have been getting more unified because our separate groups have been intermingling, not despite that fact. In a multi-ethnic environment I’m all for mixing it up. But that is counter-instinctual, since in uncertain times you prefer to be with your kin.
That is my two cents worth. I am not informed about current negotiations, though I have heard the provincial boundaries have been broadly determined. Maybe these thoughts will help when it comes to fine tuning. If so I trust someone at the negotiating table already has them in mind.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for Nepal, my favorite country except for my own. It’s at a crossroads and it looks like it may be choosing wisely. I hope so, and wish it well.