Social Science Baha

Disentangling ‘ethnic federalism’ and affirmative action

Sara Shneiderman

In post-conflict Nepal, one anchor for mobilization has been the demand for ethnic federalism—explicit territorial recognition of ethnic difference at the constitutional level. Another has been the demand for affirmative action—a set of policies to address socio-economic inequality through what has often been called “special rights”. But these two demands are commonly conflated, with arguments for affirmative action embedded in those for ethnic federalism, as if special rights are inherently linked to territorial recognition through the model of self-determination. This presents a seemingly intractable political and analytical problem where many members of erstwhile dominant groups argue almost instinctively against ethnic federalism, because the possibility of separating territorial and non-territorial forms of recognition is not well understood. It is now imperative to disentangle discussions of ‘ethnic federalism’ from those of affirmative action, and consider the theoretical and practical implications of each, as well as the potential administrative implications of initiating both at the same time. As the constitution is promulgated and its principles are codified in subsequent legislation, affirmative action should be considered on its own terms as a strategy to foster equality, and should not be embedded in the discourse or implementation of ethnic federalism. In this collaborative project between a political scientist and an anthropologist, we seek to clarify some of the analytical issues surrounding the potential models for state restructuring and affirmative action that Nepal might choose through a comparative exploration of the relationship between ethnicity, state restructuring, and affirmative action policies in several parts of India. We suggest that Nepal could define its new states in a manner that recognizes powerful ethnic attachments to territory, yet ensures that robust affirmative action measures are legislated equitably at the central level. This would provide a range of necessary mechanisms for addressing inequality universally across the country.