Federalism Risk Assessment


Bishnu Pathak, PhD – TRANSCEND Media Service

Today, 40 percent of the world population lives under the rule of a federal state, but 60 percent under unitary.  30 (16% out of 192 UN members) matured, emergent, and micro-federations practice federalism.  They are comprised not only of powerful and developed nations, but developing countries as well; namely, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the USA, etc. Similarly, most of the 162 (84% out of 192 UN-member) nations such as China, France, Denmark, Finland, Indonesia, Israel, Iran, Italy, Japan, Jordon, South and North Korea, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom, etc. are unitary states.  Federations are found both in advanced industrial nations (European American, or otherwise) to multi-cultural states (Asian nations such as India, Malaysia, and United Arab), to post communist European nations such as Czechoslovakia and former Yugoslavia to Asian Muslim countries like Pakistan. However, former communist countries such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and Pakistan are said to be failed federations due to balkanization or ongoing deep-rooted identity based conflict.

Despite the considerable national importance and political exertion over this very issue, research in Nepal comparing federal and unitary state systems has been thus-far severely lacking. Comparison of information advantageous and disadvantageous toward federalism stem taking into account unitary state alternatives has been given below:

The present world is increasingly adopting federal systems as the globe is being polarized between capitalist expansion vs. identity groups, as apposed to communist ideology, which has been virtually eliminated since the 1990s. Political suppression, or denial of the multiple identities (political, social, cultural, academic, economic, occupational, etc.) within a diverse society has almost perpetually led to contention (step I-discussion, step II – polarization, and step III – segregation), and secession or civil war (step IV – destruction). The essential element of federation is to encompass a diverse society, accepting the value of diversity and multiple authorities expressed in a government of constituent units of autonomy (self-rule) over the matters of the distinct identity.

Equality, the benefit of recognizing a diverse society within a federal system, can be ensured from shared objectives within the framework of parallel processes and shared-rule. Identity and its recognition within a diverse society can achieve considerable success. However, no single form of federation is applicable everywhere

The mature federations such as the United States (1789), Switzerland (1848), Canada (1867), and Australia (1901) are among the longest continually operating constitutional systems in the world today. The practice of federations teaches of the potential dangers, desirable goals, and appropriate/inappropriate processes for achieving objectives, similar to the unitary state. According to Human Development Report 2006, some federations rank among the world’s most livable countries: Australia ranks 3rd, Canada 6th, US 8th, Switzerland 9th, Austria 14th, Spain 19th, and Germany 21st.  However; others do just as well.  Norway ranks 1st, Iceland ranks 2nd, Ireland ranks 4th, Sweden ranks 5th, Japan ranks 7th, Netherlands rank 10th and so on

Many federal constituents practice unitary lower levels of government. The USA is a federal state, but its states devolve unitary systems such as municipalities through a state constitution or legislature. Nevertheless, none of such states can challenge the simple decision of the head of government. For example, Scotland of the UK (unitary state) has a wide degree of autonomy in terms of law-making power, but there is no right to challenge the constitution of the UK. In the case of Northern Ireland, the devolved powers have been suspended by a simple decision of the government on several occasions. The devolution of UK is asymmetrical owing to powers and status.

Palau is one of the world’s youngest and smallest nations, officially known as the Republic of Palau. It is a Pacific Ocean island  which lies 500 miles or 800 km east of Philippines and 2,000 miles (3,200) South of Tokyo. Palau was admitted to the United Nations on December 15, 1994. In 1979, Palauans voted against joining the Federated States of Micronesia due to differences on language and culture and associated with the US in 1994. The U.S. has been responsible for Palau’s defense for 50 years. In 1981, it voted for the world’s first nuclear-free constitution. The federal idea has now become popular due to world’s interest in their self-identity; however, federal system is a means, but not an end. It is a process for running the government. Federal systems are not a universal remedy for political problems intrinsic to humans and economic remedy (food and freedom).

Federalism needs liberal democracy which is found in both republic and monarchial countries. That means participatory-based inclusive democracy in cultural, linguistic, and regional nationalism for greater harmony and unity. This depends upon the particular form and whether it is adopted or adapted for new innovations in its purpose.

The sovereignty and geo-integrity of countries have been endangered in both unitary (Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, China, Israel-Palestine, Philippines, Burma, etc.) and federal states (Pakistan, India, Sudan, Ethiopia, former USSR, former Yugoslavia, etc.). India’s Jharkhanda (November 15, 2000) from Bihar, Uttaranchal (November 9, 2000) from Uttar Pradesh, and Chhatisgad (November 1, 2000) from eastern Madhya Pradesh have already been declared autonomous states. Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan in 1971 for its lingual identity in the face of ethno-Islamic federalism. Russia’s Chechen struggle, Sudan’s Muslim versus Christian armed conflict, India’s Kashmir Hindu versus Muslim violence, Assam’s Bodo clash, Croatia’s minority vs. majority fight, etc. are today’s major ethno-federal, religio-federal, and culturo-federal violence within federal states. Similarly, not all federations are uniform in nature. The pathology of bi-communal federation is evident in Pakistan (1947–71), Czechoslovakia (1948–92), and Serbia and Montenegro (1992–2006), of which each disintegrated into two successor states. Similar cases are found with the USSR (1918–91), Yugoslavia (1946–91), the West Indies Federation (1958–62), and Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1953–63).

Nepali people have high hopes and expectations that the federal system will provide food, shelter, clothing, employment, education, freedom, and so forth. This is similar to when a great many people thought the new government formed after the Jana Andolan (people’s movement) I and II would fulfill their hopes and expectations of “food and freedom” for ever. However, the resulting governments have ensured only that people’s  stomachs are free from food. The present CA and the Government, including civil society, should take the following measures in this priority. First, there must be enough debate and discussion among the people on what federal system is. What are the advantages and disadvantages of federal systems and unitary states? Where are the global ethnic, linguistic, and scientific administrative practices in federations? Why? Can’t indigenous minority populations enjoy their rights and privileges in sovereign and inclusive democratic country like Nepal? Does a country need to be republic before the announcement of federation? Etc. These questions are to be addressed properly before Nepal can go into federal practices.

Second, if Nepal were to introduce federal states without calculating the pros and cons of ethnic, linguistic, and regional federal states and without precaution, it would be more vulnerable to socio-cultural ‘identity-based’ conflict due to Nepal’s clear lacks of statesmanship and unclear concept of independence, integrity, sovereignty, federation, and so forth among the people. Even large numbers of politicians, CA members, senior bureaucrats, etc. are unclear on advantages and disadvantages of federal system. Such stakeholders do not wish to pursue more understanding on such critical issues from the concerned experts due to fear psychology. More than a few of the CA members don’t even read frequently.

Finally, Nepal is a country of minorities (only 14 districts out of 75 have a caste/ethnicity with more than 50% of the population) in terms of castes and ethnicities whose population have been scattered across the country, tarai, hill and mountain even unlike cluster populations of Assamese in Assam, Biharies in Bihar, Gujarathi in Gujarat, Kashmiries in Kashmir, Marathies in Maharastra, Manipuries in Manipur, Nagas in Nagaland, Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Punjabi in Punjab, Rajasthani in Rajasthan, Bengali in West Bengal states in India. Besides, Nepal should be aware that India suffers identity-based conflict in 64 percent (18) of its states. Otherwise, Nepal may follow a similar path to the federal state of Belau/Palau.

The territorial and cooperative forms of federalism can probably be combined in a creative way for Nepal incorporating the best features of both systems screening out elements alien to our values and norms that may  hamper the growth of a healthy republic.


Dr. Bishnu Pathak, a PhD holder in Conflict management and Human Rights, is the President and Director of Conflict Study Center. He is the Convener of South Asia; TRANSCEND International and Board Member of TRANSCEND Peace University. Besides penning of the book entitled “Politics of People’s War and Human Rights in Nepal”, he  has published a number of research articles on issues related to Human Rights, UN, Security, Peace, Civil-Military Relations, Community Policing, and Federalism.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Feb 2012.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Federalism Risk Assessment, is included. Thank you.

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15 Responses to “Federalism Risk Assessment”

  1. Alberto Portugheis says:

    Dear Bishnu,

    You write “……debate and discussion among the people on what federal system is”, but how can people discuss about something they don’t really know? Federalism is a very loose concept, used with the same freedom as “Democracy”. It means – in practical terms – very little. Anyway, what Nepal should never do is think of USSR, Yugoslavia, Switzerland or any other country. You should find your own identity, your own way of thinking, of doing things.

    Ideas mare applicable or not in relation to the culture and history of each individual country.

    All the best,

  2. Dr. Richard Friedli says:

    Thanks for your message from the Nepalease peace work. I will speak abour that around me whenever I have the opportunity.

  3. Joseph Bergson says:

    It is very interesting. I will forward it to some people.

    I am coming to India in a weeks time on a scholorship course. I am only there for 8 days, but our group has a case study project looking at security in Nepal. It should be exciting! I will let you know if anything interesting is produced!

  4. Dr. Tamarks says:

    Hi –

    It’s useful to keep in mind that the most successful federal system in history — in every term, from longevity to scope of the project — is that of the US. Yet it was constructed and took its particular form for the quite well-documented reason that everyone, in the actual process of “putting the rules down in writing,” had an individual in mind, George Washington. He then lived up to expectations (though not without controversy). Key powers, in other words, could only be conceptualized with individuals in mind — for better or for worse. The agreement took the form it did because of an element of trust that assured one and all abuse would not take place. To say Nepal has a very different dynamic in play would be an understatement.

  5. Kiran Marahata says:

    Nice article glad to read it. Thanks

  6. Dr. Shree Govind Shah says:

    Dear Bishnuji,

    It is a very nice analytical article. I found it very interesting and informative. People should now the pros and cons of federalism; in Nepal people are blindly following the politician’s interest without properly analyzing the facts. I personally think that federalism as advocated by political parties and key politicians will not work in Nepal; it will disturb the country and create chaotic situation. We have to go for Affirmative Actions, good monitoring, modification in actions suited to ethnic groups and geographical locations, and very good governance system. The country is going back economically, socially people are in conflict, there is high level of corruption, and the natural resources are not properly and wisely used for socio-economic development.

    May be in early March we should meet and discuss few important things – how to bring the country back to the path of development? How to make most of the people think and behave that, we are NEPALESE? How to get rid of pseudo-nationalism? How to develop a socially-conflict-engulfed country into a developing nation?

    I always think that “we can make it happen positively, if we really want it to happen”.

    Best regards,

  7. L B Thapa, LLM says:

    May Dr. Pathak response as solicited as per Dr. Shree Govinda Shah for the best interest of the common people.

    Thank you wityh kind regards,

  8. Kalyan Dev Bhattarai says:

    [For Nepal, federalism is being considered as the only solution to solving all types of problems like: the suppression and suffering of the indigenous and other water-untouchable peoples who are also fashioned as Dalits nowadays, women, inequality, poverty, illiteracy, price-rise, other hardships faced by the peoples and you name any other problems of the country. This I believe is a totally wrong concept and also think it is a propaganda of politicians with vested interests and its supporters without going deep into the reality that exists in the country.]

    By Kalyan Dev Bhattarai

    Federalism is much talked in Nepal nowadays by politicians to party cadres, intellectuals to businessmen, laymen to many groups of vested interests along with the Indian favouritists that it neither requires any explanations nor definitions. What it requires most is an in-depth analysis to conclude whether it is good, stable, sustainable, beneficial and can solve the social, economic, political and cultural problems of the country. In this context I shall write here what I hope to be best fitting to my country without any bias or apprehension.

    For Nepal, federalism is being considered as the only solution to solving all types of problems like: the suppression and suffering of the indigenous and other water-untouchable peoples, who are also ‘fashioned’ as Dalits nowadays, women, inequality, poverty, illiteracy, price-rise, other hardships faced by the peoples and you name any other problems of the country. This I believe is a totally wrong concept and also think it is a propaganda of politicians with vested interests and their supporters without going deep into the reality that exists in the country.

    Yes I do agree that there are many successful governments in the world that have become able to solve the problems of many of such federal countries – like USA, India etc. However, to follow federalism blindly without understanding the real problems and its roots with false notion that it will solve problems in the country will be a big mistake.
    I am afraid, instead of solving the problems of the country, federalism may end up dividing the country into many tiny states and open an avenue for internal struggle, enmity, and misunderstanding between and among the states. A free choice without an external intervention for the right to self-determination may be the principle of the federalism but in fact , not only the annexation of some states but the assimilation of the Terai belt, known as Madhesh, with India could happen.

    I would like to agree that there are many problems in the country at present but federalism may not be taken as the solution to all of them as envisaged by the corrupt politicians who are there for power grab and misuse of authority. In Nepal, if we honestly evaluated political development without any bias, we can firmly say loud and clear with no hesitation that corruption and lust for power of the so-called political leaders are the source of all these problems.

    Power lust leaders and their ambitious cadres are fooling around Nepalese people that the problems of the country can and will be solved by federalism. It is not only a false notion but betrayal to the citizenry of the country also because they know very well that federalism can and will not solve the problems of the country uniquely seated in between two giant neighbours of different political principles.

    The limited quota of one Prime Minister and 40-50 ministers is not enough today for the corrupt leaders and ambitious cadres of different political parties and as most of them want to be ministers – not to develop the country with any realistic plan or indigenous idea but to loot the country as they are doing since 1946 i.e the movement for initiation of democracy. The much hyped federalism may fulfill requirements of the power grab and corrupt politicians only but will not solve any other social, political or economic problems of the country, as they will have more than 18 Chief Ministers and 30-40 ministers in each of the states as they have proposed today.

    To solve the problems like: poverty, price-rise, oppression or suppression, transparency, impunity, accountability etc, one needs the involvement of the marginalized people in the decision making process. All have-not groups must be given enough power and authority to decide their priorities or needs and involvement in the decision making process which certainly will not be approved by the present day corrupt so-called leaders of the country.

    The advocacy for the federalism is only to fulfill their ambition to be in power and I would like you to tell all , please to explain to me how any of our present day problems like poverty, corruption, suppression of the marginalized people, illiteracy, price-rise impunity, etc. will be solved by the federalism. Equally serious constrain is the economic status of the country as Nepal is very poor to sustain the 14 states, its parliament, judiciary, legislative, police and may be military etc also.

    Other equally important reality is that geographically Nepal is too small for federal state restructuring, as we know many single states of the country like USA and India are bigger than Nepal. Federalism is a success and is able to solve problems in such countries because they are economically sound and geographically bigger enough also.

    Our experiences show how we demolished the monarchy of 205 years and re-established the ‘new 25 kings’ and in the name of facilities, medical treatment and other perk, they are looting the country’s treasury which shows they are no different than any ‘professional dacoits’ and are in politics to loot the country. The other serious danger in the federalism based on the cast and creed, as proposed by these corrupt leaders, is spoiling present day harmoney: existing mutual cooperation, respect and understanding among the different peoples of the country. The feeling of the hatred against each other based on their caste and creed, language and religion etc. will be beneficial to some leaders only as such feeling will give them one more issue in the name of which they will have a chance to continue looting the nation at their will as they are doing so today.

    Analyze the present day problems of the country like the poverty, illiteracy, suppression of the poor and marginalized by the rich people, the have-nots, the bureaucrats and their attitudes towards the citizenry of the country etc. and none of these problems can be solved by federalism as they have no direct relationship with the federalism. Federalism itself is just a means to achieve some goals, which essentially depends on honesty, dedication, vision, long term realistic planning and transparency, end of impunity, accountability and feeling of responsibility towards the people. Our experiences since 1946 people’s movement for change and development show that he leaders have no such qualities and they have not changed their notion that they are the masters of the innocent law abiding people and are in politics to loot the country’s treasury in different pretext and can fool the people all the time.

    I here challenge the propagator of the federalism in Nepal to explain logically how federalism can solve any of the present day problems the country is facing and their feasible road map which can provide the required trust and confidence of the people that federalism will not create further unwarranted problems but will solve all of them. It is as clear as broad-day light that the present advocacy for the federalism is only to fulfill their lust for power so that they could loot the country’s treasury in the name of democracy as they lack any other professional capabilities to live a better life.

    Finally, to solve our present day problems what we require is strong will power, political honesty, ideological clarity, dedication, minimum ethics, realistic vision, good homework and the realization that the term democracy is to fulfill the requirements of the people but not to fool them around. I consider it will be an intellectual bankruptcy to trust the same corrupt leaders who have cheated the Nepalese people so many times by lying them and looting them and this federalism is their new tool to deceive the Nepalese people again for few decades so that they could loot the nation as they are doing in the name of interim period.

  9. Alok Prasai, PhD scholar says:

    It is a great article. Congratulations!

  10. Dr. Rajendra Kumar BC says:

    Thanks for the most important article.

  11. Daya Ratna Shakya says:

    The last four paragraphs show that the article is against adoption of Federalism. As a writer for peace institute s/he suppose to give a neutral opinion such as: If that happens this would be the result. Instead I find that it is written to make Federalism a FREE FALL without even implementing it.

    Can we talk or chat to give you more spices to COOK this article and bring good flavor of Federalism on it instead of bitterness as you think ?

    Submission of report from the SRC was publicized as two reports by media with focus on yes Vs. no Federalsim. The YES number was higher than opponents. But the monolingual media talks a lot about no on FEDERALISM like a hot discussion between Bal Krishna and K, Bhattachan. Your article also fall under NO category. But the majority of Nepalese people says YES. Please respect the majority and no more propaganda on NO. We want EQUALITY under FEDERALISM. No more ruling in NEPAL by KHAS BAHUNS. A DEMAND OF 21st century.

  12. Misra says:

    Would have been nice if geopolitical influences in the federated Provinces were also considered for Nepal. As it is both India and China have direct dealings with our DDCs and VDCs in the border areas respectively through various “development” projects.

  13. Dr. Bishnu Pathak says:

    Dear colleagues;
    Greetings/Namaskar from Nepal.

    Many thanks for your kind comments, suggestions and encouragements. These all are volunteer works to transform the positive and negative conflict through the means of equitable justice. It is to be remarkable of that injustice made any where in the world is the challenge to justice ALL, Everywhere.

    Hope to receive the same in the future too.

    I am going to attend International Seminar on Teacher Education for Peace and Harmony in New Delhi from February 10 through 13 and post seminar workshop at Institute of Advanced Studies in Education University or IASE University at Rajasthan on 14 and 17. I am one of the International keynote speakers and chairpersons of the program. Gandhi Vidya Mandir (GVM) is the principal organizer of this program. The GVM has more than 130 academic institutions in India alone. Our accommodation along with food is fixed at Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, Rajghat, New Delhi. Rajghat is a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.

    Thank you once again to you all.


  14. Greetings;

    Thank you for your careful and thoughtful article.

    I take slight issue with Dr. Tamarks comment. He said that the U.S. was both the longest and the most successful federal system.

    The United States first started practicing “democracy” and “federalism” in 1965 — with the passage (and subsequent enforcement) of the Civil Rights Act. Prior to that, the U.S. was an oligarchy, with the majority of its population (women and people of color) unable to vote or otherwise participate in governance.

    While the U.S. Constitution is “the law of the land”, for centuries the CULTURE of white men was a SUPERIOR law.

    I write this as an African-American, growing up in the “Other America”.