March 5, 2014, by Katharine Adeney

Ethnic autonomy in South Asia: a prelude to secession?

Within South Asia in 2014, the states of Nepal and Burma/Myanmar are currently undergoing constitutional redesign and experiencing demands for recognition of territorially concentrated ethnic groups.  Similar demands are being made in Pakistan, with demands for Seriaki and Hazara speaking provinces receiving more support in recent years.  India is one presidential pen stroke away from creating its 29th state – Telengana – and demands for the creation of others, such as Bodoland and Gorkhaland, ever present.  On the other side of the coin, in 2009 the Tamil Tigers were comprehensively defeated and autonomy for the Tamils looks like a distant dream.

Conceding self-government to peoples that are territorially concentrated is controversial, whether through ‘mere’ devolution – Scotland in Great Britain (at the time of writing) – or as a federal arrangement involving a constitutional division of sovereignty between the central and the provincial level.  Not all federal systems are designed around territorially concentrated ethnic groups (e.g. Australia, Germany, Australia). But many are (India, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium) and when they are designed to be so, political scientists describe this as ethnofederalism.

Ethnofederalism has been contested as a solution for diverse societies as seen recently in relation to the reconstruction of Afghanistan (where federalism was rejected), constitution making in Iraq (where federalism was accepted) and Nepal (where federalism has been accepted, but its form yet to be determined).  The concern is that ethnofederalism will increase pressures for secession through increasing a sense of separateness of the people living within that territory. This sense of separatedness is increased by legislation that promotes a group’s culture (this is an argument made against group autonomy more generally).

This argument is linked to the point that ethnofederalism provides groups with the institutional resources to effect secession.  Chief Ministers, democratically elected by a territorially defined homogeneous population, are endowed with legitimacy in their struggle against the centre.  These institutions may also perpetuate conflict through providing group leaders with the ability to allocate economic and political resources in support of their community. The current debates over whether Scotland will stay within the United Kingdom have bought these arguments closer to home.

Recognition can create security

However, the above arguments rely on assumptions that can be questioned.  Rather than creating a sense of separateness, creating an ethnonational unit can be an important affirmation of the ‘worth’ of a group’s identity, thus giving that group security.  In turn, this can reduce the political salience of an identity.  This is because it is possible for an individual to have multiple identities, and security removes the ‘us’ and ‘them’ equation.  This does not mean that the original identity is unimportant, but that it becomes less politicallyimportant. This has been seen in India, where linguistic reorganisation in the 1950s (and subsequently), far from leading to its breakup, as predicted by statesmen and academics at the time, strengthened the sense of being Indian.  In contrast, Pakistan and Sri Lanka rejected demands for the recognition of autonomy along ethnonational lines, fearing that it would undermine the integrity of their states.  The Indian example illustrates that recognition is not to be feared.  The state of Tamil Nadu has six Tamil parties, some offshoots of the original autonomist party, the DMK, others emulating its political agenda.  These parties are not seeking secession; they are striving to gain power at the state (and increasingly, the central) level.

The second argument, that conceding federalism provides groups with the institutional resources to effect secession, ignores the fact that secessionist conflict has all too often been caused in South Asia by the denial of legitimate demands for autonomy.  The example of the recently defeated LTTE in Sri Lanka is the best example of this; Tamils initially asking for linguistic parity, then devolution, then federal autonomy, finally resorting to supporting secessionist movements only when all attempts at accommodation had been rebuffed.  Secession is never the easy option; it is fraught with dangers and uncertainty (one of the reasons why politicians in the UK are currently playing up the fears of the Scots with regard to thepound, EU membership and the BBC, not altogether successfully).  Denial of legitimate demands for autonomy have also led to other secessionist movements, in Punjab and Kashmir in India, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and Balochistan in Pakistan.  In all four cases, secessionist movements have emerged, not from the concession of autonomy to homogenous populations (Balochistan, Punjab and Kashmir are not particularly ethnically homogeneous) but from the denial of demands for proper democratic procedures, fair access to resources, and representation in important institutions of state.

Federal design matters

Where ethnofederalism has been conceded in South Asia the story is one of accommodation rather than secession.  This indicates that where demands for new provinces are being made, such as in the Seraiki and Hazara parts of Pakistan, and in Nepal, these demands should not be feared.  It is the denial of autonomy (often over decades) that has promoted secession rather than concession of it.

Where territorial autonomy has worked best however, has been when it has been linked with power sharing. Federal autonomy gives groups and their leaders control over the institutions of state and over cultural policy.  But it does not provide them with access to the central government where many of the important issues relating to groups within the state are made and resources are allocated. Therefore, to be successful, ethnofederalism needs to go one step further and institutionalize this diversity within governing structures.  This need not be formal institutionalization; India is an example where this has worked informally.

In Nepal, there are longstanding demands for state restructuring along ethno-linguistic lines.  The interim constitution in 2007 conceded the demands for a federal system but waiting for the specific form of federalism to be agreed as been like ‘waiting for Godot’.  The diversity in Nepal is great and the favoured 14 state model will leave many groups without their own state.  Yet ignoring this demand is dangerous and leads onto a separate point – what is the relationship between federalism and the recognition of diversity and democratization?  This is a pertinent question in both Nepal and Burma/Myanmar where ethnofederal demands are made in order to rectify discrimination and marginalisation.  In both these countries, reconciliation can only be achieved through embracing diversity rather than ignoring it. As International Crisis Group notes, the ‘Burmese are fighting dictatorship, ethnic minorities are fighting centralization’. Democracy for these groups cannot be achieved without ethnofederalism.

In India, the model for many of these arguments, demands for the creation of new states continue.  This is not a sign of weakness, rather a sign of its strength.  Sadly, as India is about to embark on elections for the 16th Lok Sabha, its record of accommodation is not unblemished, but it demonstrates that accommodation of identities coupled with inclusion within core institutions, can be a force for unity rather than disunity.  This is something Ukraine would be well to remember as it deals with its Russian minority.

Professor Katharine Adeney is the Director of the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies and tweets @katadeney

She is author of Federalism and Ethnic Conflict Regulation in India and Pakistan and was Lead Consultant for the Forum of Federationsprogramme on Pakistan. She is, together with colleagues at Edinburgh, Bristol, Delhi, Hyderabad and Burdwan, a member of the Leverhulme Network on Continuity and Change in Indian Federalism (2014-2016).

This post first appeared on the Ballots and Bullets Blog of the School of Politics and International Relations

Posted in AsiaBurma/MyanmarFederalismIdentity politicsIndiaNepalPakistan