I am starting this piece with a small spoiler alert about the recently released Heart of Stone, the Netflix production starring Alia Bhatt, the famous Bollywood actress that plays the role of a hacker in an intriguing spy-filled thriller. For those eager to watch the movie, I won’t say much about it. My interest is with one of its initial scenes played in the Italian Alps. While the movie does not offer any details on the exact location, it was the Glacier Hotel Grawand, the highest hotel in Europe at 3, 212 meters where the first high adrenaline shootings were filmed. There is one particular detail that most of the watchers might have missed. The reason why I am writing this piece.
This small element could, perhaps, offer a key to untangle one of the thorniest political issues now faced by Nepal: What to name Province 1? The name Koshi has been very controversial and it was rejected by local citizens belonging to the Kirat community composed by Limbu and Rai groups that form a very large, though not predominant segment of the local populations.
Learning from Italy
Now let me go back to the beginning scene of Heart of Stone. There is a team of spies that use a local government first emergency 4 x 4 vehicle normally deployed in sky resorts with many tourists. On one side of the car, the watcher will see the word “Süd Tirol”, while after a while, when the other front door opens “Alto Adige” becomes visible. Understanding the meaning of the two could be the key to reflect on possible ways forward to the crisis unfolding in Province 1.
Let me clarify that, for the purpose of this piece, I am going to simplify quite a lot a piece of recent modern Italian and European history, a history that was marred by wars, conquests, defeats, tensions and finally a political settlement that united three different ethnic communities. “Süd Tirol” and “Alto Adige” are two different names, both official that are being used for a land that for many years was at a center of political contestation, a land bordering Austria. It is the land that, till the First World War, belonged to the Habsburg Empire, a multiethnic but predominantly German speaking nation whose political power was centered in what is now Austria. Italy fought that war on the winning side against the Habsburg that earlier on, before the unification of Italy, controlled vast parts of the North, including Milan and its surrounding area.
In return for the victory, Italy got this slice of the collapsing empire that is now referred to either as “Süd Tirol” or “Alto Adige”. Following the First World War, the fragile liberal democracy in the Kingdom of Italy could not push back against the populism and extremism of Benito Mussolini, the founder of fascism, a precursor of Nazism and the far-right populist movements still now going strong in Europe. A staunch nationalist, Mussolini played quite a bit of social and ethnic engineering, incentivizing massive movements of native Italian speakers, especially from the South, to the recently acquired lands—the lands that were vastly inhabited by ethnic Germans but also by Ladin, another linguistic community and in very less extents, by Italian language speakers.
Many called this a sort of colonization, a very high price paid by locals that felt alienated and deprived of their rights to speak their own native language and enjoy their cultural and political freedoms. As the history goes, fascism was defeated and Italy lost together with Germany (and Japan) the Second World War but it managed to maintain that land because Austria had been annexed by the German Reich, led by Hitler, himself an Austrian, in 1938.
The following years were a time of high tensions and even low intensity strife between different communities especially because the German speaking community wanted to break away from Italy and be reunited with Austria. Decades of high-stake negotiations between the central government of Italy in Rome, the Austrian Government, the UN and what is now the European Union, followed.
Fast forward, the region now not only remains one of the most beautiful in Italy and whole Europe attracting millions of tourists for skiing and hiking but also for its history and traditions and beautiful cities. It’s also one of the most developed, richest and better managed European regions. Thanks to a vast amount of powers that were devolved to Autonomous Province of Bolzan or Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano- Alto Adige in Italian or the Autonome Provinz Bozen-Süd Tirol in German or Provinzia Autonoma Bulsan- Süd Tirol in Ladin language.
Three different names, three languages, all official to describe the same territorial entity, officially and formally governed by the Autonomous Province of Bolzan. To cut the long story short, “Süd Tirol” and/or “Alto Adige” are the most common ways people refer to the area and it is up to the people to choose which official name to use. That’s why it was mandatory for the producers of Heart of Stone to show that 4×4 ambulance with both official names as presumably they got some tax incentives or money from the Autonomous Province of Bolzan to shoot the movie in the area.
Actually, these names now work as the brand names of the region and the people normally refer to them rather than the less enchanting and more formal name of the governing entity, the Autonomous Province of Bolzan and, for example, the official tourism website of the region really highlights only these two names.
Can Nepal follow the example?
Could the national policy makers at federal level and in Province 1 learn something from this pretty long lesson of European history? If a large portion of the population in what is now officially Koshi remains dissatisfied, the frustration that would emerge from this situation could progressively turn into further disenfranchisement and alienation. If such a point is reached, the gulf between citizens from different cultural and ethnic groups would widen even more and become a central factor that would feed additional divisions. We know very well that political tensions caused by ethnic, cultural and religious elements could spiral out of control. This is a situation that nobody wants but an effort from both sides of the equation in Koshi is needed to prevent it from coming. At the same time, it is essential to give due importance to the views of locally indigenous inhabitants of the region. Even if they are no more in the majority in terms of population, they still claim, quite correctly, certain prerogatives—the right to name the land of their ancestors being one.
As much as a name with high symbolism is now at the center of a contentious debate, what really matters is effective governance, a governance that should be as inclusive as possible.
So, to find a compromise, perhaps it is essential to step back a bit. As much as a name with high symbolism is now at the center of a contentious debate, what really matters is effective governance, a governance that should be as inclusive as possible. Official names do matter and it took years of tough negotiations back to “Süd Tirol” or “Alto Adige” and sometimes there is still controversy (and some confusion) about how and when to use them but that became now part of the local political debate and no one makes a big fuss about it anymore.
That’s because people there moved on and focused on their bottom lines—good jobs and great services from their authorities. Moreover, what made the difference there is that local ethnic groups got their rights preserved and all together, the three ethnic groups, despite different and divergent views, got along well enough to govern well and efficiently.
Is it possible to find a compromise in Province 1? Reaching one could be a true “win-win” for all the communities involved in the negotiations. Such an agreement could envision the adoption of a dual name for Province 1, a solution that would make both “Koshi” and any other denomination acceptable by the Kirat communities as both official names.
I am aware that similar proposals were already made in the past. One option is to call Province 1 “Kirat Sagarmatha” or “Kirat-Limbuwan-Koshi.” Other possibilities can also be considered. Local and national policy makers, activists and member of the civil society in Province 1 (if you read this piece) may have known such approach did not come easily in Italy but it was possible because, at the of the day, it was up to the local people to be entitled to call their land in the way they preferred. The so-called upper castes that have more power nationally and locally must understand that it is in the best interest, not only of Province 1 but also of the whole nation, to step back, break this tricky and highly sensitive stalemate and compromise.
The experience in Alto Adige/Süd Tirol, even if remote and detached from the reality on the ground in Nepal, could offer a map on how to navigate a complex political conundrum. The ruling coalition at federal level and the official opposition led by KP Oli should realize that achieving and realizing an inclusive nation won’t happen just with speeches and promises never kept. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal seems to be flexible and keener to compromise. UML, a party known for its staunch nationalism, should understand that identity politics is a risky endeavor and, as we are seeing in North East India, it can easily backfire. A truly federal Nepal must accommodate the specific needs of certain communities but such a process needs to be carried out in a way that does not create resentment among others. For this political will is needed for any political settlement in Province 1.
Is it possible to find a compromise in Province 1? Perhaps they can adopt a dual name for Province 1, a solution that would make both “Koshi” and any other denomination acceptable by the Kirat communities as both official names.
A solution there will require the capacity to compromise and accept at least partially the genuine demands of the local indigenous populations that have called that land home for many centuries. If there will be good governance with good utilization of resources there, development and well-being will ensue. That’s what matters the most. Despite the ongoing shenanigans to form a viable coalition in the province, let’s close the issue of its name as soon as possible and in a way that it can accommodate everyone.
Ethnic tensions in Europe were solved with pragmatism and good governance. In politics, acceptable trade-offs are always possible.
Meanwhile enjoy Heart of Stone. And if you have a chance to visit Europe, spend some time in Süd Tirol/Alto Adige. This is where the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner, a big friend of Nepal, comes from. It is really beautiful and worth visiting.
Views are personal.