Nepali secularism has pronounced Hindu tilt

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 16, 2015 14:45 IST
Hindu activists try to break through a restricted area near the parliament in Kathmandu during a protest rally demanding Nepal to be declared as a Hindu state in the new constitution. (Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar)

If you believe in secularism, celebrate Nepal's constituent assembly's decision that the country would remain secular as envisaged by its interim constitution. But tone down your excitement, for this is a flawed and ambiguous secularism.

If you believe in the line of argument that 'Nepal was the only Hindu rashtra in the world and so should have remained one', it is time to accept you have lost the battle. At the same time, you don't have to be devastated - for Nepali secularism has a more than pronounced Hindu tilt.

The Hindu card

How did Nepal get here?

Nepal was a Hindu Kingdom - but this was not something divinely ordained, as much as the holy men sitting in Kathmandu's Pashupatinath or Varanasi's Vishwanath temples would like you to believe. It was only in 1962 that the Nepali monarch promulgated a constitution declaring the kingdom to be Hindu. This was a move inspired more by politics than faith.

King Mahendra had just taken over absolute power after dismissing an elected government. The democratic government of Jawaharlal Nehru in India was not too pleased. Mahendra decided to cultivate a conservative cultural constituency in India, and boost his legitimacy at home.

So he played the Hindu card. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), excited about the prospect of an asal Hindustan was saw some hope. I would know. My grandfather was a leading RSS light back then in Nepal and helped connect the Palace and the Sangh.

The triangular dynamic between the Palace, Delhi and Hindu right had its interesting moments. When the Sangh invited Mahendra to attend an event in India, the Congress government was furious and got the ambassador back in Kathmandu to convey its displeasure if the invite was accepted.

And for 44 years, status quo prevailed.

Whenever a monarch in Nepal faced a political crisis, he remembered that he was a Hindu king.

In the late 80s, King Birendra organised a World Hindu Conference, with the RSS-VHP lining up to declare him a World Hindu Emperor. But this could not keep down the democratic aspirations of the Nepali people who succeeded in restoring multiparty democracy in 1990.

This led to a new constitution but the commission to write the statute included palace representatives who insisted on the retention of the Hindu Kingdom as the official status for Nepal. Birendra continued the dalliance with Sangh, attending a mega VHP event in Haridwar before the royal massacre in 2001 obliterated him and his entire family.

His brother, Gyanendra, then took over and projected his Hindu identity even more aggressively. As he trampled on democratic space, VHP supremo Ashok Singhal came to Kathmandu to crown him the Vishwa Hindu Samrat in 2005.

The Hindu card, however, failed once again to douse democracy. The palace had to surrender power to the people.

Struggle for a modern order

This was when Nepal's political class decided it was time to jettison the overt religious identity of the state. There was a clear twofold trigger.

The first was the connection between the monarchy and the Hindu state. The two almost seemed inextricably linked and given the republican upsurge in the country, there was widespread public sanction to do away with the symbols of the old regime.

The second was an even more powerful argument. Nepal, contrary to myths peddled about its homogeneous Hindu character, was and is an extraordinarily diverse society. It has ethnic and religious minorities. Many janjatis, hill tribes, do not identify themselves as Hindus and a clear association of the state with a particular religion was not in tune with the aspiration to create a truly republican and democratic order which would respect minorities and treat citizens equally.

And so, Nepal has remained in this transitional secular state for eight years.

But this has not been easy.

The contestation

Nepali leaders did not take up the job of explaining the idea of secularism to citizens well. Unlike Nehru in India - who spoke about secularism at mass meetings, in his letters to chief ministers and in Parliament - Nepal's political elite went missing in action after introducing the concept. And this left room for doubts, misconceptions, and a lot of conceptual ambiguity.

Elements of the Hindu right went around claiming that secularism would result in cow slaughter at every street corner and yet others projected it to be 'anti-religion'. The Nepali translation, dharmanishpekshta, helped feed into this perception.

To suggest that secularism meant the Nepali state would turn anti-religion was far from the truth. Indeed, a criticism could be made that the state was still too closely associated with Hinduism than the spirit of secularism would allow. The president of the republic - in his capacity as the head of the state - attended Hindu religious functions, and replicated royal practices like giving blessings in the form of putting tika to citizens during Durga Puja.

This was disconcerting for what would happen if a Muslim - Muslims comprise 4% of the population - would become the head of state? Or if a member of another religious or ethnic group was at the helm of the state? Would be expected to do the same?

Yet others projected secularism to be a western import which was surreptitiously smuggled into the political discourse by western donors. There was also a widespread perception that there had been a proliferation of Christian missionary activity post secularism, and Hindus would be demographically marginalised.

A lot of this was, frankly, baseless.

Secularism was not a foreign agenda. It had been advocated by left parties in Nepal who were shaping the discourse in 2005-06 and it was also backed by the janjati activists.

Church activity may have increased - but the deformities and inequities within Hinduism had provided space and reason for people to convert. But irrespective of the debates on rationale for conversion, the 2011 census did not reveal any startling increase in Christian population, which hovered around 2% or less.

Many argued that it was a mistake to view the monarchy and Hindu character of the state together. Monarchy could be dumped, but Nepal could remain a Hindu Republic. This line was supported by key elements in the Sangh Parivar as well as new age gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who has a following in Nepal.

This view ignored that the former monarch and his supporters, however, saw the agenda as intertwined. A return to a Hindu state would undoubtedly embolden royalists. But more importantly, this also ignored the heterogeneity within Nepal. The country had turned secular to respect the sentiments of its ethnic and religious groups and give them a sense of equal citizenship.

NDA's arrival and the Hindu tilt

Those seeking revival of the Hindu state were emboldened when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in New Delhi. In his capacity as party president, Rajnath Singh had clearly said that making Nepal secular was a mistake, others in the Sangh had let their unhappiness known and VHP's Singhal still went back to Nepal often and addressed meetings.

But the Indian establishment has been extremely careful.

Rather early on the BJP government seems to have decided that irrespective of its ideological proclivities, there would be no pressure at all from the state apparatus on Nepal to drop secularism. Neither the ministry of external affairs nor the intelligence apparatus was used. However, the RSS and BJP did convey to Nepali leaders they would prefer if secularism was dropped.

Over the past few months, there was a strong push to replace secularism with respecting the 'freedom of religion' in the constitution - even though many Nepali scholars pointed out these were different concepts. The effort failed but secularism was defined as the protection of sanatan dharma - the Hindu tilt is more than obvious - triggering criticism from ethnic leaders even as the Hindu right folks remain unhappy that the country's old status has disappeared, maybe forever.

Religion is a potent tool in South Asian politics. Nepal has done well in institutionalising secularism. But it must do more to get rid of the ambiguities around the idea, and keep the state away from dispensing patronage to only the dominant religion. India's Hindu groups would do well to follow the lead of the Narendra Modi government and keep away.

(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @prashantktm .)

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