Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Secularism in a diverse state


The protests over the weekend against the government slashing funds for 'cultural activities' irritated many. Some felt the government was foolish in provoking the local community and insensitive for not respecting public sentiments. Others argued that the local community had no business asking the state for funds and should pay up themselves.

The government gave in. Our erudite Marxist finance minister recognised the potency of culturally-charged politics. This was particularly true because those enraged could bring the capital to a halt. No one was happy, but a compromise was reached. The event will have far-reaching consequences for the future of Nepali secularism.

Nepal became secular without adequate public discussion and debate on what it meant. Ethnic groups legitimately felt alienated by the Hindu character of the state. Liberal activists in Kathmandu championed the cause, and the Maoists made it a powerful political slogan. Kathmandu's NGOs wanted this clause changed in the constitution.

The decision to declare Nepal secular was correct but it was done in a flawed manner. People did not know what to make of it and there were differing expectations. The parties never explained the issue when they went campaigning even though it was a key point in their manifestos. There was little public debate in the media.

In the Tarai many felt secularism meant cow slaughter. The leftist parties felt it would divorce the state from religion. Ethnic minorities thought it would mean their own interests would be promoted. And to have the head of state?first Girija Koirala and now Ram Baran Yadav?replace the king at Kathmandu's religious-cultural events led to questions about whether formal secularism would mean a change from past practices.

This week's riots have set a precedent and we will have no choice but to follow what is broadly the Indian model of secularism. If the French understand secularism as absolute separation of state and religion to the extreme extent that no religious symbols are allowed in educational institutions, the Indian model is more flexible.

The state is not anti-religion but is based on the premise that it will treat all religions equally. It recognises the public nature of religion and negotiates with religious communities. So the Indian government organises and subsidises pilgrimages for Hindus to Amarnath and Vaishno Devi. It arranges special facilities for Muslims to travel for the Haj. Minority Christian institutions get grants, and the social code and religious affairs for Sikhs are guided by institutions like the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Samiti.

Nepali secularism will now also be about the competitive appeasement of all religions and communities. If the Newars have got their share of the pie today, it is inevitable that others will ask for theirs next. A Christian friend only half-jokingly said: "If they give them free meat, they should give me a Christmas present." A Madhesi said the state should buy his bhang for Holi.

Nepal's diverse ethnic groups have multiple customs and there are bound to be demands on the state for support for culture and religion. If the government fails to provide this, or favours one community over another, expect alienation and communal ill-feeling.

In the next two years, these issues must be discussed in the constituent assembly. Is it right for the president to attend Hindu events? What if we have a Muslim or a janjati president?will he do the same? Can the state keep a distance from religion? Or will secularism only mean that the state will not let religion influence its decisions, but engage with it at other levels? In a context where group identities are strong, will the secularism debate focus on communities or individual rights? Will practitioners have the right to propagate their religion and seek to convert? What are the expectations of religious communities from the state and what can the state accommodate?

Gandhi once said that those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics. Our left-leaning government and liberal intelligentsia were reminded of that maxim this week.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)