Nepali Times
Neither secular, nor Hindu


The solution to the contemporary debate on secularism versus Hindu kingdom lies in opting for a middle ground that gives continuity to past traditions while simultaneously disassociating the state from aligning with Hinduism. This could be done by deleting the word 'Hindu' from the clause that defines the kingdom, though not necessarily replacing it with the word 'secular'.

By identifying 'Hindu' as an attribute of the kingdom, the 1990 Constitution gives the impression that Nepal is a theocratic state.

The reality is far from that. Though some Hindu elements remain in the laws, the polity at large is not governed by Hindu religious scriptures and the state prohibits caste-based behaviour, that premier Hindu governance framework. The state's claim to being Hindu in these circumstances are manifested in certain signs and symbols enshrined in the constitution or pursued through statecraft such as a ban on cow slaughter, the promotion of Hindu religious festivals, the sponsorship of Hindu religious discourses, including the use of Sanskrit, and a ban on proselytising.

There has been a weakening of these elements and the core Hindu institution that remains in contemporary Nepal, is kingship. Nepal is de facto secular, but by positing 'Hindu' as an attribute of the kingdom, the present constitution damages the prospects for the consolidation of secular principles. There are various sections of Nepali society such as those who adhere to minority religions, the janajatis, the dalits and reformist minded Hindus who vehemently oppose the Hindu identity of the Nepali state and continue to advocate for the secular status of the kingdom.

Inserting the word 'secular' in place of 'Hindu', however, is not the solution. A 'secular kingdom' is a contradiction in terms because a kingdom implies the existence of a king and by implicit logic the king's religion. In the Nepali context, kingship has had a symbiotic relationship with Hinduism in the very emergence of the nascent Nepali state during the late 18th century. The continuity of that nation-state and of the Shah dynasty up to modern times, preclude the possibility of disassociating kingship from Hindu religion. Hence the suggestion to delete the word 'Hindu' rather than insert the word 'secular'.

There is a clause in the constitution that safeguards the position of the king and his alignment with Hinduism when it outlines that the latter should be 'an adherent of Aryan culture and a follower of Hindu religion'. When this clause in the constitution has already identified Hinduism as the religion of the monarch, identifying the kingdom as Hindu, while modern laws are not derived from Hindu religious sources, becomes a vacuous statement. It is also unnecessarily provocative and dysfunctional.

In the debate between secularism versus Hinduism in Nepal the experiences of countries such as France, United States, Turkey and India have often served as points of reference, while other countries with monarchical forms of government, and ones with which Nepal shares some commonality as far as state structures are concerned, do not. For instance, the relationship between the state and religion in the United Kingdom, which recognises the Anglican Church as the official church and where the monarch is both the head of the state and of the church, but where the state at large is secular, does not inform the current debate in Nepal.

The experience of Thailand would be of even greater relevance than countries like the United Kingdom. Thailand, like Nepal, is an Asian country that has a monarch as the head of the state. More importantly, it has retained its independence. This in turn means there has not been a rupture between polity and religion as has occurred in many other Asian countries that have passed through colonial rule. Moreover, there has been continuity with tradition, though traditions, in turn, have been adapted and improvised to suit modern times.

There is still another similarity: the dynasty that rules modern Thailand and one that rules modern Nepal began from roughly the same period onwards beginning from the late 18th century. Both polities have been able to exist up to the present times through skilful negotiations first with colonial powers-the French and the British in the case of Thailand, and the British in the case of Nepal-and subsequently with popular forces.

Some 94 percent of the population in Thailand is Buddhist. But nowhere does the Thai constitution declare Buddhism to be the state religion. It does, however, declare Buddhism to be the king's religion, though he is also seen as the protector of all religions. Chapter II Section 9 of the constitution of Thailand states: 'The king is a Buddhist and an upholder of religions.' These are the core ideas present in the Thai constitution, learning which would be to Nepal's benefit.

The implication is that the kingdom cannot literally be declared secular when the reigning king is Buddhist. 'Kingdom' is after all an extension of 'kingship', but that it can be secular for all practical purposes. By perceiving the king to be a Buddhist while simultaneously a protector of various religions is an idea that can be traced back to Emperor Ashoka, the archetype of the righteous monarch or dhammaraja. Space is allowed for adherents of minority faiths to identify with monarchy. Moreover it does not portray monarchy as a zealot institution, which may have been the case had it said that the king is a protector of Buddhism.

Other Theravada Buddhist countries like Burma and Sri Lanka where colonial rule disrupted the complementary relationship that prevailed between kingship and Buddhism, have during the post-colonial era witnessed attempts to elevate Buddhism to the level of state religion (though there have been vacillations in this policy). This must be seen as a reaction against some of the policies enunciated during colonial rule.

The same could be said of the Hindutva agenda in India. While the Buddhist population in Burma and Sri Lanka is around 85 percent and 64 percent respectively, Thailand, with a much higher Buddhist population has, however, had no need to give special patronage to Buddhism precisely because of the relationship that exists between monarchy and Buddhism that continues to this day.

Thailand is naturally a Buddhist country without having the need to consciously articulate its identity as such. In Nepal, too, the present relationship between monarchy and Hinduism has not been disrupted. There is no need to articulate the kingdom's identity as Hindu.

Sudhindra Sharma is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)