20-26 June 2014 #712

Separation of state and temple

When it rains in Delhi insecure politicians in Kathmandu unfurl their umbrellas

Nepal’s self-opinionated like to think that when Delhi sneezes Kathmandu should catch a cold. Just goes to show how little we think of ourselves that we bestow outsiders with such vast powers over us. The same thing happened in the aftermath of the astounding victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ascension of Narendra Modi: when it rained in Delhi, insecure politicians in Kathmandu unfurled their umbrellas.

Nepal’s public sphere is still resonating with speculation about a rollback on secularism, Nepal being declared a Hindu state or even the restoration of the monarchy. It doesn’t seem to matter that the Nepali people post-2006 have opted for a federal, secular republic. Just because a certain religious-right party has swept elections in a neighbouring country why should that influence our political evolution?

To be sure, if Nepalis themselves decided in a possible future referendum to shun secularism and declare the country a Hindu state (as the fourth-largest party in the Constituent Assembly, the RPP-N wants) so be it, but not because of political trends in another country.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala himself set the trend by bequeathing a silver Shiva linga to Prime Minister Modi when he went to Delhi last month. We haven’t tried to find out what the other South Asian leaders gifted, but this was Koirala pretty brazenly establishing a religious basis for India-Nepal relations. In the aftermath of the Modi victory, Nepali Congress leaders have started saying publicly that secularism may have to be re-evaluated.

The swing to the right is even evident in the Maoist party, with Pushpa Kamal Dahal telling BJP chairman Rajnath Singh that his party “made a big mistake” by abandoning the Hindu state.

Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, regarded as a moderate within the BJP, on a recent visit to Kathmandu met all top leaders of all top parties and went on to ask the Nepal government to stop prosletysation. It wasn’t a coincidence that six days later, the Minister of Women, Children and Social Welfare, Neelam KC echoed the same sentiments at a temple gathering outside Kathmandu.

It is clear that Nepali politicians, like politicians everywhere, find it too tempting not to mix temple and state. When joblessness, lack of investment and a stagnant economy keep the youth disillusioned and angry, stoking sectarian animosity is a way to divide and rule and keep the streets primed for control.

Needless to say this is a short-sighted and self-destructive strategy. “Secularism” is a word we imported from post-partition India and its need to steer clear of communalism. Nepal was never wracked by such violence, and even though the Panchayat tried to fall back on “the world’s only Hindu kingdom,” that was more to gain political legitimacy than to ram through a quasi-theocracy.

Conversion may have been banned and the Hindu ruling class did act superior during the Panchayat, but there was never a sense that all Nepalis should be Hindus. In fact, the 1957 constitution doesn’t even mention religion. In that sense Nepal was “secular” long before it was  formally adopted as a state ideology in 2006. The Hindu backlash we see now is largely due to inaccurate translation of “secular” into Nepali to almost mean “non-religious”, when it should actually mean “religious pluralism”.

In a country where 20 per cent of the population (in the 2011 census) call themselves non-Hindu, it is absurd to push for the country to be declared a “Hindu state.”

Nepal’s national identity is defined by its cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity, not by its Hindu-ness. And we shouldn’t change that just because the religious-right sweeps an election in the neighbourhood.

Read also:

Modi-fying Indo-Nepal ties Damakant Jayshi

Hindu rate of growth

The ‘f’ word again

The backlash against the BJP, Ajaz Ashraf

Modi doubles down on the neighbourhood, Alyssa Ayres

Secularism in a diverse state, Prashant Jha

Neither secular, nor Hindu, Sudhindra Sharma


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