Nepali Times
State Of The State
Security of secularism


Last week, two senior executives of a leading Indian engineering company were on a tour of duty in Bihar. They decided to take an excursion to Kathmandu. They left Patna early Saturday morning by car, and by evening they were at the gates of a Tahachal casino. Their next point of call was a dance restaurant in Thamel where they wined and dined for an hour or so. Then it was time to dance. By the time they got into a famous disco in Kamladi, it was well past midnight.

Back to the casino for another round of blackjack, this time on Darbar Marg. When they staggered out into the sidewalk, it was nearing dawn so these high caste Hindus washed their faces with bottles of mineral water and headed off to pay their respects to Lord Pashupatinath.

Mid-morning Sunday the pair was driving back, on the way they lunched at a resort near Kurintar, took a ride in the cable car and arranged an elaborate puja at Mankamana. In the afternoon, a quick drive past the Chitwan National Park in Sauraha completed their Nepal visit. By Sunday evening, they were crossing the border checkpoint at Raxaul for their long drive back to Patna.

These two businessmen spent more money in one night in Nepal than two budget trekkers probably would in a month. It is clear where the Nepal Tourism Board should be concentrating its promos, and its recent roadshow in south India shows it is clearly on the right track. Now, just make the RNAC flights to Bangalore more reliable.

When positioning Nepal in the Indian market, the Hindu prefix is our unique selling point. The product-mix of nearly a dozen casinos, dance restaurants, swanky discos, Lord Pashupatinath, and shrines of the entire Hindu pantheon offers incomparable competitive advantage. Indian tourists have the purchasing power to partake of all the vices available here, and then atone for them by pilgrimages to our holy sites.

If a country is merely a business opportunity, then there should be no reason to go secular. For Nepal, Hinduism is a logo tinged with the irresistible attractions of antiquity, exoticism, and mystery. A country, however, isn't just a postage stamp or a promotional flier of a travel agency.

Conquests may form a nation, but if it is to survive as a modern entity, it has to be a shared collective of its entire population. In order to remain peaceful and prosperous, Nepal's 'imagined communities' need to fashion an inclusive identity. Theocratic states once dotted the atlas. Today, the idea of a state religion survives only in the Arabian peninsula, the Vatican City and Bhutan. They are more archaic than quaint, and secularism in the affairs of the state is not ahead of its time anymore.

In a republican system, state theism has no justification. But in countries like Nepal where the politics of 'divine right' or the 'inheritance of conquest' are still extant, the debate over state religion is inextricably intertwined with the continuing relevance of other privileges of birth. Religion in such societies is not dharma, the righteous path for human life, but dogmatism that breeds not love of one's own faith but hatred of others.

We like to remind ourselves that Hinduism in Nepal is more tolerant, but it has over time degenerated into ritualism. This orthodoxy is called Bahunbad after the community of priests that institutionalised discrimination in order to perpetuate its monopoly over mandatory ceremonies. Bahunism rests on the doctrine of inequality because its principles and practices are based on the accident of birth rather than merit, on the suppression of Shudras, Untouchables, and women of all castes and classes. Bahunism puts women in multiple jeopardy: they can't inherit property, learn the Vedas (Manu would have molten lead poured in her ears if she so much as even overheard a single stanza of the scriptures). They can't carry weapons, aren't eligible to preside over religious ceremonies. No Biswakarma woman can ever aspire to be the royal preceptor.

If all this isn't justification for secularism, nothing is. Recently, the crisis of legitimacy of a Hindu state has been brought into stark relief by Maobadi atheism on the one hand and monarchist dogmatism on the other. It is not a coincidence that the most vociferous propagandists of an activist monarchy are also Hindu zealots. The leaders of the Nepali Congress and UML which were primarily responsible for declaring Nepal a Hindu state have suddenly discovered the risks of a theistic political order anointed by a procession of Sankaracharyas and sundry god-men.

A paradigm is in a serious crisis when its best practitioners begin to desert it. What worked for Comrade Man Mohan Adhikari, will not work with Comrade Ram Prit Paswan. Secularism is an idea whose time has come, even in Nepal. And pilgrimage tourism from India need not suffer because of it.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)