Some arguments presented by CK Lal in 'Security of secularism' (State of the State, #155) are misleading, especially his conclusion that 'secularism is an idea whose time has come'.
First of all, Lal is factually wrong when he says that the idea of a state religion today only survives in the Arabian peninsula, Vatican City and Bhutan. What about our South Asian neighbour, Pakistan, which calls itself an Islamic state? And what about the Islamic Republic of Iran? Neither Iran nor Pakistan are in the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, Pakistan and Israel are the two states created in the name of religion in the mid-twentieth century. There are other Islamic republics: in Mauritania and the Comoros. Morocco is an Islamic monarchy, and most of the more than 40 countries that are members of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) with the exception of Turkey have Islam as their state religion. Even Malaysia, where the proportion of Muslims in the population is much less than the proportion of Hindus in Nepal, has declared Islam as its state religion.
Then the question: are west European monarchies like Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain actually 'secular'? Can a non-Christian (or non-Anglican) ever become king or queen of Britain? One of the two major political parties in Germany is called 'Christian Democrat'? Does having the label of 'secular' make that much difference?
Actually, Hinduism is in many respects a 'secular' religion. Unlike some of the others, it does not claim that it is the only path to salvation. It does not claim that non-Hindus will go to hell. Hindus and Muslims have lived peacefully in Nepal for hundreds of years and there have been fewer religious riots in this Hindu kingdom than in the secular republic of India. Further, Hinduism does not divide the world into believers and non-believers and does not include the concept of jihad or fatwa. A huge mosque was constructed next to the royal palace in this Hindu kingdom in the past decade, replacing a smaller one. Are churches or temples allowed to be constructed near the Saudi royal palace or, for that matter, anywhere in the territory of the Wahabi Monarchy of Saudi Arabia?
I would be the first to admit and condemn the grave injustices perpetrated against Dalits in Nepal and India for many centuries. They were denied entry into temples, and the legacy of discrimination continues to this day. However, Dalits are priests in many temples in Nepal. Untouchability is banned and ceased to have legal sanction in Nepal since 1964. The legal code promulgated in 1910 and the customary laws before then made the state party to discrimination on the basis of caste, but these have all been abolished. You may say that laws are fine, but how about ingrained social discrimination? Even here, things are changing-observe the symbolic doro ceremony on Guru Purnima this week in which Brahmin priests tied the holy thread on Dalits.
Let us not forget that there were also many injustices done in the name of Christianity in the western world when women alleged to be witches were burnt at the stake. The mass murders and genocides in Europe were perpetrated in western 'civilisation', no such organised slaughter has ever occurred in the name of religion here. There were separate churches for blacks and whites in the US south till 100 years ago. Social mores change, cultural relations evolve. This is not to excuse discrimination and injustice in our society, only to say that Nepal as a kingdom and Hinduism as a religion do not have a monopoly on social ostracism.
Lal states: "Bahunism puts women in multiple jeopardy, they can't inherit property, learn the Vedas.no Biswakarma woman can ever aspire to be the royal preceptor." The post of royal preceptor is now ceremonial. Married women have inherited property in Nepal for more than 100 years. Daughters can now inherit property. Nepal being a Hindu kingdom did not stop these reforms from taking place.
Besides, Hinduism isn't the only religion not allowing women into priesthood. In fact, it is a matter of vigorous debate in other faiths today whether to allow women to be priests. When do you think we are going to see a woman pope, or a black pope? Change seems to take time even in democratic countries where people are sovereign. Lal must desist from picking only on Hindus.
Conversion to a religion of one's choice should be a fundamental right. However, there are often cases when people are lured by money and other inducements to change their religion by evangelical faiths which regard conversion as one of their tenets. The percentage of Hindus in Nepal declined between 1991 to 2001 inspite of it being a Hindu country. Such decline took place because of conversion, migration of non-Hindus and above all, some people who were counted as Hindus previously, no longer wanted to be considered Hindus.
This, despite the fact that it was against the law to convert others, although people could change their religion out of their own free will. If Nepal becomes a secular country, there will be an atmosphere conducive to more conversion. It may not necessarily be a good idea if Hindus become a minority in Nepal.