12-18 September 2014 #724

For god's sake

Religious tolerance in Nepal applies only as long as followers of other faiths do not challenge the ascendancy of Hinduism
Trishna Rana
Over the weekend, singer Anju Panta issued an apology to fans and viewers after rumours of her refusal to sing a Dasain hymn because it contained references to the Hindu goddess Durga, sparked a furor on social media.

In the interview given to DC Nepal on Saturday, the visibly distraught and teary eyed singer steers clear of questions about religion and says she turned down the offer because of poor health, that certain people manipulated her words, and her aim was never to insult or slander anyone.

Panta who converted to Christianity later in life, admits her new religion helped her find inner peace after a messy divorce and got her through a tumultuous phase in life. But for cyber vigilantes, none of this seems to matter and Panta’s plea for forgiveness has fallen on mostly deaf ears as they continue to hound and harass her online.

From calling her a whore/prostitute and other choice Nepali expletives, to asking her ‘daily rate’, to thinly veiled threats of how Anju Panta would have been beheaded by now if she was living in Pakistan or Afghanistan instead of Nepal, the comment sections are a cesspool of misogyny.

Religious bigotry - questions about Nepali Christians' loyalty to the motherland and claims that only traitors, criminals, alcoholics, drug users etc turn to Christianity - is also rampant. While a few level headed commentators are arguing that in a democratic and secular country like ours, every citizen has the right to express her views openly without fear of retribution even on sensitive issues such as religion, their voice is far outnumbered by an angry online mob too eager to sacrifice a well-known face in the name of protecting their culture and religion.

In an older video that surfaced on YouTube this week, Panta speaks at a gathering in a church and recalls a similar incident where she was initially promised a song about Jesus Christ, but later discovered the lyrics contained references to ‘Shiva, Sai, Allah, Maullah’. She says she agreed to the song only after the producer changed the wordings to reflect her religious values.

Yes, her tone in the video is condescending. Yes, she tells the producer that he is yet to find the true meaning of god and that not all religions are equal. Yes, she needs to learn to respect diverse beliefs and refrain from ridiculing other religions while putting her own on a pedestal. But by no stretch of the imagination does Panta’s speech justify the vicious attack on her personhood or the vilification of the entire Christian community in Nepal.

To the world we like to project ourselves as a tolerant and accepting country and for the most part we have managed to coexist peacefully. But our religious tolerance only extends as long as followers of other faiths do not challenge the ascendancy of Hinduism. And the message for Anju as well as other Christian converts in the country seems to be: how dare you abandon Hindu religion or speak out against it when Nepal has given you so much? In the minds of cyber patriots and many others, to be Nepali is to be distinctly Hindu, anything else and you are a traitor.

Panta as a Christian feels this pressure to prove her loyalty to Nepal and mentions in her apology how she returned home even when six of her colleagues, who she had travelled with to the US for a program, decided to stay behind.

As we sit down for a second time to write a new constitution, there are larger lessons to be learnt here. The Interim Constitution of 2063 hastily took away the tag of ‘Hindu Kingdom’ and replaced it with secularism, a fact that still rankles right wing parties in Nepal and many Hindus themselves. Debates on what it means to be secular needed to happen in 2008 as they need to happen now.

Secularism in its purest sense does not mean godlessness, but the separation of state and temple to make the playing field more equitable. But six years after being declared a secular republic, our state machinery is still largely Hindu in its outlook and behaviour. In the commotion over state restructuring and forms of governance, we are yet again neglecting a vital issue that could potentially give a voice to the silent religious minorities of Nepal.


Read also:

Among believers, Editorial

Separation of state and temple, Editorial

Blasphemy charges in a secular state, Anurag Acharya

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