7-13 August 2015 #770

Commodifying to survive

Insecurity about secularism stems from the fear among many Nepalis they will be converted
Bidushi Dhungel

Photo: Gopen Rai

One of the greatest fears currently among Nepalis is of the spread of Christianity. This is not confined to fundamental Hindus of the Hills and Madhes, but also among Kirants from the Eastern Hills, Kathmandu Buddhist Newars and your average hardly-go-to-temple-or-puja-but-still kind of Nepalis.

The radical call for a Hindu state, however, is not borne of this general fear. That movement is far more deliberate and its most dangerous manifestations have come to us through the open southern border. That movement is not what we’re talking about here. What is less discussed is the general and more common fear among non-extremist Nepalis that being ‘secular’ means an invitation to Armageddon.

When we talk about a secular Nepal, what is immediately thought about, but what most ‘liberals’ don’t like to talk about is Christian missionary activity in Nepal. Ultimately, it is the fear that most Nepalis will be converted (not convert) that explains this whole secularism debacle. It is not about Buddhism or Islam (for a change) or any other minority religion – just Christianity. The fear of Christianity is, in turn, the result of the fear of the death of age-old practices.

The reason for this fear is predominantly grounded in the fact that Christianity is big and its association to capitalism make it generally a very wealthy religion. Also, the world’s most powerful nations, while all ‘secular’, are often fervently anti-secular in practice in their favour of Christianity. There are also arguments to be made regarding the rapid secularisation of households in Europe leading to the zeal of missionary work outside the continent. And in the age of market capitalism, all other religions globally are losing out in the competition. As globalised capitalism further consolidates its grip on the world, so does Christianity.

All of this, in conjunction with the ‘civilising’ missions of the colonial powers, which morphed into ‘charity’ after World War II suggests that there is a whole lot of baggage associated with notions of secularism, the word itself being inextricably linked to Christianity.

Fundamentally, Christianity is associated with the work of missionaries in Nepal who offer people what the state or any other religion cannot give them: food, education, medicines and opportunities. These initiatives should be greeted with appreciation. But while free will regarding conversion in the wake of missionary activity is important, it is equally necessary to call out manipulative and fraudulent activities which take advantage of the lack of education and awareness of science and medicine through‘miracles’.

Going by experience not only in Nepal, but in African and Southeast Asian countries and even in the West (watch Jesus Camp in case you haven’t already) manipulative conversion is not a myth but a reality which should be denounced by all secularists. In Nepal, it is unhelpful that aside from extremist Hindus, no one seems to want to talk about it.

Like every other religion, Christianity is mired in problems and extreme proselytising, a fact which creates hurdles for democratic and open societies, especially where education is lacking and religiosity is high. In Nepal, people do not leave one religion to become secular, they leave one religion to join another and become even more fervently religious.

Having said this, Nepal must remain committed to secularism in the new constitution. There is no justification for its removal. Of course, in practice, secularism will be easier said than done. Even countries preaching secularism to others consistently fail to practice it. Former US President George Bush’s self-declaration of being a messenger of God and a fervent Evangelist comes to mind.

Seen as Hinduism and Buddhism and other smaller minority religions like Kirat and Bon have been so embedded into the everyday realities of so many people across Nepal, to disallow the state to participate in their active preservation would be a disservice to human civilisation and the incredible history of these places and peoples. That doesn’t mean however that secularism cannot co-exist with the historical realities of the country.

There can be constitutional provisions to safeguard age-old practices while remaining committed to the fundamentals of secularism. In the UK, for example, 26 seats in the House of Lords are still reserved for clergymen and the Queen must pay allegiance to the protestant Church of England. I am not suggesting we give priests a space in the legislature in Nepal, but such a provision is just an example of a way the UK is making it work.

As for Hinduism, a more inclusive structure is perhaps called for if the faith intends to stay competitive in the market. In India, this has meant the creation of theme-park-esque temples like Akshardham to lure in the masses and the complete commodification of the religion. That may indeed be the only way to survive this cut-throat industry. Sitting around talking about purity isn’t going to get Hinduism the numbers it wants, much less retain them.

Read also:

For god’s sake, Trishna Rana

Among believers, Editorial

Federalism, republicanism and secularism, Anurag Acharya

Preaching the gospel to guerrillas, Luke Pender

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