19-25 December 2014 #737

Only half free

Freedom of expression can’t be selective, it includes the freedom to speak about changing one’s religion
Damakant Jayshi
An open letter to Constituent Assembly members by Britain’s Ambassador to Nepal, Andrew Sparkes, has set off an intense debate in the public sphere both in favour and against, but more of the latter.

The letter published in the op-ed page of Republica on the occasion of the International Human Rights Day on 10 December spoke about the need to safeguard a plethora of rights in the new constitution.

Among the rights that Ambassador Sparkes wrote about were ‘advocat(ing) citizenship provisions which treat men and women equally, allowing children born in Nepal to acquire citizenship from either parent.’ He went on: ‘We hope that the constitution will enshrine equality for all without discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, caste, ethnicity, religion or language, with a particular focus on ensuring enjoyment of those rights by the most marginalised in society such as Dalits.’

All fine so far. But some individuals and political parties focused exclusively on this part of his write up: ‘We encourage you to ensure that the right to change religion is protected, and that the right to hold opinions and to express them freely will remain strong.’

Whether or not an ambassador of a foreign country should be speaking about this issue is actually moot. The more relevant question is to ask why we left it to a foreign envoy to bring this up. Since when did talking about right to change religion become a taboo? Why do we keep entangling ourselves in matters that are an individual’s choice and basic right?

Moral policing on an individual’s right is not uncommon in the overgrown village that is Kathmandu. Be it sermonising in Reporters’ Club Nepal a few years ago on barring Nepali women from participating in Miss Nepal contest, preventing youth from going to disco or arresting students from cinema halls – we have seen it all.

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala reportedly told a RPP-Nepal delegation that he would summon Sparkes over his remarks. The British Embassy overdid its damage control by issuing a ‘clarification’ about ‘unintended misunderstanding’ and so forth. Very similar to the capitulation by the Norwegian Embassy when UCPN (Maoist) members and a section of media made such hue and cry over its grant to Southasia Trust, which was always in the public domain and open to all to see. (Full Disclosure: I am a member of the Board of Southasia Trust).

In all the hulabaloo and righteous indignation over l’affaire Sparkes, we should actually have been asking ourselves whether the ambassador had a point. The ambassador’s remark was like a red rag before the RPP-Nepal bull which advocates return to monarchy and champions a return to Hindu Rastra. By the way, elected members of the RPP-N have taken oath under the Interim Constitution that says Nepal is a secular republic. Affected by a southerly breeze, RPP-Nepal obviously thinks it can use the fracas over the British envoy’s remarks to political advantage.

Freedom of expression, like the rule of law, cannot be applied selectively as some have been doing. Baburam Bhattarai is trying to obstruct justice in the name of conflict-era crimes in cases of murder-convict Bal Krishna Dhungel, shielding convicts in Dailekh over murder of journalist Dekendra Thapa and denying justice to Nanda Prasad (now dead due to indefinite hunger strike) and Ganga Maya Adhikari.  But we have witnessed some silly and idiotic defence on this front.

The speed of reaction from PM Koirala and RPP-Nepal on the Sparkes’ article is nowhere to be seen when it comes to the rights of citizenship for offspring of single mothers. Nepal is only one of two countries which doesn’t grant citizenship rights on the basis of the mother. The condition of Dalits in the country is bad, but much worse in the Madhes. But some of the highly-rated intellectuals have no time for it because of their obsession with the ‘pahade domination’.

The reason why states based on ethnicity is a bad idea also applies to having a State identified with a single religion. Merely saying minorities (be it in ethnicity-based states or religious ones) will enjoy rights is not good enough. It is double-standard on the part of those who speak against Hindu Rastra but have no qualms in calling for single ethnicity-based federation. And vice versa for the advocates of Hindu Rastra.


Read also:

Foreign hand, From the Nepali Press

State of limbo, Rubeena Mahato

Justice under threat, Tufan Neupane

The lords of impunity, Kanak Mani Dixit

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