Oped

Not really secular

  • In Nepal, no religion can claim to have its followers ‘from time immemorial’
- RAMESH KHATRY

Apr 10, 2016-

Nepal is an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive, democratic, socialism-oriented, federal democratic republican state.” Thus states Part 1, article 4 (1) of the Constitution of Nepal 2015. Then comes the clarification, “Explanation: For the purposes of this Article, ‘secular’ means religious, cultural freedoms, including protection of religion, culture handed down from the time immemorial.” In Nepali, the constitution uses the word “sanatan” which represents “from time immemorial”.

Only Buddhism can claim to have its birth in Nepal. Does the new constitution guard it as the ‘sanatan’ religion? Our Buddhist friends will say no, as they have suffered persecution in the country. The south Indian priest Sankaracharya’s visit to Nepal between 788-820 AD brought disaster upon the religion. In Fatalism and Development, Dor Bahadur Bista writes, “Buddhist institutions were attacked and the products of their work destroyed, with widespread book-burnings. These included not only religious texts, which may have been seen as rivalling Sankaracharya’s version of Saivitic thought, but also other secular literature, works of grammar and dictionaries.” The persecution of Buddhists continued till the Rana rule.

In Nepal, no religion can claim to have its followers ‘from time immemorial’. One religion entered India from Iran probably around 1800 BC, and its advocates brought it to Nepal. Buddha was born probably around 600 BC. Capuchin missionaries brought Christianity to Nepal; but Prithvi Narayan Shah expelled them in 1769, and with them modern medicine and education, which they took to Bethiya. 

If Buddhism does not qualify as a ‘sanatan’ religion in the country, then no other religion does, because they have originated in other countries. A constitution that aims to protect one religion is not secular. Rather, it exposes the weakness of the religion if it requires protection from the state to survive.

Article 26 (3) of the Constitution of Nepal 2015 states, “No person shall convert another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardize other’s religion and such act shall be punishable by law.”

Believe it or not, conversion takes place in all areas, all the time, in all societies. A student after the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams proves that she has converted to a higher level of education. Nepali politicians are converting their beliefs all the time. Our foreign minister Kamal Thapa has converted his beliefs three to four times to get where he is today. Religious conversion, like any other, is so entrenched in human nature that it will take place whether the state likes it or not.

Further, this article of the constitution goes against Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Nepal sends its army to serve in the UN peacekeeping force; it had better observe Article 18 in its totality. 

One of the writers of the Indian constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar, converted to Buddhism because he wanted to avoid the caste system prevalent in Hinduism. He found no other way to remove its shackles. By trying to restrict conversion, Nepali Brahmin and Chhetri lawmakers do not want our Dalits to escape the prison of the ‘low caste’. 

Article 156 of the proposed bill on the criminal code leaves no doubt that the present legislature intends to delete practical secularism from the present constitution. In four parts, it states: “(1) No one should convert others’ religion or do it in an organized way or incite it. (2) No one should act or behave in a way that disturbs the traditional religion, belief or faith in any caste, ethnic group or denomination, or to convert to another religion with or without enticement that disturbs, or with any other intention—such religion or belief should not be preached. (3) Anyone committing offense as per Clause (1) and (2) shall be imprisoned for five years and fined up to 50,000 Nepalese Rupees. (4) If the offender as per Clause (1) and (2) is a foreign national, s/he should be repatriated from Nepal within seven days of completing the imprisonment according to this Article.” Only King Mahendra’s ghost could have inspired this.

Citizens have until April 12 to comment on the proposed bill. People like Shashank Koirala, Khum Bahadur Khadka, Baburam Bhattarai, Kamal Thapa, and others who want to remove the word “secular” from the constitution and those who would like to see this bill passed should realise that such actions will encourage religious minorities to fight in international courts. Then, the Nepali Narendra Modis can issue joint statements with David Cameron and EU leaders that the new constitution lacks inclusiveness.

Khatry is the executive director of Association for Theological Education, Nepal

 

Published: 10-04-2016 08:28

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