Secularism’s (dis)contents

  • Inarticulate propnents of secularism have ceded ground to those wishing to reinstate Nepal as a Hindu state
- rishikesh ram bhandary
Secularism’s (dis)contents

Jun 3, 2014-

With the new Narendra Modi-led government in power in India, rightly or wrongly, calls for restoring Nepal as a Hindu state have gotten louder. By not articulating why Nepal needs secularism, those espousing this principle have ceded ground to those who wish to reinstate Nepal as a Hindu state. The result has been the undermining of those who wish to see inclusive and progressive values institutionalised in Nepal. This goes hand-in-hand with the broader trend of assuming the progressive agenda has been lost altogether, particularly after the last election’s Maoist defeat.


There are three arguments against secularism that are worth mentioning. First, secularism has been criticised as a European import, developed and defined in a very specific context: resistance against organised religion in Renaissance Europe. People have argued that such concepts have no space in a society like Nepal’s, given our alleged lack of organised religion exercised through the state. There are two problems with this assertion: Nepal has historically sponsored religion, and it has previously implemented foreign concepts in its governance.

The Nepal government’s variant of Hinduism, most notably under the Panchayat regime, does not do justice to the immense diversity of traditions and faiths within the broader ambit of Hinduism, let alone the multitude of syncretistic traditions. While we lacked an organised clergy, the instruments of the state were certainly used to propagate this narrow variant of Hinduism. Ethnographic accounts of Gurungs, Tamangs and Kham Magars will easily shed light on the form and nature of dissent against the state-sponsored nature of Hinduism.

Additionally, those who argue that European concepts are not portable to the Nepali context are oblivious to the facts of history.  Everything we call ‘foreign’, ie governmental separation of powers, are always negotiated in local contexts. Therefore, the burden falls on us to define what secularism with Nepali characteristics means. Lessons from our immediate neighbour, such as Mohandas Gandhi’s sarva dharma sambhava—as opposed to sahisnuta or sarva dharma satkar—could prove instructive. Furthermore, when BR Ambedkar said his social philosophy was liberty, equality and fraternity, he did not point to the French Revolution as his source of inspiration. Instead, he grounded his political thought in Buddhist philosophy. To forget Nepal’s practice of ‘foreign’ concepts—especially ones that already exist in our societies—would be a tragic injustice.

Another argument is that secularism

is a concessionary force that gives missionaries free rein to proselytise. The choice of one’s religion is a fundamental liberty. Missionary appeals, if they really

exist, should provoke deep introspection among those fearful about the true extent

of religious marginalisation and dispossession in Nepal.

Secularism and secularisation

Finally, a more serious charge against secularism was made by Gerard Toffin in these very pages (‘What is a secular nation?’ October 6, 2013, Page 6). Toffin questioned the nature of the state’s secularism after seeing Kathmandu’s empty offices during Dashain and Tihar. Secularism does not mean secularisation. While the two concepts are certainly related, secularisation refers to a demographic change in terms of religiosity (ie, the frequency of religious practice decreasing over time). It says little about the nature of the state. We can let sociologists debate the potential effects of state secularism on secularisation and vice-versa but to conflate the two is deeply misleading. A people’s religiosity cannot be a motive to keep the state religious nor to dismiss the state’s secular character by pointing to a religious citizenry.

The proposal to exclude secularism from the new constitution seems sensible at face value; however, it is tenable only insofar as the status quo is justified. The numerous grievances about bias against non-Hindu traditions provide ground for corrective measures to be taken. If anything, this will mean affirming the state’s secularism in a more forceful manner.

Let’s also remember that secularism is not diametrically opposed to religion. Ambedkar saw religion as a foundational value for societies. Perhaps that explains why he converted to Buddhism shortly before his death, despite his earlier atheism. Unless the inequalities in society can be changed, religion may not fully create conditions for an individual’s spiritual development.

Which Hindu?

Let people like Kamal Thapa first propose a definition of who is a ‘Hindu’ if he is truly serious about calling Nepal a Hindu state. Ultimately, the question may deteriorate into semantics. Who is a Hindu? And, what does it mean for a state to be Hindu? After all, the last line of the Creation Hymn of the Rig Veda ponders ‘Perhaps even He knows not’ regarding the nature of creation. For a system of beliefs that embraces skepticism at its very core, any definitive, declarative statement is surely suspect.

Ultimately, a far more productive discourse would be to think about two interrelated questions: what is the ultimate basis for state policy: the individual or the group? And, should the constitution play a role in helping individuals transcend group identities and roots towards a more emancipated individual.

Bhandary is a student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at

Tufts University, the US

Published: 04-06-2014 07:19

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