Crisis of faith

  • Those who believe secularism arrived out of the blue forget history of activism to separate temple and state
- Deepak Thapa
Crisis of faith

Jan 28, 2015-

Readers hardly need reminding that it was a little over a month ago that the British ambassador, Andrew Sparkes, apparently inadvertently, sparked off (could not resist the pun) a controversy that has by now died down with the larger issue of the constitution roiling national politics. In a country where we are continually lectured at by foreigners of all hues and all the time, it should come as no surprise that the representative of a country that, in Ambassador Sparkes’ words, is “Nepal’s oldest bilateral partner, [and] largest bilateral donor”, the citizens of which share a mutually felt “particular esteem” with Nepalis, somehow felt compelled to address our lawmakers as they deliberated on the future constitution.


Writing an op-ed on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, the ambassador reminded our Constituent Assembly (CA) members of the historic opportunity they have to affirm Nepal’s commitment to universal principles of human rights. It was unfortunate for Ambassador Sparkes that the one sentence used by the newspaper as the pull quote for the article was: “We encourage you to ensure that the right to change religion is protected…”

Unfortunate because it came at time when Nepal’s Hindu Right has begun to believe that its message is gaining some traction, with the major political forces in disarray and a conservative strand within these even seeking to make common cause in trying to overturn Nepal’s infant secularism, and also because there is a strong body of opinion within an influential section of Nepali society that secularism was foisted on Nepal by ‘external forces’. Going back to the article that riled some people in Nepal, there were not many takers for the British Embassy’s clarification that the ambassador was simply reminding us of our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which does lay out the principle of the freedom to change one’s religion. Of course, none of the critics dared say that we should not be giving a hoot to the UDHR; instead the focus immediately shifted to all manners of foreigners who are out to undermine our ‘national identity’, etc, etc, by bribing poor, gullible Nepalis into becoming Christians. We have heard enough of that nonsense coming from similar-minded loonies in India to bear repeating here.

Revolutionary agendas

An argument often used by those who oppose secularism is that it was never part of the agenda of the 2006 People’s Movement (and it is often the same group that likes to claim that neither was republicanism nor federalism, but that is a matter for a separate debate). And it did not help that Prime Minister Sushil Koirala pled ignorance about how the historic parliamentary declaration of May 18, 2006, which apart from shunting aside the monarchy pending further action, also made Nepal a secular state. To set the record straight, the newspaper Naya Patrika pointed out that the declaration had been presented to the reinstated parliament by then-Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, and among the seconders were Sushil Koirala himself, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Sher Bahadur Deuba, Pashupati Shumsher Rana, and Surya Bahadur Thapa, along with an assortment of other leaders.

Revolutionary surges, whether violent or not, cannot always have a fixed agenda. Part of it depends on how the state responds and partly on the dynamics unleashed by the urge for change. To argue that the proclamation to declare Nepal a secular state is illegitimate is akin to arguing that the French Revolution was illegitimate too. When the battle cry ‘To the Bastille’ resounded in Paris, no one was talking of cutting off the king’s head, but neither did that result detract from the Revolution’s achievements such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Or, to take an example closer to home, it is like asserting that the 1980 referendum should not have happened since all the students wanted was to submit a petition to the Pakistani Embassy against the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and not a change of regime. Movements evolve and outcomes are never certain.

Some people would still have it that secularism arrived in Nepal out of the blue in 2006. Easily forgotten is the past history of Dalit activists arguing that the existence of a Hindu state encourages caste-based discrimination since the practice finds sanction in Hinduism. There is little comfort in the argument that the caste system is a simple misinterpretation of a benignly thought-out division of labour in the face of atrocities Dalits have endured for centuries. Similarly, even though a considerable section of Janajati groups regard themselves as Hindus, there is a strong strain of activism among them that has long demanded a secular state as a way to protect their own indigenous religious traditions. And, contrary to the assumptions of the ignorant, these articulations were heard soon after the 1990 political change, and not only after 2006.

Secularism’s history

The political parties themselves were not far behind. Among the 40 demands of the Maoists in 1996 is the categorical: “Nepal should be declared a secular nation.” That was 10 years before 2006. Even earlier, the CPN-UML’s 1991 election manifesto clearly states that the state should be a secular one (albeit, presumably, at the instigation by foreigners, in particular two Europeans who had been dead for a hundred years—Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). The guiding ideology of the UML for more than two decades, ‘People’s Multiparty Democracy’ adopted in 1992, was for doing away with the special privileges of any one religion. The Nepali Congress’ 1991 manifesto is a wishy-washy one that simply mentions the right for everyone to profess the religion of their choice, but it, along with the UML, was party to the ‘18-point Common Agenda for Progressive Reforms’ adopted by the five agitating parties during the ‘special meeting of the dissolved House of Representatives’ in 2003, which included the declaration: “The state shall not give special treatment to any religion.” It beats reason how these lofty principles can be achieved without curtailing the pre-eminence of religion in affairs of the state. And, if that is not secularism, what is?

The most prominent advocate for a Hindu state (and the monarchy and a unitary state and everything else that smacks of conservatism), the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, claims that a Hindu state will not discriminate against any religion. Writing, ironically, the day after the tragic massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar committed in the name of religion, RPP-Nepal supremo Kamal Thapa went so far as to declare that if there is any religion that is accepting of other religions, it is Hinduism. It was a remarkable turnaround at the end of a strong tirade against Christianity and secularism, including the laughable assertion that if conversions are not checked, other religions of Nepal (tellingly, he does not include Islam among them) will become minorities in Nepal. Thapa had entitled his article, ‘Is a Hindu nation a crime [sic]?’ A reader had begun his response with, “Thapa Sir, a Hindu nation is not a crime, but neither is a secular nation.” Touché!

Published: 29-01-2015 08:59

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