Print Edition - 2015-08-16  |  Free the Words

Secularism or religious freedom?

  • A secular policy does not hinder the democratic credentials of a state but promotes them
- Khagendra N Sharma

Aug 15, 2015-

Over the past week, there has been an intense but uncoordinated discussion about whether Nepal should go secular (Dharma Nirapeksha) or have religious freedom. This discussion could be put in a clearer perspective if the meaning of the word secular were to be properly explained. The Indian Constitution declares India as a secular state, and the term has been translated into Hindi or Sanskrit as Dharma Nirapeksha Rajya. The drafters of Nepal’s Interim Constitution copied this translation of the word secular while declaring Nepal a Dharma Nirapeksha Rajya. The first draft of the new constitution has retained the same nomenclature. Many people have argued that Dharmik Swatantrata would be better suited in the context of Nepal.

Clarifying definitions

Last week alone, Radio Kantipur presented two contradictory pictures of the religious perception and actual behaviour of the Hindu religion in almost the same breath. In the morning newscast, it reported that a village in Kailali had been in the midst of a religious war between Dalits (conventionally regarded as untouchable) and the so-called high caste people, both Hindus, regarding the use of the water from a well. After the Dalit community of the village started drawing drinking water from that well, the high caste people stopped using it because they said it had been polluted as Dalits had touched it.

Then in the Headliner programme that same morning immediately after the news, a Hindu state advocate belonging to the Nepali Congress argued that the Hindu religion was the most generous religion in the world because it believes in the concept of universal brotherhood (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). He argued that Nepal should be declared a Hindu state with religious freedom. This contradiction triggered in my mind the need for a clear debate about the concept of a religious or secular state.

The English dictionary defines secular as belonging or pertaining to this world or worldly affairs, not religious. The concept of a secular state is of European origin and it sets a boundary between the church and the state in the Middle Ages—the state took care of secular aspects while the church took care of religious affairs of the society. This division has been followed in modern times by most European countries and the USA. It is, therefore, a false understanding of the truth when people in favour of the Hindu religion claim that the European and American systems are advocates of a Christian state.

The division of religious and secular powers had been further refined by the concept of the separation of powers in the legislative, executive and judicial wings of the state, though all the aspects are secular. Almost all our political thinkers, leaders, jurists and advocates vociferously eulogise the concept of separation of powers. I fail to understand why they are taken aback while talking about a secular state.

History and realities

Nepal was declared a Hindu kingdom by King Mahendra in the constitution of Kingdom of Nepal 1962. This nomenclature was retained until it was replaced by the Interim Constitution 2006. But even during this period, Nepal was not a religious state in the conventional sense of the word. The constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal gave full religious freedom to Nepali citizens to follow the religion of their choice, although the deliberate change of religion was punishable by law.

Nepal followed a vertical caste system, which was supported by the Civil Code during the Rana regime. Although Mahendra declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom, it was he who revised the Civil Code in 1963 and made caste discrimination illegal. So, the motive behind declaring Nepal a Hindu kingdom was not to uphold the old caste system but to adapt it to modern ways of civilised life. For example, he did away with the system of polygamy which was rampant among Nepalis. He also began the egalitarian way of civil administration by picking ministers from among the Shudras, considered to be untouchable by the old Civil Code. Does it not sharply contrast with today’s political class who demand a Hindu state on the one hand and discriminate against the Shudras on the other? Why don’t political leaders intervene in such heinous discriminatory behaviour of social bigwigs? If such behaviour is tolerated under a secular state, what could be the worst-case scenario if the country were to become a religious Hindu state?

One argument put forward by Hindu state advocates is that Nepal could soon become a Christian state by permitting the conversion of innocent Hindus to Christianity by providing them petty inducements under the cover of a secular state. One simple solution to this problem is to prohibit deliberate conversion by imposing heavy penalties. But, in my view, we are pushing hordes of our people to seek the relief of equality under Christianity by our heinous discriminatory behaviour. Is it not disgusting that a high caste Hindu has to purify himself or herself by sprinkling holy water if touched by a Dalit? Again, is it not disgusting to put women in a dungeon-like Chhaupadi to suffer when they are having their periods? And is it not shameful to send a woman to live in a Chhaupadi when she has given birth to a baby? Is it not disgusting to keep women teachers away from school when they are having their periods? Are not these crimes against human dignity? Hinduism is a great religious concept, but it has to be extracted from the myriads of shameful perversions like the ones stated above, which are just the tip of the iceberg.

Understanding secularism

Let us now turn back to the mention of religious freedom suggested by Hindu enthusiasts. If a state is declared to be governed by a religion, any religion for that matter, it does make a difference between the avowed religion and other religions. It cannot guarantee equality between religions. There are varieties of religions, not only imported ones, but a number of indigenous ones too. For example, there are dozens of indigenous religions or systems of faith in Nepal alone. Even in the Hindu religion, there are numerous sects or branches that profess distinct faith systems under each one. If religious conversion is prohibited by law or the constitution, can a follower of one sect or faith under the Hindu religion convert to another faith or sect or not? Religious freedom will imply that you cannot put a stop to the continuum.

The fundamental problem is that there has to be the rule of law as the primary basis for religion to flourish. Full religious freedom, like full individual freedom, can grow only in a democratic setup. For the rule of law to develop, a secular environment is the best. Hindus make up a vast majority in India compared to the myriads of other religions. India adopted a democratic setup with a secular religious policy after it became independent. That has not hindered Hindus from following their religious rituals. In fact, Hinduism has had a more congenial environment and has even developed its political potential by managing to come to power through democratic means. In the international scene, secular India has followed a more rational foreign policy than many so-called religious states. Thus, a secular policy does not hinder the democratic credentials of a state. In fact, it promotes them. A secular state is not anti-religion; it is neutral with regard to religion.

Sharma is a freelance political analyst

Published: 16-08-2015 10:22

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