Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Nepal, starting Sunday, is likely to draw much diplomatic and political attention to the profound religious intimacy between India and the world’s only other nation with a majority of Hindus. There are many countries, with different religious denominations, with which India celebrates shared history, culture and civilisation. But the spiritual affinity between the people of India and Nepal is intense and lived every day. Yet religion has not been of policy consequence in the diplomatic engagement between Delhi and Kathmandu. Until now.
A number of new factors make religion quite relevant to the current discourse on India-Nepal relations. On Monday, in Kathmandu, Modi will head to the Pashupatinath temple on the banks of the Bagmati river and offer prayers. Most Indian leaders travelling to Kathmandu do make it a point to visit the Pashupatinath temple. What lends some special significance to Modi’s visit is the explicit religiosity of the new Indian leadership and the extraordinary resonance it is likely to get in Nepal.
When he returned to Varanasi after being elected prime minister, Modi offered prayers at the Vishwanath temple and joined the “Ganga aarti” at Dashashwamedh Ghat. During her visit to Dhaka last month, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj went to pray at the Dhakeshwari temple. It is no secret that the dates for Modi’s visit were finalised with the awareness that visiting Pashupatinath on a Monday of the current lunar month, Shravan, is considered especially auspicious. There is no escaping the fact that India’s new leadership is now more in sync with the deep religiosity of the subcontinent.
For most leaders from Pakistan and Bangladesh, an official visit to India would be incomplete without a pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif. For leaders from Myanmar, Sri Lanka and many other nations in Asia, visiting Bodh Gaya would be an important part of their itinerary. Indian godmen, of course, have long attracted visiting heads of government and state from around the world.
Nepalese leaders across the political spectrum think it is entirely appropriate that Modi visit the Pashupatinath shrine. Many in Nepal are hoping that Modi will find time to visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, and Janakpur, Sita’s birthplace. Logistics, however, are likely to stop the prime minister from visiting either place during the current trip to Nepal.
For Delhi, the policy issue is not about Modi visiting temples in Nepal. The potential danger is about India crossing the line between celebrating the shared religious heritage and blundering into Nepal’s domestic debate on the role of Hinduism in the construction of the post-monarchical state. At the turn of the 1960s, King Mahendra declared Nepal a Hindu state and used religion to legitimise the monarchy’s power. In 2008, the constituent assembly abolished the monarchy and declared Nepal a democratic, secular and federal republic.