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Next door Nepal: Top-down secularism

Constitution delinks religion from politics without engaging the people.

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire |
Updated: October 25, 2016 12:09:20 am
nepal secularism, nepal, brics, brics summit, brics summit india, brics india, brics goa, brics summit goa, brics nepal, brics summit nepal, india nepal, china nepal Chinese President Xi Jinping apparently joined Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and advised, among other things, that “internal unity” is the most important pre-requisite for Nepal . (Source: File/Reuters)

In Nepal, if the recent BRICS summit in Goa is being discussed at all, it’s solely for the “chance meeting” that heads of the Nepali, Chinese and Indian governments had in a hotel lobby. Chinese President Xi Jinping apparently joined Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and advised, among other things, that “internal unity” is the most important pre-requisite for Nepal to move towards stability and economic prosperity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who joined the meeting later, had to be happy as India has been telling Nepali actors to have all sides “on board” for some time now .

But which forces or actors constitute “internal unity” or “all sides” that the two leaders from the neighbourhood — who of late have been trying to formulate a joint approach on Nepal — are suggesting?

At least one of the two points that Dahal made in response was a significant departure from his stance in the past. Apart from reiterating Nepal’s consistent line for the past 11 years — that it can be the bridge between the Chinese and Indian economy — Dahal said Pashupatinath, the revered Shiva temple, and Buddha’s birth place in Lumbini should be vibrant links based on faith with the south and north respectively. In a way, he was trying to take cognisance of the discontent — in China, India and Nepal — over the way “secularism” was introduced in Nepal’s constitution without much debate about its content. China, all through, and India after Modi’s coming to power, had been dissuading Nepal from inserting the word “secular” in its constitution, in total disagreement with the West and Scandinavian countries line that religious freedom without the right to conversion is meaningless. People are angry about the country having been declared a “secular republic” — although their unhappiness is more about space being denied to them in decision-making than over the content of the constitution.

On Thursday, former king Gyanendra Shah inaugurated the international Virat Hindu Mahasangh in Kathmandu and warned political parties to shun the “politics of negation and exclusion”. Setting the agenda of the three-day conference, the India chapter chief, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath, declared that they will make every endeavour to change Nepal’s status to a Hindu state and restore the monarchy. Shah said the “politics of negation and exclusion” being pursued may ultimately lead to people raising arms in frustration. He was clearly seeking a role for himself or the institution of the monarchy, and hoping that the mess in the country and the rising anger of the people towards the current politics and its actors, will prove to be a stepping-stone for his return.

But the political actors, mainly the Maoists, Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist and the Madhesi groups — which have been monopolising power together or in rotation during the past decade — have not yet initiated discussions on which forces and institutions should be brought together as part of the “internal unity”. The current government is only considering amending the constitution to accommodate certain demands of the Madhesi groups which are, perhaps to a lesser degree, also responsible for the crisis. So a unity among the same groups is neither going to enhance the ownership of the constitution nor bring about “internal unity”. In fact, all these parties should be treated as one block, and the forces excluded from the political and constitutional process — including the monarchy — should be included for balance and “internal unity”, says former minister and Nepali Congress leader P.L. Singh. But Dahal, since his return from Goa, has been embroiled in the various crises that his two-month-old coalition government is facing.

Nepal, a country with more than 82 per cent Hindu population is known for communal amity. However, its switch to secularism without any debate or people’s endorsement has of late turned into a point of friction with a rising demand for a referendum on the issue. Shashank Koirala, general secretary of the Nepali Congress, the largest party in parliament and a coalition partner in the government, told journalists recently that despite being warned by his party not to rake up the issue he insists on “a referendum on secularism vs Hindu Nepal to ensure peace”.

Tradition and religion have roots in Nepal’s society, as well as in state affairs. There was no thought applied on how to delink them before declaring the country secular. The contradiction between the constitution and principle of secularism on the one hand and the practice by those representing the state on the other, is bringing the issue to the fore. The debate can best be settled by leaving the decision to the people. Otherwise, it may have a larger negative impact on the constitution that can only increase the prevailing disunity instead of restoring larger internal unity as prescribed by Nepal’s giant neighbours.

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