Temptations of saffron secularity and hybrid democracyHarmless as it may seem, the political call for a Hindu Rashtra poses a mortal threat to the very idea of an inclusive Nepal.
Jaleshwar was a one-car—a soft-cover Russian Jeep that took the Anchaladhish on pleasure jaunts and hunting trips in the countryside—town up until the early-1960s. The only motorcycle belonged to the bada daktar (Senior Physician) of the local hospital who made house calls for a fee on his noisy bhatbhatiya during odd hours. These days, the main streets of the town witness traffic-jams.
What hasn’t changed at all is the number of devotees making the rounds of temples dotting the town with Jaleshwarnath being the presiding deity. Another noticeable change is in the fanaticism of worshippers. Once a badge of honour of the social elite, secularism has now become a term of derision.
The Hindutva zealotry permeates the air in the marketplace, where conversations routinely veer towards the necessity of restoring the Hindu tag in the official name of the country. It’s extremely doubtful if anyone in the Madhes benefited from being the subject of the ‘only Hindu kingdom in the world’, but the manufactured nostalgia of supposed glories repeatedly comes up in conversations with shopkeepers and shoppers alike.
Religious bigotry is even more pronounced in nearby Janakpurdham, the capital city of Province 2, and the place celebrated as the hometown of Vaishnavite Goddess Janaki. Over a century old, the Janaki Temple, built in the imposing Mughal-Rajput architectural style, sits in the middle of the city. Numerous holy ponds and sacred shrines have sprouted around the grand temple. The Parikrama Sadak encircles the old town. The settlement is growing northwards towards the East-West Highway.
A premier centre of the Ramanandi sect of Vaishnavs, Janakpur attracts the devout from all over South Asia and beyond. Consequently, it pays to be demonstratively religious in this town. Despite its newly-acquired status as a provincial capital, Janakpur continues to bask in the bliss of being the hometown of Princes Janaki of the Videhas.
Like other streams of the Bhakti movement, the Ramanandi sect of the Vaishnavs was renowned for asceticism, tolerance, pacifism and egalitarianism. The Vaishnavs, Shakts and Shaivs—devotees of Vishnu, Kali and Shiva respectively—have practised their traditional faiths of all-encompassing Hinduism without animosity for centuries. The rabid religiosity of the Hindutva kind is a relatively recent import from across the border.
On Sunday, February 14, 2021, a purportedly religious procession was doing the rounds of downtown Janakpur early in the afternoon with loudspeakers blaring full volume from the lead vehicle. A middle-aged man holding the mike lead the cavalcade. With a Bhadgaule cap on his head displaying the crossed khukuris insignia of Gurkha Regiments, he looked somewhat odd in the mass waving triangular flags coloured saffron.
A closer look at the face of the conductor of the crowd showed that there was no piety in his exhortations. Menace was oozing out of his bloodshot eyes. Threat and intimidation in slogans such as ‘come what way, we shall have the Hindu Rashtra way’ were unmistakable.
What the procession lacked in numbers—a few dozen marchers at most—was made up by the passion of some youngsters waving the national flag. The crimson-red Double Triangle with its blue borders and white sun and moon stitched to the surface stands out anywhere. It looked even more distinctive when being waved with saffron banners.
The faux faith called Hindutva is a 20th-century invention. Thought to have been inspired by Swami Vivekanand, the nationalist ideology of Hindutva was enunciated in a pamphlet by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The conceptualisation of India as the ‘fatherland of Hindus’ was patterned after the fascism upsurge in Europe. There was nothing Indian, which is an idea of various thoughts intermingling to produce a distinctive whole that lets its parts flourish, in its re-imagination as Brahminical Bharatvarsha.
Even though part of a nominally Hindu Rashtra, its practice in Mithila has always been relatively mild. A mosque built for the Muslim masons of Janaki Mandir during its construction still stands in its backyard. The beatific visage of the Dulaha Sarkar (the groom god) came to be replaced with that of the image of the warrior prince of Ayodhya wielding a bow with its arrow strung to shoot only in the late-1980s in the wake of Ramshila Movement of Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Seemingly contradictory impulses for republican governance and Hindu culture have driven the politics of the region for one simple reason—the malevolence of Hindutva was never the part of popular imagination. The French laïcité seeks freedom from religion but secularism is meant to secure freedom of all faiths. It’s possible to believe in sarba dharma sambhav (equanimity towards all religions) and remain fundamentally secular at the same time. The Hindutva ideology doesn’t allow such an ambiguity.
In an attempt to placate the Hindutva establishment of India, schemers of the 16-point conspiracy took over the responsibility of protecting and promoting sanatan traditions. It was the adoption of a state religion through the backdoor. The controversial statute is either too Hindu or not Hindu enough depending upon who is doing the interpreting.
The charter hasn’t stopped the current dispensation from allocating loads of gold to build the jalhari of Pashupatinath Temple. It didn’t come in the way of committing billions of rupees for a Ram Temple at a contested site in the middle of the pandemic. And yet, the statute continues to instigate quite a few fundamentalists to yearn for a ‘pure’ Hindu Rashtra.
According to the ‘Democracy Index’ of The Economist, no democratic regime exists in South Asia. Along with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Pakistan, Nepal figures in the list as a country with a hybrid regime. Afghanistan retains its position as an authoritarian state. Sinhala ethnonationalists make Sri Lanka a flawed democracy despite the robustness of its institutions.
India has seen its greatest fall since 2014; the self-described largest democracy of the world has acquired the dubious distinction of being flawed due to the failure of the regime in ensuring fundamental freedoms. Hybridity, according to postcolonial theorists, refers to the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonisation.
The invention of an imaginary past and bygone glory are the basic features of ethnonationalism. Envisioning a participatory self-governance is the fundamental principle of democracy. A hybrid fusion of these two contradictory ambitions produces regimes that are addled by their beliefs and shackled by desire.
Democracy everywhere is almost always a work-in-progress rather than a stable condition, as the rise of popularly-elected authoritarian regimes in several countries have repeatedly shown. George Jacob Holyoake, the propounder of secularism as a political idea also coined the term jingoism. While the political proposition (secularism) of English newspaperman is the mainstay of democracy, his description of the nationalist trait with an apt name (jingoism) is an insidious element of demagogic populism.
Harmless as it may seem, the political call for a Hindu Rashtra poses a mortal threat to the very idea of republican Nepaliyata as an imagined community. On Falgun 7, a day that deserves to be marked as the true National Unity Day, the idea of secularity requires fresh commitments from the adherents of democracy.