In defence of secularismA forgotten incident from the Panchayat era tells us why we must protect minority religions.
Among the vacillations and opportunism of post-2008 Nepali politics, one of the constants has been Kamal Thapa with his call for a return of the monarchy and the restoration of the Hindu state. One may disagree with his politics, but one must admire his commitment to his cause, unlike several conservatives who have recently crawled out of the woodwork.
At first glance, various strands of right-wing conservatism seem to co-exist today in the country. The first comprises the royalists like Thapa, in whose interpretation Nepal’s identity was derived from its Hindu monarchy. The second strand emanates from the Madhes plains, where Hindutva from across the border has filtered in. The third is the opportunistic conservative, the best example being KP Sharma Oli, and now former journalists-turned-politicians. For this group, decrying federalism and secularism is an easy way to shore up the support of those who are exhausted from the petty politicking in the new republic.
Here, one must note that Nepali conservatism straddles across class and ideologies. One can be a federalist and yet root for a Hindu state, which seems to be the trend in Madhes. Similarly, one can ask for a Hindu state without the monarchy, as several members of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the international arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, India’s premier Hindutva body, had told me about a decade ago. And even the Kathmandu liberal elite isn’t too shy of holding conservative beliefs, as seen in the recent Rabindra Mishra episode where he rooted for the dissolution of federalism and a plebiscite on secularism.
What all of them have in common is the belief that federalism and secularism are both imposed upon the country by outside institutions and machinations. The irony, of course, is that Nepali conservatism is predicated upon anti-Indian nationalism, while the ideology aligns itself with those across the border who have called for a return of the Hindu state, if not the monarchy.
Conservatism preys on the baser instincts of society, such as xenophobia and majoritarianism. One also must be blind to a military emergency, the peak of the conflict, and the suspension of basic fundamental rights if one remembers King Gyanendra’s rule fondly. And, despite the declaration of secularism, Hinduism remains the Nepali state’s religion. As the head of the state, the president has taken over the ritual responsibilities of the monarchy. The Bhoto continues to be shown in the president’s presence; the Kumari blesses the officeholder, and the president observes Mahashivaratri at Pashupati annually (while the prime minister gives the temple a gold jalahari). A truly secular state would not assign its head such explicitly religious functions.
Instead, I’d like to recall a forgotten incident from the 1970s to illustrate why secularism, even if nominal, and federalism is essential to Nepal.
The story begins in December 1972, when the Japanese monk Nichidatsu Fujii arrived in Nepal to build peace stupas across the world. He first planned one in Lumbini, where he bought the land and 7 million bricks for the construction. However, in February 1973, the royal palace decreed that he couldn’t build a new stupa in Lumbini but could renovate existing ones. Fujii then arrived in Pokhara, where he met with Anagarika Dharmashila, a Buddhist nun who participated in the 1950 democratic revolution, and Min Bahadur Gurung, a Nepali Congress activist. Remember, at this time, political parties were outlawed under the Panchayat.
Gurung then donated land at the summit of Anadu hill, across from Fewa Lake, for the stupa. Construction began, and the stupa had risen to a height of 35 feet when, on July 19, 1974, the Panchayat government arrested Gurung under various security laws and on charges of illegal deforestation. Although his political activities were said to be the cause, his son Krishna Bahadur Gurung, who was not an activist, was also arrested a few months later. A vitiated environment was created, according to local eyewitnesses, in which Panchayat forces tried to communalise the stupa and said it posed security threats to the summer palace on the shore.
The Panchayat government then ordered security forces and hired goons to demolish the stupa and other buildings under construction, such as a prayer hall. All the permissions had been granted for the construction, and as one author who recollected the incident in the souvenir magazine marking the 10th anniversary of the stupa (which is the source for this column) wrote, ‘This was a prejudiced assault on Buddhism.’ The Japanese monk Morioka Soni, a follower of Fujii, was assaulted and thrown off the stupa for protesting the demolition. As an eyewitness wrote, ‘After the buildings and the stupa were demolished, all the statues, documents and construction material were thrown about, and that beautiful religious site was converted into a desert.’
In Kathmandu, the incident was framed in the usual national-versus-foreign narrative. Questions were asked in the national assembly, and to save face at the 1974 Asian Buddhist Conference, the government then permitted a ‘15-feet’ stupa to be built by Nepalis in the Nepali style. But Pokhara residents refused such a futile gesture. Fujii supposedly predicted that although the stupa had been demolished, another one would arise at the spot in the future because one had already been built in Pokhreli hearts.
Reconstruction of the stupa could only begin in democratic Nepal almost 16 years later, under a government led by Girija Prasad Koirala, who laid the foundation stone on May 21, 1992. The stupa was completed seven years later, in October 1999. Today, it is one of Pokhara’s premier tourist sites, part of the nearly 80 peace pagodas that spread the message of nonviolence across the world.
The Panchayat government’s treatment of the religion parallels how the Nepali state viewed Buddhism under the Ranas when it expelled several monks from the country. But this forgotten incident also tells us how, in a non-secular state, minority religions can be targets of political vendetta without inviting a broader backlash. Imagine the uproar if the Panchayat state had demolished a Hindu temple under construction!
Secularism is not just about treating religions equally; it is also about ensuring that minorities are not targeted based on their religion. The Nepali state’s erstwhile Hindu character meant that other religions—including Buddhism, despite our fanciful boasts about Buddha being born here and its syncretism with Hinduism—always got the short end of the stick. And while many have issues with the multiple holidays in a federal Nepal that represent the religions of our many nationalities, we must remember that this is perhaps the first time in modern Nepali history that many nationalities have been able to express their religious identities so openly. Not too long ago, Tibetan-speaking ethnicities from the Himalayan region were regarded as Tamangs or Gurungs perforce and given such surnames in the Nepali census.
Federalism means that incidents such as the 1974 stupa demolition will hopefully not be repeated because of the multiple layers of government, such a step would entail and the political backlash at each level of government from such actions. The conservative argument that federalism and secularism have weakened Nepal comes from a feeling of loss and envy. Today, the Hindu conservative is no longer given the same importance as in Hindu monarchy, which obviously has to hurt. But if the majority of the population can feel more secure about their identity and culture, then the conservative has no option but to reimagine his place in this modern world. If not, the tide of history will leave them behind.