From crimson to saffron, a perilous pathThe clamour for readopting ‘Hindu Rashtra’ reflects the Hindutva sweeping through India’s Hindi heartland.
Born in the Haripur Bakshi Tole of Madhubani district in Bihar, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati, the 145th head of the Govardhan Peeth of Puri, probably keeps himself abreast of political developments in Nepal. His ancestral village is about 30 km south of Nagarain Municipality in Dhanusha District. The newly built Mansa Devi temple in Bakshi Tole has begun to emerge as an important Shakti Peeth and draws many devotees from the Nepal side of the border.
Swami Nischalananda heads a Shaivite Peeth claimed to have been instituted way back in 486 BC and has a close connection with Pashupatinath. The tradition of the Shah rulers offering Kasturi (deer musk) to the Shree Jagannath Temple in Puri has been discontinued after 2008, but the former king hasn’t ceased to patronise the shrine in his personal capacity. During his recent visit to Kathmandu, the Swami inaugurated a reconstructed temple of Adi Shankaracharya.
The Shankaracharya of Puri is seldom shy of making outrageous statements such as a call to defy the order of the Supreme Court legalising same-sex marriage or calling the holiest site in Islam the Mecceshwar Mahadev temple. He says the ancestors of Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ were Sanatani Hindus. He defends the caste system and thinks there is a need for the creation of “an alternative caste hierarchy” in Western countries.
The seer predicts India will become a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and at least 15 countries will follow suit once that happens. While delivering a lecture to the Maha Shivaratri congregation earlier this year, the Swami observed that Nepal was a Hindu nation “on the basis of both theoretical and practical grounds”. Unlike his preposterous outbursts of the past, his characterisation of Nepal as a “Hindu nation” appears to be a grounded one.
The theoretical background is rooted in the ‘Asal Hindustan’ conceptualisation, which continues to be revered as one of the Divine Counsels of King Prithvi Narayan Shah. The practical aspects of the formulation are even clearer—81.19 percent of the population in the country are Hindus; Hill Brahmins (11.29 percent of the population) dominate the entire state machinery and the civil society, including the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, almost all constitutional bodies, the media and the NGO industry. The Brahminical symbols and rituals are widely accepted as the national culture.
The word ‘secular’ isn’t mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution of Nepal, and it appears in the preliminaries for the first time with a nullifying explanation: “For the purposes of this Article, ‘secular’ means religious, cultural freedoms, including protection of religion, culture handed down from the time immemorial.” No prizes for guessing the intent of the elucidation: “Handed down from the time immemorial”! Through the provision of Article 26-1, the statute then goes on to constrain one of the fundamental freedoms by outlawing independent choice of religion or subsequent conversion.
The presence of Muslims in Nepal predates the formation of modern Nepal, which began with the conquest of Kathmandu in 1768 and was completed with the bestowal of Western Terai in 1860 by the British. Kashmiri Muslims have been in Nepal Valley for over half a millennium. The Malang Dargah of Matihani and Malangwa in Madhesh are believed to be even older. The Muslim population of Nepal stands at 5.09 percent, a marginal increase of 0.69 percent in over a decade, with most of them residing in Terai-Madhesh.
The socio-economic condition of Madheshi Muslims is comparable to that of the Dalits. Since Mohammad Mohsin was elected as the Chairperson of the Rashtriya Sabha in the late-1990s, no Muslim has managed to secure a higher presence in the statecraft. With a background in law and activism, Mohna Ansari performed as an exemplary member of the National Human Rights Commission.
The only Chief Minister to serve a full term in federal Nepal was Mohammad Lalbabu Raut, who was denied a second term because a certain interlocutor from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s foreign affairs department privately impressed upon the main alliance partner of his party that they didn’t ‘approve’ of a Muslim chief executive in Madhesh once again! Despite the closed-door endorsement of several temple functionaries that the “contribution of Chief Minister Raut for the advancement of Hinduism in Janakpur was second only to that of the Maharani of Tikamgarh”, his religion came in the way of his political career.
The hate crimes against Muslims in India can be attributed to at least four factors. There is a history of the Muslims warriors from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan ruling over large tracts of Hindustan for several centuries. The conversion from Hinduism to Islam swelled the population of Muslims and made them the second-largest religious community in British India. The violence of Partition brutalised both communities as the largest demographic transfer in human history took place with the creation of independent India and Pakistan.
Contestations over the control of Muslim-majority Kashmir, repeated wars, communal riots and terror attacks have made Islamophobia fashionable in a certain section of the Hindu population. None of these conditions apply in Nepal, and the demonisation of Muslims is born out of sheer hatred. The dominated minority is extremely unlikely to challenge the Brahminic hegemony in any way.
The history of Christians in Nepal dates back to the reign of Lakshmi Narasimha Malla of Kantipur who is said to have permitted Portuguese Jesuit father Juan Cabral in 1628 to preach Christianity. Capuchin missionaries followed in their wake on the way to Tibet and established a few bases in 1703 in the Nepal valley. After his conquest, the first king of ‘Asal Hindustan’ expelled them all in 1769, and proselytisation has remained outlawed ever since.
Greater movement of Nepalis between different countries, higher awareness among Dalits about their position in the Hindu hierarchy, consciousness about their unwritten history among various Janjatis and increased activities of donor-funded NGOs in the hills and mountains for more than 32 years since the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990 have had a marginal effect on the freedom to choose or change one’s religion—the Christian population in Nepal remains at 1.76 percent of the population and has grown by only 0.36 percent over the last decade. Exceptions apart, most Nepali Christians remain poor. They are hardly a challenge to the Hindu hegemony.
Unlike the Buddhist militancy in Sri Lanka, followers of the Enlightened One in his land of birth have no issues with the Hindus. (The Buddhists constitute 8.2 percent of Nepal's population). The 3.17 percent believers in Kirant faith made peace with the Brahmin priesthood long ago. Hinduism is in no danger in the mountains and plains of Nepal. Clearly, the clamour for discarding secularism and readopting ‘Hindu Rashtra’ status is born out of the Hindutva ideology sweeping through the Hindi heartland in India.
The double-pennon flag of Nepal is perhaps derived from Dharma Dhwaja of ancient Aryan clans that spread eastwards into the Gangetic plains. Turmeric may have given it the ochre colour that became the marker of purity and renunciation after Buddha. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India, somewhat like the militant Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Myanmar, have restored the militancy of yore to the colour saffron. The geopolitical trail from the blue-bordered double-pennon in deep crimson to saffron Dharma Dhwaja in Nepal may prove to be a destabilising one.