To be or not to be secularNepal has come a long way since the days of the Ranas, when the Hindu Varna system was an integral part of the country’s governing principle, and the Shahs, who, regarded as the corporeal avatars of Lord Vishnu, ruled over what was then a Hindu Kingdom and carried forward the legacy of exploitation, injustice and monopoly in the name of religion and birthright.
Nepal has come a long way since the days of the Ranas, when the Hindu Varna system was an integral part of the country’s governing principle, and the Shahs, who, regarded as the corporeal avatars of Lord Vishnu, ruled over what was then a Hindu Kingdom and carried forward the legacy of exploitation, injustice and monopoly in the name of religion and birthright.
Recent political upheavals have directed Nepal to the path of secularism. With the dethroning of the Shah king, amending the constitution, and replacing Nepal’s official identity as Hindu Kingdom with Federal Democratic Republic, the political actors have ensured the separation of religion and state, seized the privileges once bestowed to the dominant religious group, its institutions and members, and made sure that minority religions and groups can assert their identity without any fear of reprisal.
Religion, Secularism, and Ethnicity in Contemporary Nepal takes a look at the dramatic changes the country has undergone in recent times and explores the conflict, confusion, and complexity surrounding the issues of secularism, ethnic identity and religious freedom in the country.
The road to secularism has not been easy. What started out as a concerted effort on part of activists, janjati leaders and those belonging to minority religious groups in 1990 for the removal of Hinduism as the basis of national identity and demand for fair treatment to all religious groups finally bore some results—albeit a mixed one—17 years down the line. The latest constitution enshrines religious freedom, but in a cautious, almost half-hearted manner. The old order remains strong if fragmented. The hardliners spewing venom against secularism lack a central figure to coalesce around (something that the Shah dynasty provided while in power) but retain an immense support base. And among members of the general public, many are misinformed, confused and anxious about its implications.
If the journey so far has been a difficult one, making a broad section of population understand the meaning and implications of secularism has been a tougher job. As Chiara Letizia says in the book, secularism in Nepal is a ‘fluid’ concept, still in its infancy, its meaning and definition changing from person to person, depending upon their religious, social and cultural orientation. Thus during her research, while none of the respondents talked about the separation of state and religion (which is one of the tenens of secularism) they spoke about it in terms of respect and inclusion of all religions, an opportunity to protect one’s religion or even as ‘Christian conspiracy’.
This seems to suggest the desire of people, mostly of those in support of secularism, to see the state become the guardian of all religions, major and minor, that exist within its borders. But it also seems to suggest something more profound. As explored by Ina Zharkevich and and Pustak Ghimire, religion plays an important role in the lives of the people here and substitutes are hard to come by. The possessed women of Khotang in Ghimire’s case study stand witness to the ‘desirable’ alternative provided by religion during the troubled years of Maoist insurgency. Even among the Kham Magars in Thabang, the erstwhile bastion of the Maoists during the insurgency period where ‘science’ was said to have defeated ‘superstition’, Zharkevich notes the religious concessions the Maoists had to make to keep their support intact. Maoism did transform the way the Thabang locals fulfilled their sacred duties, but it did not take religion away from them.
If this indeed is what the people want, if they wish to keep their religiousity alive and demand equal treatment in the eyes of the law, the best way forward for the Nepali leadership in its project of secularism could be to show deference to all religious groups. Unlike what the rulers did in the past and unlike what many leaders are doing now, equal treatment of all religious groups will play a crucial role in the success of secularism in the country. As Letizia and others note in the book, and as the noted Indian political philosopher Rajeev Bhargav makes clear in the Afterword, secularism, if it is meant to be successful, will have to develop its own unique characteristics to suit the people’s need.
Sadly, a lot needs to be done in this area. The political leadership of the country, which is overwhelmingly Hindu and high caste, has failed to show respect to other religious groups. The controversy that arose during the Indra Jatra festival in 2008 underscores the risk of fast tracking secularism without respecting people’s beliefs and traditions. Similarly, the raucous created over Christian burial in the Slesmantak forest, within the Pashupatinath Temple complex, reveals the deep-seated animosity that the dominant religious group still harbors towards religious minorities.
Having said that, one cannot but admire the changes brought about in the Nepali political landscape by janjati activists. David Holmberg narrates the fundamental changes that have come about in Tamang villages whereby a once marginalised community has managed to assert its distinct identity in a new political climate.
Secularism in Nepal, if anything, is still a nebulous, embryonic entity, looked with anxiety by many, suspicion by some and anger by a few, struggling to find a shape and definition. Its success intertwines with the fate of this country. The future of Nepal depends upon how we can accommodate and respect the voice sof many.
Edited by David N Gellner, Sondra L. Hausner and Chiara Letizia, Religion, Secularism, and Ethnicity in Contemporary Nepal is a collection of 11 case studies that highlight the most pertinent issues of our time.