When a mass movement resulted in the radical transformation of Nepal from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic in 2006, no one was shocked. In the early days of the revolution, Hindu nationalist groups did not dare to question or subvert the transformation. But politics doesn’t always move in straight lines. Nine years on, it has taken a different turn: as the political class struggles to draft a consensus-based constitution, a sudden upsurge in the saffron wave has sounded an alarm bell. Last week, public hearings on the preliminary draft of the constitution were disrupted by groups clamouring for Hindu rashtra, among them the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, the country’s fourth-largest party; the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Nepal’s own brand of the RSS; and the Sanatan Dharma front. Even the hearings that went without incident saw public opinion tilted in favour of Hinduism. These groups may not be strong enough to disrupt the constitution-writing, but the rising tide has put politicians on the back foot.
Hindu groups have been around for years; what’s new is they no longer demand restoration of the Hindu monarchy. All they want is Hindutva. “The king is an individual and doesn’t represent Hinduism,” says Murali Niraula, of the Sangh. “We are democrats and we want the restoration of our identity as a Hindu state.” Giving their demand strength is the backing of sizeable factions in the major parties. “The mandate of the 2006 movement was republicanism—not secularism,” says Kumar Regmi, of the ruling Nepali Congress. “We’ll have to face extremism and anarchy if we don’t revert to Hinduism.”
The Nepalese have largely been tolerant of new religious ideas, though the state has officially remained ‘Hindu’ for long. What led to this dramatic change? Opinion polls have showed that supporters of a Hindu rashtra were always in the majority, though never vociferous. What has changed the minds even of many secular Hindus, analysts say, is the perceived growth of Christian converts after Nepal became secular in 2006. While it’s true that Christian missionaries have upped the ante, the fears are exaggerated. The 2011 census puts the number of Christians at 3.75 lakh—just 1.4 per cent of the population.
At public hearings on the draft constitution, the demand for declaring Nepal a Hindu republic is gaining voice.
In fact, Christian leaders have fed those fears by exaggerating. For example K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, puts the Christian flock at 2.5 million in a country of 26.6 million. He claims the census was biased. Western diplomats have added to the fears, lobbying not just for secularism but also for proselytising rights. Andrew Sparkes, Britain’s ambassador to Nepal, was recalled after his open letter demanding that the constitution guarantee the right to religious conversion.
Such actions have caused Hindus to invoke the “glorious past”. Since its formation in the late 18th century, Nepal has seen itself as the only Hindu realm, different from India, where Muslim and Christian people had found place. In 1854, a legal code formalised the caste system, banned cow slaughter and made Nepal a Hindu bastion for over 100 years. With the fall of the Rana oligarchy in 1951, Nepal’s interim constitution wore a secular character, though the legal code remained. After King Mahendra dismissed the democratically elected government, a new constitution was promulgated in 1962, with the ‘Hindu state’ label. At the same time, a civil code based on liberal values was introduced, making Nepalese society secular. Thus, the role of the state changed from “orthodox Hindu” to a protector of Hindu values. The state clamped down not only on Christian missionaries but also on Hindu reformist movements.
Things began to change with the upheaval of 1990. And after Nepal was declared secular in 2006, religious movements and missionaries have felt encouraged. Now, even secular-minded Hindus are jittery, thanks to ethnic politics and fears about conversions.
Some feel that Hinduism might create a sense of unity over a fragmented society. Politicians, on the other hand, are discussing the possibility of deleting the term ‘secular’ in the draft constitution without restoring ‘Hindu state’, fearing that it might encourage the rise of Hindu nationalism. On this, the National Congress and the cpn-uml, the major parties, are agreed. The Maoists are still ambivalent, but feel compelled to consider that option.
By Post Bahadur Basnet in Kathmandu