Amid nationwide support and protest from people of all walks of life, the new constitution promulgated has put Nepal under a secular state category. With this secularism has now been officially institutionalized. However, the anti-secular sentiments still remain strong in the hearts of millions of Nepalis.
Religious pundits and political leaders who were voicing for reinstating Nepal as a Hindu kingdom had put forward three arguments. First, as a Hindu state, Nepal would have unique religious identity as there is no other Hindu country in the world. Second, more than 80 percent country population follows Hinduism as their main religion. In democracy, popular aspirations must be heard and respected. Therefore, Nepal should not be a secular state. Third, Christian missionaries are luring poor Hindus by giving them money and attractive gifts. This has sharply increased the Christian population and could be possible threat to the other religion in the future days.
Personally, I see no any rational base behind the first logic. It is more important to ensure and protect freedom of religious beliefs and practice of all citizens than to have unique identity as Hindu or Muslim or Christian nation.
The second logic too is equally illogical. Sometimes ‘majority’ mantra of democracy does not work well in poor country like Nepal where a large chunk of population is uneducated and is living below poverty line. Such people can be easily threatened, brainwashed or bribed with money. For instance, let us think on the issue of ethnic federalism. Given the fact that ethnic federalism is against social harmony, the various ethnic groups were demanding federal states on the basis of ethnic identity.
The third logic sounds a bit logical. Time and again media and Hindu leaders have raised question regarding the funding of churches in Nepal. They have claimed that almost all churches are getting financial and all kinds of support from outside of country. If it is the case, the state can set up a mechanism to check such dubious activities and address the issue of forced religious conversions.
It is interesting to note that during the last seven years of constitution making process, it is only Kamal Thapa led Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal that showed political honesty by standing strong in support of Hindu kingdom. Other parties, both big and small, either did not show interest or chose to remain silent.
However, just a few weeks before constitution promulgation, suddenly huge mass of people seemed to be against a secular state. Peaceful march and demonstrations were organized all over the country. This has raised a big question to contemplate, why people suddenly became so forceful and unite against secular state? Was that notorious influence of foreign interest groups? Or influence of vested interests of swamis, religious pundits and political leaders charged with Hinduism sentiments? Surely, the time will reveal the answers of these questions.
To no surprise, in order to counterbalance anti-secularism voice Muslim, Tharus, various indigenous group and Christian communities came to street demanding secularism.
For few weeks, the whole country population and political leaders were divided into two blocs. Some influential leaders of UCPN-Maoist and CPN-UML even informally proposed to replace the word ‘secularism’ by ‘religious freedom’ in new constitution. Despite immense public pressure, the proposal to declare Nepal a Hindu state was overwhelmingly rejected by the constituent assembly and reaffirmed that Hindu-majority nation will remain secular.
A study of 59 countries, published in Southern Economic Journal in 2004, examined protection for religion on the degree of religiosity. It found that existence of a state religion reduces the attendance in places of worship by 14.6 to 16.7 percent of total population.
The study had concluded that having an established state religion can undo the positive effect of well over a century of constitutional protection of religious freedom. If those religious groups are successful in obtaining government favor for their particular brands of religion, they may be inadvertently sowing the seeds of their own destruction.
Interestingly, it is just five weeks of official declaration of Nepal as a secular state and slowly the anti-secular sentiments is getting feeble. Once again people seem to have started readjusting their religious beliefs with changing social structure to keep intact the environment of religious tolerance for which the country is famous.
With secularism, now Nepal has the best chance to create a society in which people of all religions or none can live together fairly and peacefully.
Secularism would not weaken nationality as many Hindu loyalists doubt rather it will bring everything together, further cementing the bond between different communities.
Similarly, with this declaration, Nepal has joined the list of majority of democratic countries in the world that have incorporated secularism in their constitution providing equal opportunity to all religions to flourish.
For country’s peace and prosperity, people of all religious beliefs should join hands and work together to defeat the forces of religious extremism in the country. Otherwise Nepal may take the path of communal politics as in the Middle East and India where hundreds of people are being killed in the name of religious violence every day.
(MA in Conflict, Peace & Dev. Studies, TU)