Should Nepal Be Secular?


A majority of Nepalese supposedly want the term “secularism” to be removed from the draft of its new constitution, which will soon be put to the vote. Hopes are high among Hindu nationalists, who have been demanding that Nepal once again becomes a Hindu nation, a status it lost after the fall of the monarchy in 2006.

The Constituent Assembly has allegedly received millions of suggestions that the word “secularism” be dropped from the draft charter.

This is not surprising, as the Nepali word for “secularism,” dharm nirpekshta, carries a negative connotation. The term means “indifference” or “opposition” to religion – a phrase that could fit the French idea of secularism, calling for a complete separation of religion and state. However, the majority of Nepalese are religious, at least in their cultural manifestations, and are not keen to establish a state that is anti-religion.

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Nepal’s four major political parties – the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist-Leninist (UML), the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, and the Madhesi Peoples Rights Forum – though left-leaning or Maoists, ascribe a different meaning to secularism, one that reflects its practice in neighboring India, which too has a Hindu-majority population. The Indian state is constitutionally mandated to remain “neutral” to and respectful of the various religions its people adhere to, while having no state or official religion.

It appears that in their numerous suggestions, Nepalese people, too, favored a similar state ideology. They urged lawmakers to replace the term “secularism” with “Hindu” or “religious freedom.” In other words, they are comfortable with describing their country as being Hindu or one that provides for religious freedom.

However, the royalist and Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) is holding rallies and protests to pressure the Constituent Assembly to replace the term “secularism” with both words: “a Hindu nation with religious freedom.”

To make a case against secularism and for a Hindu nation, RPP-N members and supporters are projecting Hinduism to be under threat, claiming that missionaries are seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity, a “foreign” religion, using “allurement” or “force.”

The RPP-N has mere 24 seats in the 575-seat Assembly, all of which were allotted to the party under the proportional representation system in the 2013 election. It failed to win any seat by plurality vote in first-past-the-post single-member constituencies. So the minority party is seeking to piggyback on the majority sentiment against the use of the word “secularism,” and take it one step further by calling for a Hindu nation.

However, there are problems with both its claims and demands.

The RPP-N is claiming a crime in which the alleged victims are not the complainants. In fact, the converts, if any, are not complaining at all. If Hindus are being converted with financial benefits or under duress, then where are the “victims”? Blaming conversions on missionaries or preachers insults the converts, whose right to freely choose a religion of their choice should be respected. It’s as if the converts had no role in their own conversions.

Despite the flimsy nature of the allegations, the draft constitution already states that no one can “convert another person from one religion to another” (Article 31). It doesn’t even qualify the verb “convert” by adding the adverbs “by force or allurement,” but simply imposes a blanket ban on all activities and expressions that can potentially be deemed as attempts to convert. This could effectively outlaw preaching of the tenets of a religion to people of other faiths, violating religious freedom and freedom of expression.

The demand that Nepal be re-declared a Hindu nation is equally problematic.

The RPP-N argues that with more than 40 Muslim countries and 70 Christian countries in the world, then Nepal certainly has the right to become a Hindu state.

The party’s leaders are confusing Muslim- and Christian-majority countries with nations that accord a special status to majority religions. There are about 17 countries where one form of Christianity enjoys a special status or is the state religion, and around 24 such Islamic countries.

Besides, it would be a challenge to avoid a clash between the constitutional values of special treatment for the majority religion and full religious freedom, or to even “protect” the religion. This is why few countries that allow a close relationship between religion and state are seen as models of religious freedom or communal harmony.

Nepal doesn’t need to look too far for bad examples. A look at its own fellow members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation could be a good case study.

Would the Nepalese people see nations like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives, whose constitutions accord a special status to Islam, as their role models? Are these nations peaceful? How about “Buddhist” Sri Lanka? Are minorities happy in Sri Lanka? Is there peace in that country? Are extremist Buddhist groups protecting their religion, or giving it a bad name?

Bhutan is also an officially Buddhist nation and yet peaceful, but this tiny nation – because of its isolation until recent years – has an entirely different context. Besides, even Bhutan doesn’t have a clean image in the area of religious freedom.

A study of 59 countries, published in Southern Economic Journal in 2004, examined the impact of state religion and of constitutional protection for religion on the degree of religiosity. It found that the existence of a state religion “reduces” attendance in places of worship by 14.6 to 16.7 percent of the total population.

The study concluded: “Having an established state religion can undo the positive effect of well over a century of constitutional protection of religious freedom… If these religious groups are successful in obtaining governmental favor for their particular brands of religion, they may be inadvertently sowing the seeds of their own destruction.”

Nepal still has time to heed the warning.

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