In August of this year, a group of people led by former Nepal Army General Rookmangud Katawal launched a campaign for the restoration of Nepal as a Hindu state. Dubbed the Hindu Rastra Swabhiman Jagaran Abhiyan, which loosely translates as the Campaign for Dignity and Awareness for a Hindu State, the campaign will focus on “identity and culture” based on religion. Katawal, who was Nepal’s Army chief between 2006 and 2009, said that “the goal of the campaign is to restore Hindu Identity and not establish Hindu fundamentalism.”
Just two weeks earlier, around 20 Hindu religious organizations formed a united front in Devghat in Nepal’s Tanahun district and decided to take to the streets for the restoration of Nepal’s former status as a Hindu state. Around 81.3 percent of Nepal’s population is Hindu.
It was in 2007 that Nepal was declared a secular state by the interim constitution. However, not everybody was happy with the move. Among them was the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-Nepal), a conservative royalist party, which identifies the monarchy and the Hindu state as its primary platform.
The royalists won almost 7 percent of the votes in the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013, which reconfirmed Nepal as a secular republic. Since then, a small but not insignificant section of the populace has kept the hope of restoring the Hindu state alive.
The demand for a Hindu nation has gone hand in hand with the demand for the return of the monarchy. This is because the monarchy has meshed with Hinduism and the monarch has been regarded as the avatar (form) of the Hindu deity, Bishnu.
The allure of the Hindu nation has increased significantly in recent years. And it is not just the royalists who are seeking to go back to the old ways.
During his tenure, former Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli whipped up Hindu nationalist sentiments. He claimed that Madi in Nepal, not Ayodhya in India, was the birthplace of Lord Ram. He installed idols of Ram in Madi after a worship ceremony he held at the prime minister’s official residence. Oli was also the first communist prime minister to worship at the Pashupatinath Temple and donated $2.5 million of government funds to the temple.
Earlier this year, Surendra Pandey, recently elected the vice chair of Oli’s party, predicted that Oli would soon declare the restoration of the Hindu state as a key item on his electoral agenda. (It has not happened so far.)
Public enthusiasm on the issue is growing, as evidenced by an increasing number of people participating in in pro-monarchy/Hindu rallies led by youth groups. It would not be surprising if the major mainstream parties in Nepal include restoration of the Hindu state in their manifestos for the next general election.
There are several reasons for the rise of Hindu nationalism and support for the restoration of the Hindu state.
For RPP-Nepal, the issue goes to the heart of its political philosophy. Oli used Hindu nationalism instrumentally, though he does not have much affinity for a “secular” state. He used the religious-nationalist card to burnish his credentials when his back was against the wall due to deep divisions within his party, the Nepal Communist Party.
Many people have been disappointed by the performance and conduct of the mainstream political parties over the last decade-and-a-half and harken back to the previous monarchical era. Hindu nationalism has also surged as a counter to the rise in ethnic and linguistic nationalism as well as in response to the increased presence of Christian missionaries in the Nepali hinterlands.
For a long time, Nepali nationalism was defined by the Hindu Brahmins and Chettris, the dominant castes from the hills. King Mahendra promoted Nepali nationalism which identified with “ek raja, ek desh, ek bhasa, ek bhesh” (one king, one state, one language, one dress). It promoted the dominance of hilly upper-caste people and marginalized the ethnic communities, especially in the Terai region i.e., the plains. Being the only Hindu kingdom in the world was a source of identity and pride.
The Janaandloan II (people’s movement in 2006) and subsequent Madhes aandolan (in 2007 and 2008) brought forth the issues of marginalized communities to the center of Nepali politics.
The subsequent constitutions of 2007 (interim) and 2015 recognized that, and ensured the representation of these groups through progressive affirmative action. As a result, Brahmins and Chettris felt uncomfortable with the changing social dynamics. They feel that Nepal has lost its identity, and the way forward is the restoration of the Hindu nation.
The rise to power in India of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has had a significant influence on Nepal too. In the BJP, Nepal’s Hindu nationalists have found an ally.
BJP leader and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath wrote a letter in 2015 (he was only a member of parliament then) to the Nepali prime minister saying that Nepal must be a Hindu state and ban religious conversion. The Nepali constitution was about to be finalized at that time.
Earlier Adityanath had said that a Hindu king and Hindu culture were part of Nepal’s soul, and without them Nepal would disintegrate. He attended a religious gathering in Nepal in 2016 at the invitation of former King Gyanendra Shah. He has consistently expressed hope that Nepal will be restored as a Hindu state.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also made a religious pilgrimage to Nepal. In his two-day visit to Nepal in 2018, he visited three major religious sites at Janakpur, Muktinath, and Pashupatinath. He emphasized the religious and cultural ties between India and Nepal. Many critics had said then that the visit was largely aimed at shoring up the support of Hindu voters in India.
On a recent visit to Nepal, BJP spokesperson Vijay Shankar Shastri said: “Nepal was a Hindu state and will always remain so.” Other Hindu groups from India such as Hindu Janjagruti Samiti have campaigned online and provided support for the restoration of the Hindu state.
Nepalis like to assert their own identity, often “othering” India, but in this case, the Hindu nationalists on both sides of the border have found a common cause.
In a way, developments in Nepal reflect a global phenomenon. In many countries, majority groups that had enjoyed historical dominance are pushing back on ‘progressive’ policies designed to promote the causes of minorities. In Nepal’s context, Hindus are the ones on the march.