Nepal’s Constitution Assembly, tasked with drafting the country’s new constitution, has voted against a proposal that would declare Nepal as a Hindu nation. This vote sparked outrage among Nepal’s radical Hindu nationalist groups and led to protests and several church bombings. Hindus make up 80 percent of Nepal’s population with Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and indigenous religions making up the rest of the nation’s religious communities.
9/16/2015 Nepal (Daily News and Analysis) – Nepal’s Constituent Assembly has overwhelmingly rejected the proposal of its right-wing National Democratic Party to declare themselves a Hindu nation. Merely 21 members of the 601-strong assembly ended up voting in favor of the proposal. Interestingly, the matter did not trigger animated debates even as protests broke out in the streets. The protesters, demanding a theocratic nation, however, clearly, did not represent the view of the majority. It would appear that the question of a Hindu nation never assumed existential dimensions for the people of Nepal. One reason could be that the people of Nepal have been grappling with more substantive regional and sectional demands from groups like the Madhesis and debating the contours of Nepal’s federal structure.
Apparently, there was a suggestion from the middle rung leaders of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) that the phrase ‘religious freedom’ should be used in place of ‘secular state’. But that view did not carry enough weight. It was found that those who favored a republican polity also favored a secular state. Nepal was a ‘Hindu state’ in the monarchical set-up and the abolition of monarchy has naturally now paved the way for the abolition of the concept of a Hindu nation. As a matter of fact, Nepal was declared a secular state even in the Interim Constitution of 2007.
It is, however, another matter that Nepal remains a Hindu-majority country with 80 per cent of the population professing the faith. But there is simply no ground to conflate the character of the polity with the religious identity of citizens. These are spheres that are distinct from each other and they should be kept that way.
The general argument proffered in favor of a secular state is that it guarantees the religious freedoms of the minority faiths. Nepal comprises Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and indigenous hill people, and many of these groups have supported the secular state idea. But it can be argued that even if there were no religious minorities in Nepal, the people could have preferred the secular state because they see the function of the state to be something altogether different from their personal religious beliefs and practices.
The decision of the Nepalese Constituent Assembly to opt for the secular identity should be of some interest to India. The right-wing Hindu groups, including the BJP, had looked towards Nepal with enormous religious-cultural empathy. As recently as July this year, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath had publicly supported the idea of Nepal declaring itself a ‘Hindu Rashtra (state)’, though the BJP maintained a discreet silence over the issue.
Nepal’s decision could also serve as a pointer to the three Islamic republics in south Asia — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh; Nepal reaffirming that the religion of the majority of people need not have anything to do with the political functioning of a state.