OPINION : Nepal Gearing towards a Hindu republic

KATHMANDU, Nepal (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - Perceived lack of good governance from the secular republic means the conversation is moving back to notions of a Hindu state.

Political forces of diverse ideologies are now vying to restore Nepal ‘back’ to a Hindu state. The monarchs of the Shah dynasty during their long reign spanning 240 years and 13 generations tirelessly tried to equate the roots of Nepali statehood with the ‘idea’ of the Hindu kingdom. They systematically instilled the notion that kings were reincarnations of a Hindu deity, Vishnu. It was not difficult for rulers with the state apparatus absolutely in their clutches to instill this myth among the masses in a country with a predominantly Hindu population (81.3 percent in 2011 census) and with historically low literacy rates (merely 33, 48.6 and 59.6 percent in 1991, 2001 and 2011 censuses, respectively).

It was natural that the last king of Nepal, Gyanendra Shah, deposed in 2008, is exerting every possible muscle to bring the Hindu state agenda back into the centre stage of Nepali political discourse. He is mobilising his loyal supporters, often touring the country to exploit every opportunity that would provide platforms to register his utter dislike ofthe present state of affairs under the republican set-up and pitch for indispensability of the ‘Hindu kingdom’. Advocacyf or Hinduism is the most obvious forte for him to imagine monarchy restored.

The forces

Understandably, a number of right-wing political forces, who are effectively remnants of the monarchy-fostered formerPanchayat system, find the Hindu state agenda an attractive leeway to politically connect to the people. They are advocating for restoring Nepal as the old ‘Hindu kingdom’ by restoring both the monarchy and the Hindu state. At the forefront of all these fractious entities is Rastriya Prajantra Party (PPP) led by Kamal Thapa. He recently organised a street protest to demand for the reinstatement of the Hindu state,inviting the wrath of the incumbent communist majority government headed by Prime Minister KP Oli.

The actual viability of such restoration(s) is apparently a distant possibility, but these overtures continue to generate some ripples and reactions in Nepal’s political space. Prime Minister Oli publicly stomped his foot on the idea recently: ‘Referendum is impossible on the fate on already deposed monarchy. The ghost-mongering over the dead monarchy in the epoch of republic earned through people’s sacrifices is a pipedream.’

The 2015 constitution has declared Nepal a ‘secular’ state among several other qualifiers, including ‘federal republic’. The ‘explanation’ part of the Article 4 of the constitution has stated, ‘secular’ means religious, cultural freedoms, including protection of religion, culture handed down from the time immemorial.’ Just to recall, the constitution promulgated right after the restoration of democracy in 1990 had declared Nepal a ‘Hindu and constitutional monarchical kingdom.’ The ‘secular’ and ‘republic’ provisions in the new constitution provide ground for the government to label the demand for Hindu state or restoration monarchy as unconstitutional and,thus, legally punishable.

Oli’s jibe on the referendum was in fact a retort to the repeated demands by general secretary of Nepali Congress (NC), Shashanka Koirala, who for long has beendemanding that Nepal reverts back to being a Hindu state and that it holds a referendum to decide the fate of the monarchy. He is courting controversy because his statements are against the letters and spirit of the constitution and he happens to be one of the top most leaders in the centre-right main opposition party is often keen to take the credit of promulgating the present constitution. Also, he happens to be the only one of the three sons of BP Koirala—perhaps the most revered politician in Nepal’s modern history—in active politics. This legacy, therefore, is another reason his statements draw substantial attention.Koirala’s Hindu rastra gained quite sometraction during NC’s general committee (mahasamiti) meeting last December, as a substantial number of mahasamiti members allegedly collected signatures to pressurise the leadership to stand for a Hindu rastra.

Hindu geopolitics

Several aspects of Nepal’s Hindutva project is also linked to the geopolitical dimension.  In India, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking re-election under prime minster Narendra Modi. One of the implicit agendas of BJP, allegedly, is to make India a Hindu state itself—at least according to a number of Nepal’s pro-Hindu outfits.

Several back channel Hindutva operatives have strong links to BJP’s parent organisation, the Rastriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which is vocal in its demands of making India a Hindu State and to restoring Nepal as a Hindu kingdom. Former king Shah has close links with current Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath who is also the Mahant, or head priest, of the Gorakhnath Math in Gorakhpur, an Indian town close to Nepal border. Regardless of whether there is explicit support fortheir ‘designs’ from the BJP, RSS or Adityanath, Nepali Hindu groups appear highly hopeful of BJP winning the elections in India this time as well.

Implications

The very concept of theological state in 21st century is in itself an anachronistic idea. It may also be observed that states organised strictly under religious identity are now the source of societal instability and, often, themselves have become victim of political fundamentalism.  By contrast, secularism, if implemented in its true spirit, has several desirable properties. However, in Nepal, the discourse on secularism, rightly or wrongly, has suffered from the apprehension that it is a mere proselytising weapon used by the missionary organisations or their abettors.

Despite this, why are the forces of diverse interests and hues so passionate about restoring the Hindu state or the Hindu kingdom? The politics of the former king and his henchmen is understandable.

They want their way back to power if possible and, if not, would be contended to defame the republic in whatever way

possible.

But the position taken by people such as Shashanka Koiralais the most incomprehensible, antithetic and gravely consequential. For example, it now can be argued that questions over a Hindu rastra will be the defining agenda in the upcoming general convention of the Congress that is due in a year’s time. It is also a fact that there is a general feeling that a few leaders at the top decided to do away with the Hindu rastra against the will of a majority of the people. The extent of such feelings have not been democratically tested, so far.

Though the restoration of monarchy looks a distant possibility, there is fair amount of public support in favor of Hindu rastra. This intent was also clearly manifested during nationwide public opinion collection exercise during the tenure of the first constituent assembly, which later was summarily binned in. Growing disenchantment with the political leadership that supported republicanism for its utter failure to meet public aspirations on delivery and good governance is adding fuel to the fire.

In a nutshell, Nepal now seems gradually gearing towards a ‘Hindu republic’, leaving the agenda of monarchy at bay but, in the long run, only embracing the Hindu state component. The onus is now on the secularists to prove that secularism delivers far better public ‘goods’ than a theological state.

Wagle tweets at @DrAchyutWagle.

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  • Opinion: Gearing towards a Hindu republic

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