Panchkhal Valley. Photo courtesy Krish Dulal at Nepali Wikipedia

Secularism in Nepal

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Amanda Snellinger


Against the Normative Grain?

In 2006 Nepal turned away from its distinguished position as the world’s only Hindu kingdom and declared itself a secular republic. Article Four of the 2007 Interim Constitution states Nepal is dharma nirapeksha (autonomous from/indifferent to religion). But what does this mean and how do Nepalese citizens understand it? The way secularism is playing out in practice is ambiguous partly because the principle behind the constitutional statute is ambiguous. The constitutional language does not cement an absolute separation of church and state opposite from the prior Hindu kingdom’s dharma-oriented (dharma sāpeksha) standing, nor does it set parameters for religious pluralism in the legal code. Furthermore, secularism has become more tenuous since the May 27, 2012 dismissal of the Constituent Assembly (CA) body, which was drafting a new constitution. The CA dismissal occurred because the Supreme Court had refused to postpone its mandate for a fifth time. Despite lacking definitive constitutional direction, some sectors of the population are instituting it through practice, either by using the legal mandate to realize the spirit of the 2006 People’s Movement, or by at least navigating secularism to avoid the tensions that led to the uprising.

Stakes of Secularism

Panchkhal Valley. Photo courtesy Krish Dulal at Nepali Wikipedia

Panchkhal Valley. Photo courtesy Krish Dulal at Nepali Wikipedia

Varying motivations have influenced the shift toward secularism. Secularism was one of 40 demands the Maoist party put forth to parliament in 1996, citing Hindu state dominance as the cause of societal inequality. Parliament ignored their demands, which led to a ten-year civil war. In 2001 the king dismissed the democratically elected parliament after peace talks with the Maoists failed. These political parties unsuccessfully protested against the king for four years before unifying with the Maoists. Their deal involved a secular republic, which they declared after successfully ousting the king in the 2006 People’s Movement. For many democratic activists, secularism meant removal of the monarchy but not necessarily separation of state and religion (specifically, Hinduism). Ethnic, Buddhist and Muslim activists have been fighting for a secularism that encapsulates their sentiment of inclusion: hamro basha, dharma, sanskriti (our language, religion, culture). They do not view secularism as relegating religion to the private sphere; they had enough of that during the repressive Panchayat era (1960–90) when alternative beliefs were persecuted. Since the 1990 establishment of multi-party democracy, minorities have been instead rallying for inclusion, the opening of public space where their cultural and religious traditions receive equal recognition and accommodation from the state. Hindu fundamentalists are most vocal against secularism because it diminishes Hinduism to the status of one religion amongst many, rather than the original dharma (sanatana dharma) from which all other religions stem. Many observant Hindus argue that secularism is not necessary, because Hinduism encompasses other religions in its tenet of religious tolerance (Chiara Letizia, “Shaping Secularism in Nepal” in European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 39). At first glance religious tolerance may resonate with minority demands for inclusion. However, Hindu fundamentalists’ version of religious tolerance is one of incorporation into a hierarchy, while minorities want inclusion based on equality.

Student Activists’ Perspective

Observing the varying expectations of secularism, I turned to the foot soldiers of the 2002–06 political movements, student activists affiliated with political parties. When I asked student activists about secularism’s potential future, many were unclear. For some, establishing a secular republic meant decoupling the state from the king in both law and politics. They, however, received resistance from constituents as they attempted to remove Hindu practice and symbols from politics. I observed this during the Constituent Assembly election campaigns in 2007, when a student leader asked a crowd what “new Nepal” should look like. Did it include practices of wearing traditional high-caste garb, giving blessings (tika), or sponsoring the king to go to Pashupati temple? Should this be their politics or did it reinforce a different project? He then asked, “How can we make politics serve all our citizens?” After the speech, people asked why he was anti-Hindu. He admitted to me that he did not know how to address secularism without threatening people’s religion.

Other student activists used the term dharma nispaksha (non-biasness of religion) rather than the constitutional terminology. For them, dharma nispaksha highlighted another important agenda of their 2006 political movement: samabesh (inclusion). They viewed secularism as one avenue toward inclusion, incorporating other religious practices, symbols, and holidays into their political performance. This may not seem radical, but rather reminiscent of the Panchayat state showcasing cultural diversity to assimilate and order it within the Hindu kingdom. The students, however, viewed it differently. One student told me, “It’s what we can do now to show our student body we acknowledge all of them.” This was not token diversity to him, but part of their agenda to institute the five elements of inclusion: equal participation, representation, opportunity, role and decision-making power. He said there would be nationwide inclusion within one generation if they successfully instituted it in student politics. The students understood that their parties’ future relevance hinged on how they institute inclusion and their attempts at dharma nispaksha reflect this sentiment.

Secularism in Law

The students’ various interpretations of secularism foreshadowed how it is being handled in the legal realm. Chiara Letizia’s study of legal cases regarding secularism demonstrates that judges, lawyers, police, and activists are negotiating these multitudinous views on secularism. One high profile case made a classic secular ruling of separation of church and state to protect Hinduism from the state: the 2009 case that protected the oldest Hindu institution, Pashupatinath Area Development Trust, from oversight of the Maoist secular government (Letizia 2012: 88–90). Another demonstrated the court’s liberal consciousness: in the 2008 Kumari case the court claimed jurisdiction to prohibit tradition that endangered fundamental rights, and religion must yield to social reform. The court, however, chose not to ban the Kumari tradition but encouraged the Newar community to reform oral, cultural practices around the tradition in order to protect the rights of appointed goddesses (ibid: 90–95). Both of these cases involved religious institutions that were enmeshed with the Hindu state. The courts were negotiating the state’s role, while trying to protect these institutions that have shaped national identity.

Cases that have proved more challenging involve practices within local communities, namely cow slaughter and proselytization, which are still illegal. A petition was filed in 2007 requesting the removal of the cow slaughter ban. Protecting the cow as a holy animal is a relic from the Hindu state, which is now justified as protecting the national animal. The petitioner did not invoke secularism as a separation of church and state but as a statute protecting the rights of all religions. The court, however, dismissed the petition arguing that there is no legal basis to grant privilege to religious practice that defies secular law protecting the national animal (Letizia, “Ideas of Secularism in Contemporary Nepal,” paper presented at workshop, 2012).

Even though criminalization of cow slaughter and proselytization remain, there is ambivalence toward these laws in legal spheres. There has not been a proselytization prosecution case since 2002. Letizia documents that in Banke district court the state has not been pursuing effective prosecutions of cow slaughter because of unease amongst policemen, lawyers, and judges that these laws are inconsistent with a secular republic, and therefore unenforceable. Due to the stalled political process and pressure from the Hindu majority, this law won’t be repealed anytime soon. But the state is also under pressure to protect the rights of ethnic minorities. Thus, they take a laissez-faire approach to maintain social harmony (ibid: 13–15).

Taken as a whole, these various cases underscore Winnifred Sullivan’s observation regarding the disjuncture of legal discourse and secularism as a political doctrine; neither complete separation between church and state nor consistent neutrality toward all religions is possible (The Impossibility of Religious Freedom 2005). Without clear constitutional direction, Nepali courts are trying to balance the different stakeholders of the polis. Similar to the student politicians, they are attempting to negotiate inclusion through secularism. But rather doing it to ensure their political future, the courts are protecting citizens’ rights while avoiding communal tension.

Multidimensional Pluralism?

The students’ and the courts’ attempts to actualize secularism through practice are not being executed in isolation. Rather, they are just two strands of an emerging trend. The students’ perspective of dharma nispaksha (non-biasness) has publicly reverberated and Nepal is embracing its multi-religious reality. Walking through the streets of Kathmandu, one can see ethnic groups perform their various religious rituals in public spaces that were traditionally reserved for Hindu rituals. Academics are picking up on this, too. At an Oxford University workshop on religious discourses and practices in secular Nepal, anthropologists David Holmberg and Martin Gaenszle documented the revival of ethnic minorities’ traditional losar and Kiranti celebrations, and Gérard Toffin presented on new religious movements. One participant declared with relief, “religion is not dead in secular Nepal.” Rather, secularism has become an issue of recognition and acceptance, and for religions to be accepted they must be publicly recognized. Secularism is, indeed, taking an uncertain path in Nepal. This path, however, may provide an alternative to the limited form taken here in the West. Instead, it may be moving closer to the deep, multidimensional pluralism that William Connolly has offered as a post-secular solution, which reaches “into the spiritualities and creeds of participants, rather than trying to quarantine them” (“Some Thesis on Secularism,” Cultural Anthropology 26[4]: 2011).

Amanda Snellinger is a ESRC postdoctoral research associate at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, where she is jointly researching unemployment amongst educated youth in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. She researches and writes on politics, law, activism, youth, revolution and social movements in Nepal.

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