Off the Record 014: Specter of secularism

Issue 014 • 09 July 2021

It’s July 9, 2021, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal. 

I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week. 

You can read Off the Record for free by visiting this link or subscribe on our website to receive this newsletter in your inbox every Friday. 

Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from overcast Kathmandu. The monsoon rains continue to batter the country, along with reports of more floods and landslides and lives lost. There have been over a dozen deaths in the past week alone, with seven deaths within 24 hours. Three people were killed in a landslide in Darchula on Wednesday, two in a landslide in Tanahun on Thursday, one in a flood and one in a landslide in Palpa also on Thursday, according to The Kathmandu Post. In Rautahat and Bajura, hundreds of families have been displaced by rising floodwaters. This trend is likely to continue in the weeks to come as the monsoon gains more force.

Since the beginning of the monsoon 25 days ago, 53 people have died and 35 are missing, according to Naya Patrika.

In some good news, Nepal resumed its vaccination drive on Tuesday with elderly people between the ages of 60 and 65 who had received their first doses in June now eligible for the second dose. Some hospitals in Kathmandu are reportedly giving out vaccinations to anyone, regardless of age. The vaccination drive this time around is more reminiscent of the first drive, which was marred by massive lines and overcrowding at vaccine centers. After much criticism, local bodies were brought on board for the second leg of vaccinations, which went much smoother and with much less hassle and crowding. But now, the vaccines have once again been handed over to a select few hospitals, leading to the same problems.

Naya Patrika’s front page for July 7, Wednesday, illustrates the eternal plight of Nepalis — waiting in line. On the left, Nepali migrants wait in line at the border to be allowed to enter India for work; in the middle, farmers wait in line for subsidized fertilizer; on the right, Nepalis wait in line for vaccines.

On Thursday, a Nepal Airlines flight brought in a million doses of the Chinese Verocell vaccine, which Nepal purchased directly from Sinopharm. Three more flights will bring in a total of 4 million vaccines. The Kathmandu Post also reported on Tuesday that Nepal would be receiving 1.5 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in two weeks through COVAX. The report itself is a little confusing as while the sub-head says that the vaccines will arrive in two weeks, the lede says that the doses will arrive next week. Given COVAX’s dismal functioning, most Nepalis have reacted to this news with a ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’, especially since the Post report only quotes Health Ministry officials and no one from UNICEF or WHO, who are coordinating the COVAX rollout. COVAX itself has committed numerous times to provide Nepal with vaccines and has been unsuccessful each time. So far, Nepal has only received 348,000 vaccine doses through COVAX. The bulk of its vaccines have been provided as grants by India and China.

Politically, Nepal is in the doldrums. The Supreme Court this week completed hearings on the numerous petitions filed against Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and President Bidya Bhandari’s May dissolution of Parliament, but has yet to issue a verdict. A decision is expected in the week to come.

Oli’s CPN-UML party is attempting to mend ties with senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal and the faction he leads within the party. Madhav Nepal has declared his support for Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba for prime minister and has refused to back down, despite being welcomed back into the party. The Congress itself is readying for its General Convention where many expect a handover of power to a younger generation. The only issue being that the party members next in line to lead the Congress are no spring chickens either.

The Janata Samajbadi Party, meanwhile, split vertically on Tuesday citing irreconcilable differences between the two-party chairs, Upendra Yadav and Mahanta Thakur. The party was formed in April 2020 out of a merger between Yadav and Baburam Bhattarai’s Samajbadi Party and Thakur’s Rastriya Janata Party but had long been functioning as two separate entities. The Thakur faction had decided to support Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli after the reinstatement of Parliament in February, after Oli’s first House dissolution in December. Politicians from the Thakur faction had received a number of ministerial portfolios as rewards for their support. Unfortunately, all of those appointments were later annulled by the Supreme Court on the argument that since Oli had dissolved the House and declared election for November, he was no longer an executive prime minister but only a caretaker and hence, had no authority to expand the Cabinet.

The Janata Samajbadi Party was the fourth-largest party in the federal Parliament and the only party with a bulk of its support in the Madhes. It controls the Province 2 government, one of only two provincial governments that weren’t controlled by the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party (which has since split into the UML and Maoist Center). The Janata Samajbadi split has not been formalized yet as the Election Commission will soon decide which faction will receive the party’s flag and electoral symbol. But national politics is unlikely to be affected as the two parties are still regional forces and lack the numbers to make any real difference. The Thakur faction will continue to support Oli while the Yadav-Bhattarai faction will ally with the opposition Nepali Congress and Maoist Center.

So political horsetrading will continue in full force in the days to come, especially as the election nears. Much hinges on the Supreme Court’s verdict regarding the dissolution of the House. Even if the court reinstates Parliament, it is unlikely to recommend Deuba for prime minister as that decision would also likely be challenged further. Oli will continue for the time being as new political equations are hashed out. If the court does not reinstate Parliament then elections will be certain in November. And with a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic looming, that will not bode well for anyone.

But for the purposes of this newsletter, let’s go back to Saturday where a powerful Oli confidante presented a proposal at the CPN-UML Central Committee meeting, asking for the party to “review” Nepal’s status as a federal, secular nation. Party chair Oli has reportedly agreed to deliberate on the proposal. In this week’s deep dive, I’d like to take a closer look at secularism and how this agenda entered the Nepali political consciousness, Nepal’s transition into a secular state, and how the arguments for and against secularism have developed over the years.

The deep dive: Specter of secularism

Wednesday, July 7, was former king Gyanendra Shah’s birthday. A small crowd of about a dozen people gathered outside Nirmal Niwas, his home in Maharajgunj, to pay respects. The crowd was noticeably smaller this year, perhaps due to the pandemic but perhaps also an indication of his waning popularity. After all, the former royals, Gyanendra and his wife Komal, had received much criticism for bringing back Covid-19 from the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, India in April. The mela, which attracted over 25 million people, is now considered a ‘superspreader’ event.

Nevertheless, birthday wishes for the erstwhile king were replete on social media, with one prominent Nepali actress tweeting out her best wishes to “His Majesty King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev”, his full royal title.

Manisha Koirala is of course entitled to her opinion but many were surprised to see the level of support for the monarchy from the granddaughter of one of Nepal’s greatest democratic fighters, BP Koirala.

The monarchy is seeing something of a resurgence online, something that is not reflected on the ground. Monarchists in the digital world appear to be committed to the institution of the monarchy, despite the fact that an elected representative body voted, almost unanimously, to discard the monarchy, shed Nepal’s Hindu identity, and embrace secularism.

It was April 2006 and revolution was in the air. Just over a year ago, in February 2005, Gyanendra had dissolved Parliament and seized all power. Fed up with frequent changes in government and political instability, the Nepali people gave him a chance, as protests didn’t erupt immediately. Even the freedom-loving diplomatic missions, aid agencies, and I/NGOs tacitly supported Gyanendra. But Gyanendra turned out to be more interested in shoring up his own power and business interests, and so, the second People’s Movement (Jana Andolan 2) erupted in April 2006.

The political parties, supported by the rebel Maoists, led massive protests across Nepal, shutting down the entire country for weeks. When Gyanendra finally relinquished power and reinstated Parliament, the House of Representatives promptly stripped Gyanendra of all his powers and declared Nepal a secular state, to be codified in a new constitution that would be written via an elected Constituent Assembly. The Interim Constitution, the statute that would guide the country while a new constitution was being written, was written in January 2007 and declared Nepal a secular state. In May 2008, the very first meeting of the elected Constituent Assembly declared Nepal a “federal democratic republic”, abolishing the monarchy and endorsing the secularism enshrined in the Interim Constitution. Only the Rastriya Prajatantra Party stood in opposition. Out of 564 members of the Constituent Assembly, 560 voted in favor of federalism and secularism, only four opposed.

There are many who continue to believe that secularism was an agenda foisted unto Nepal by shadowy foreign interests. This ‘foreign hand’, a nebulous yet eternal actor in Nepali history, ranges variously from India to the United States and the Nordic countries. These people believe that most progressive changes to Nepali laws and statutes were inserted by outside forces, as if Nepalis themselves could never choose to be progressive or forward-thinking.

Just to lay that claim to rest, Nepal’s secular character was endorsed four times by the representatives of the people — once in 2006 by Parliament, once in 2007 by the Interim Constitution, once in 2008 by the Constituent Assembly, and again in the resultant 2015 Constitution that was written by the Assembly.

These individuals would also argue that secularism should’ve been put to a referendum. Perhaps it should have but then that demand would follow every major decision made by the Parliament. Nepal is a representative democracy, meaning you choose the people who will represent you and make decisions on your behalf. If you are unhappy with the choices your representatives made, the easy answer is to not vote for them again.

A more nuanced argument for the necessity of secularism lies in Hinduism’s inextricable links to the monarchy. The king was, for all intents and purposes, an avatar of Vishnu. He was untouchable, unreproachable, and above the laws of the land, including the constitution. He, and his family, could act without fear of consequences and they did, all too often. It wouldn’t have been possible to eliminate the monarchy without discarding Nepal’s Hindu character, since the two worked hand-in-glove. For the many who lamented the loss of Nepal’s moniker as the ‘only Hindu kingdom’ in the world, there were many others who felt like the country finally belonged to them too.

Chiara Letizia, professor of South Asian Religions at the Université du Québec à Montréal, traces the demand for secularism much farther back, writing:

Activists recognised that a two-century-old process had embedded Hinduism in Nepal’s national identity, seeking to homogenise an extremely heterogeneous population and leading to the domination of ‘high-caste’ Hindus in the economic, political, legal and educational spheres. Secularism therefore represented a demand that the multiethnic and multi-religious composition of the country be acknowledged. It was not a move to banish religion from public life, but rather a call for non-Hindus to be treated equally with Hindus. The core elements of this demand were the de-Hinduisation of the state (by replacing Hindu symbols and rituals on state occasions, for instance), the push for a multicultural Nepal, and the recognition of the distinct identity of ethnic groups.

Despite all the protestations of how 80 percent of Nepal is Hindu, the country is also a very religiously diverse place. Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and animists abound. But often, their religious practices seem to borrow from Hinduism, because the one thing that the Hindu religion is good at doing is co-opting other religious movements, even ones that explicitly interrogate it. Just consider how the Shakyamuni Buddha was turned into the ninth avatar of Vishnu. Many practices from indigenous animistic religions like Bon were also subsumed by dominant Hindu traditions. It was a slow but eventual process that worked in tandem with the nation-building narrative endorsed by the Shah monarchy, made most explicit by Mahendra.

Under the Shah kings and the Rana despots, Hindu traditions came to dominate the Nepali cultural milieu. The eating of cow meat was outlawed, even though for many indigenous and religious communities, the cow was not a sacred animal. The Hindu doctrines of pure and impure, chokho and bitulo, were codified into the caste system, leading to the persecution of Dalits, the so-called ‘untouchables’.

Religion became much more central to the narrative of the Nepali state during Mahendra’s Panchayat. The Nepali identity was defined narrowly along the Pahadi Khas-Arya Hindu identity. According to Mahendra, Nepalis had one religion (Hinduism), one king (himself), one dress (daura-suruwal), and one language (Nepali). Even superficially, this was untenable and led to the end of the Panchayat in 1990. It can be argued that the resentment fostered by the Panchayat among many minority groups has led to the resurgence of identity politics in contemporary times.

The state’s Hindu character also meant that it privileged Hinduism over all other religions. National holidays were only declared for major Hindu festivals like Dashain and Tihar, with an exception made for the Buddha’s birthday as he was, after all, another avatar of Vishnu. Major Hindu temples like Pashupati received state patronage and the king, as the avatar of Vishnu, cast himself in an explicitly Hindu role as the protector-diety of the country. It was customary for the kings to end their addresses to the people with “Pashupatinath le sabko rakshya garun” (May Lord Pashupati protect us all).

So when Nepal went secular, many minority groups and progressives welcomed the move as a belated recognition of the country’s diversity.

But from the very beginning, there were those who opposed this new direction. Chief among them was Kamal Thapa, chief of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, but there were others (like Nepali Congress General Secretary Shashank Koirala) who did not speak out then due to a fear of going against the current, but have acted in more insidious ways to subvert Nepal’s secularism.

It was upon the lobbying of these actors, many of whom remain senior politicians in the Congress and UML, that the 2015 constitution was forced to insert a bizarre explanatory clause that states: “For the purposes of this Article, ‘secular’ means religious, cultural freedoms, including protection of religion, culture handed down from the time immemorial.”

It is also no secret that Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli wasn’t a great admirer of the 2015 constitution’s secular, federal nature. Two months ahead of the constitution’s promulgation, Oli had said that secularism wouldn’t last and that he was committed instead to ‘religious freedom’. And since coming to power, he’s made that all the more evident.

For a life-long communist, Oli is certainly religious. In July last year, Oli had claimed that the birthplace of Ram was in Nepal’s Thori, not Ayodhya in India’s Uttar Pradesh, scandalizing Indian Hindus and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. In January, Oli made a show of visiting Pashupatinath and offering a special puja.

So it is with trepidation that we must assess Mahesh Basnet’s Saturday proposal at the UML’s Central Committee asking for a review of secularism and federalism. Basnet is an Oli acolyte and many believe that Oli is testing the waters through him. If the proposal is warmly received then Oli can perhaps campaign on a Hinduism and anti-secular plank in the upcoming elections. If the proposal is vehemently criticized, Oli can blame the adventurism of a second-rung politician, dismiss the proposal, and cast himself as a defender of Nepal’s secular, federal character.

Whether Oli is committed to Nepal as a Hindu state — or whether he is simply using Hinduism as a campaign tool — is debatable. Oli is crafty and he has shown that he will use any means necessary to remain in power. Return to a Hindu state might just be another means to an end, or it could be an expression of deeply held beliefs. Either way, to revisit changes as fundamental to the modern Nepali state as federalism and secularism would be irresponsible and dangerous. It would be a repudiation of all the representatives who voted for secularism and all minority religious groups who finally feel like they belong to this country.

Nepal’s secularism is both symbolic and real; it is a necessary political step towards a true acknowledgment of Nepal’s diversity but it also sends the message that Nepal belongs to all Nepalis, no matter their religion. Secularism isn’t anti-Hindu; it is pro every religion. Dismantling the hegemony of Hinduism opens up possibilities for individuals from other religions to contest that new open space and perhaps, even represent Nepal at the highest levels, both political and social.

From The Record archives:

On The Record this week:

Samik Kharel on the vaccination digital divide

Sonam Lama on the continuing plight of domestic violence survivors during the pandemic

Manjushree Thapa on her writing process

Aishwarya Baidar and Deewash Shrestha on the torrential problems of the Valley’s slum residents

Happenings this week:

Saturday - Mahesh Basnet tabled a proposal at the CPN-UML Central Committee asking for a “review” of federalism and secularism. Prime Minister Oli has reportedly agreed to hold deliberations.

Sunday - A group of youths held a protest at Bhrikutimandap regarding Kathmandu Metropolitan City erasing a mural celebrating frontline workers like doctors, nurses, and police. The mural was whitewashed last week for no apparent reason.

Monday - The defense team wrapped up its arguments in favor of Prime Minister Oli and President Bhandari’s dissolution of Parliament. The four-member amicus curiae bench, which consists of advocates invited by the court to provide expert testimony, was equally divided with two in support of Oli and Bhandari’s actions and two against.

Tuesday - The Janata Samajbadi Party formally decided on a vertical split after differences between the two factions, one led by Upendra Yadav and the other by Mahanta Thakur, reached breaking point. The Thakur faction supports Prime Minister Oli while the Yadav faction is opposed. The two factions, formerly the Rastriya Janata Party led by Thakur and the Samajbadi Party led by Yadav, had merged just over a year ago in April 2020.

Wednesday - A single bench of Supreme Court Justice Kumar Regmi summoned both parties to the caste-based discrimination case — Rupa Sunar and Saraswati Pradhan — in order to look into why the case was not taken up by the public prosecutor. Education Minister Krishna Gopal Shrestha, who had gone to pick up Shrestha in his official vehicle when she was released from custody, was also summoned by the court.

Thursday - Faris Hadad-Zervos, the World Bank’s country director for Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, said that Nepal must not wait for free vaccines and instead, should seek to buy them. The World Bank has given Nepal a $100 million loan and is likely looking to recoup its investment. Nepal has been attempting to buy vaccines but has been rebuffed by most major vaccine producers, including the US’ Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson.

Friday - The Ministry of Civil Aviation decided to increase the number of weekly outgoing flights from 24 to 53, beginning Sunday. There will now be regular flights out to New Delhi, Dubai, Doha, Amman, Muscat, Kuwait, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi, and Singapore. The opening up of flights should come as relief for the thousands of Nepalis looking to migrate abroad for work.

Read of the week

Conservation comes at a cost in Chitwan National Park’ — A long read about how conservation policies have affected the largely indigenous people who live around the Chitwan National Park by Peter Gill.

That’s all for this week. I shall see you Friday on the next edition of Off the Record

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