Is Nepal Lurching from Secularism to Hindu Nationalism?

In December 2018, Nepal’s center-right/right-wing Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) declared that it would launch a campaign beginning in February 2019 calling for restoring the country as a Hindu state. The RPP’s chairperson, Kamal Thapa, further added that the party advocated for restoring the monarchy and even to go as far as scrapping the country’s federalist structure.  Like its South Asian neighbor to the south, India, the country has witnessed the rise of Hindu nationalism as a major political force.

Indeed, on February 21, the RPP formally asked the government to declare the country as a Hindu Rashtra; in other words, the reestablishment of a Nepalese state based on Hindu values, but ensuring complete religious freedom.  Nepal became a federal parliamentary republic in 2008, as a result of the 2006 democracy movement, which abolished the constitutional monarchy, and the newly reinstated House of Representatives declared the country a secular state.  Both houses of the Federal Parliament (National Assembly and House of Representatives) have been dominated by the Communist Party. 

During the December announcement, Chairman Thapa called for a peaceful demonstration, claiming that this demonstration would be aligned with the peoples’ creed and identity, rather than any party or government.  He expected that the ongoing mahasamiti meeting of Nepal’s Congress would decide in favor of Nepal as a Hindu state. 

This is not the first time that Chairman Thapa has called for a change to the constitution calling for Nepal to be recognized as a Hindu state.  In 2015, he registered an amendment proposal changing Article 4 of the constitution.  The proposal was overwhelmingly rejected, with the proposal receiving less than 10 percent of the required number of votes.  In order to adopt the proposal, a two-thirds vote from the Federal Parliament was required.  In response to the rejection, the RPP and some religious organizations staged demonstrations outside the Parliament.  Over two thousand pro-Hindu activists clashed with the police.   

A public opinion poll at the time stated that the majority of Nepalese preferred using the words ‘Hindu’ or ‘religious freedom’, rather than ‘secularism’.  Interestingly, Muslim Nepalese also supported the idea of reinstating the country as a Hindu state.  For the country’s Muslim community, they believe that they would be more secure under a Hindu state, rather than under the current secular constitution.  They have been wary of the growing influence of Christianity, particularly because of the presence of Christian missionaries.  Babu Khan Pathan, chairperson of the Rastrabadi Muslim Manch Nepalgunj, also argues that the country should restore the “longstanding unity among Muslims and Hindus.”  

With identity, particularly religious identity, becoming a more prominent force in South Asian politics, what is occurring in Nepal is reflective of wider regional trends.  As its Indian neighbor prepares for elections in the spring, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has politicized India’s religious heritage.  It has, for example, renamed a number of locations throughout the country from Muslim names to Hindu ones.  With the benefits of India’s economic growth not reaching most of the populace, it is likely that the BJP will try to mobilize support by appealing to Hindu nationalism: Hindutva.

Thus, the question is: Will Nepal, a majority-Hindu state like India, witness similar events?  Will Nepalese politics become as polarized as they are in India, which has witnessed a number of clashes between Hindus and Muslims? 

While violence between the two religious groups has not reached the scale that it has in India, there is a risk that the current sense of solidarity between the two groups in Nepal could disintegrate.  So far, the secular constitution and governance by the Communist Party have largely tempered religiously-inspired violence as compared to neighboring countries, such as India and Myanmar.  It has historically been a home for religious refugees, such as Buddhists from Tibet, Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan, and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.  While the state has much work ahead in ensuring equal rights and opportunities for its religious minorities, it must be recognized that there has been substantial progress within the South Asian nation.  If Nepal is indeed moving away from secularism towards Hindu nationalism, it is hoped that past successes can be a good predictor for the future.