The final draft of a new constitution was tabled in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly on 22 August amid protests by Hindu nationalists on the streets. They oppose the idea of secularism, which in the South Asian context simply means pluralism and equal treatment of all religions.
It now needs approval by a two-thirds majority of the Constituent Assembly. Once that is reached, the Speaker of the Assembly will sign the new constitution, which will be presented to the country in an official ceremony led by the President of Nepal.
Madhav Bhattarai, Nepal’s Royal Priest: We want a Hindu kingdom, or a Hindu state. There’s only one Hindu kingdom in the world.
Tara Nath Luitel, Member, Central Committee, Hindu royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, or RPP-N: We are a majority Hindu country. Every nation has a religion. There are Christian, Muslim and Buddhist nations. There are more than a billion Hindus, and yet there’s no Hindu nation in the world to give leadership to the Hindus.
Vishal Arora: Nepal was declared a secular state in 2007, one year after a civil war led by Maoists overthrew the Hindu monarchy. But Hindu nationalists claim that secularism is an agenda of Western nations.
Bhattarai: The agenda of none of the struggles was to establish secularism or a republic. I have witnessed it [the civil war]. It’s later that the political leaders, under the direction and influence of the European Union, declared that Nepal to be a secular nation [in 2007]. We’ll need to have a referendum on this issue. Their job is to draft the constitution, and don’t have the right to establish secularism.
Luitel: Political leaders have received money from Western nations, billions of rupees. This is why they want the country to be secular.
VA: Leaders of the nation’s major political parties are expected to face pressure to remove the term “secularism” from the draft constitution. Not just Hindu nationalists, but many common citizens are also against secularism because they do not know what the term actually means. The Nepali translation of the term sounds more like what secularism means in the West.
KB Rokaya, General Secretary, National Council of Church of Nepal: The Nepali word, as you know, is ‘dharm nirpeksh.’ The word ‘nirpeksh’ is very negative, which means religion has no significance; religion does not matter; religion has no role. Because of that, our Hindu friends were really concerned. Because that is not the case in Nepal. In Nepal, almost everyone has some religious faith, even our communist friends, even our Maoist friends.
VA: Political parties didn’t have enough time to explain to people what they mean by secularism. They began to take the constitution-making process seriously only four months ago, which was five years after missing the first deadline in 2010. They now claim that they’re in a hurry to promulgate a new charter, to help the nation move on after a recent earthquake which killed about 10,000 people and caused massive destruction.
But Christians fear that removing the term secularism from the constitution would embolden Hindu nationalists.
Pastor Tanka Subedi, Inter-faith group Dharmic Chautari: If you remove the mention of a secular state now, that would mean these groups that are raising their voice for a Hindu state will see it a victory. And, maybe, later they will ask for a Hindu nation, which is not good for anybody, even Hindus.
BP Khanal, a Christian and General Secretary of Janajagaran Party Nepal: It is a way to give enough room for those who are extremists, in the name of Hinduism, state religion and so on … so we should not give room to them to attack other religions, minority religious groups.
VA: Another major issue concerning religious freedom is that the draft constitution seems to impose a blanket ban on all missionary activities. It states that citizens are free to choose a religion of their choice, but no one shall convert any other person from one religion to another.
Pastor Subedi: It doesn’t give you the right to propagate or preach or tell about your religion to others.
VA: Political leaders say this clause is meant only to prevent unlawful conversions. But they’re not able to explain why the provision doesn’t say exactly that, that there’s restriction to convert others only if force or allurement is used.
Agni Sapkota, Spokesperson, Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, former Minister of Information & Broadcasting: Forceful conversions shouldn’t be allowed. Every citizen has the right to follow the religion of their own liking. But no one should be dictated to follow this or that religion, or allowed to convert others with economic gains.
VA: Christians deny the allegation that they seek conversions using money. But their explanations seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
Pastor Subedi: Christians never offer money to anybody to become Christian. Let me give you one example. Next week, we’re going to baptize eight people in the church, and all of them came to our church for at least two years; only then are they qualified for it. So that’s quite difficult. So even these people who accuse us of using money to convert them, they should come to church and ask the pastor to baptize them. Then they will know how we [don’t] give money or what we do.
“Asking for a reduction in punishment is not part of the solution to the big problem that is looming in front of us…in practice the government is curtailing religious freedom by making religious conversion a criminal offence” – Father Silas Bogati, vicar general of the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal