In April 1978, a legendary crusader for democracy in Nepal said in an interview to Samayik Varta, then a monthly magazine brought out by India’s socialist leader Kishen Pattanayak, that there was no need for him to keep harping on secularism as Nepali society was very secular, caste bonds were not very rigid, inter-caste marriages were frequent, and religious tolerance was very high. In 2006, G.P. Koirala, younger brother of B.P. Koirala, announced that Hindu Nepal “would henceforth be a secular” country, but chose not to define the new parameters for the relation between state and religion.
Except for the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M), which suffered a split last June, almost every party seems divided over Nepal’s secular status. It has of late become a strong emotive issue. Shekhar Koirala, second generation leader from the Koirala family, admits the decision to transform the world’s only “Hindu kingdom” into a secular, federal republic was not part of the larger political understanding when the parties chose to oppose the “royal takeover” of February 2005. Shekhar Koirala has almost echoed the strong sentiment NC founder K.P. Bhattarai had expressed, warning that “federalism, secularism and republicanism were alien concepts and spell doom for the country”.
Like B.P. Koirala, Bhattarai firmly believed nationalism and democracy were inseparably linked in Nepal, and they would take strong roots only if the NC and the constitutional monarchy worked together. For many, Gyanendra’s takeover had spoiled that hope forever; but the likes of Bhattarai insisted working with the Maoists would spell doom for the nation and the NC.
Suddenly, India’s sadhudom has taken up the issue and made it clear it’s not comfortable with the world’s only “Hindu kingdom” changing into a secular and communist bastion post-2006. On November 6, Mahant Aditya Nath, abbot of the Gorakhnath Peeth and a BJP MP, organised a show in western Nepal’s Gopalpur village demanding Nepal’s “Hindu status” be restored. Gyanendra, invited there to inaugurate the newly built Gorakhnath temple, was accorded a royal welcome by the sadhudom. He was treated like the reigning king by Aditya Nath and accorded a warm welcome by the people along the 350 km route he took from Kathmandu. It showed public anger with the current politicians.
The sadhudom is taking a lot of interest in Nepal following reports of the unchecked growth of “churches” and “massive conversion” in the last six years.
The issue is now being linked to the failure to deliver the new constitution and the resultant political chaos. Key parties, including the Maoists, worked with donors and international NGOs and chose not to take major issues like secularism, federalism and republicanism to the people for a referendum. These players need to realise that a quiet “counter-revolution” is already in the offing. A possible clash between totalitarian Maoists and the majority community appears more and more likely. What weighs heavily against Maoists is their political failure and corruption-tainted image. The other major parties, which were part of the 2005-06 changes, may soon have to redefine their equations with the Maoists.