A few weeks back, KB Rokaya shocked many Nepalis in an interview with Avenues TV’s Tikaram Yatri when he bluntly said that secularism was a bad idea for Nepal. (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kph8nhkUsA&index=4&list=PLMjL87JJPlO_TwGDaR0cp4P4Vamy5dqAz https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCj2g__741E&index=3&list=PLMjL87JJPlO_TwGDaR0cp4P4Vamy5dqAz). Even those who have long thought that secularism was a Western conspiracy or those who have been campaigning for a Hindu state were stunned. The reason was that Rokaya, a teacher of engineering and a Christian pastor, was seen – and indeed had positioned himself – as the primary intellectual force behind the Maoist agenda of secularism. The Prachanda government even had nominated him from their quota to the National Human Rights Commission, presumably to further that particular ideology.
What led to this change of heart? There are charitable and not so charitable explanations. Among the latter, some of it impressively imaginative, the widest circulating one is the China factor (currently, few in Nepal believe India could be up to anything good or uplifting): it is said that China, with its Tibet security fixation, has come to the conclusion that it is proselytizing Christian evangelicals that are the biggest threat on this count, a Western Trojan Horse so to speak. They have thus applied subtle but strong pressure as only the Chinese can on authorities national and international to curb their activities, which has dried up funding to these proselytizers. The other explanation points to the diametrically opposite Southern neighbor: with the near demise of the Sonia Congress that covertly supported the insurgent Maoists against the “world’s only Hindu state” and the rise of the antipodal BJP, an about-turn is what we are seeing. The ideological arm of Modi’s BJP is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which has built up significant presence in Nepal over the last decade and it too has applied similar pressure, prompting the evangelicals to seek safety in retreat from their aggressive anti-Hindu posture since the Twelve Point Delhi Deal of 2005.
While many in Nepal would currently dismiss (or see a conspiracy behind) anything coming from India, and for good reasons thanks to the senseless blockade imposed by it, it does behoove us all to reflect on Modi’s religious politics and diplomacy to try and understand the underlying Southern tectonic forces behind this belief. Anirban Ganguly, head of the BJP think tank Syama Prasad Mookerjee Foundation, writes in the Daily Pioneer of 11 May about Modi’s Bodh Gaya initiative that places India’s civilizational heritage at the foundation of his new international diplomacy. Modi’s religious diplomacy at Ujjain’s Kumbh Mela was described in greater detail by C. Raja Mohan in the Indian Express of 10th May as well as the World Sufi Forum he had convened earlier. By forcefully placing the achievements and pilgrimage sites of India’s various religions at the center stage of his neighbourhood and Asian policy, Modi has reversed Nehru’s atheistic secularism, perhaps irrevocably.
For the Ujjain Kumbh Mela and its Shahi Snan, he had invited Sri Lankan president Sirisena as well as Nepal’s president Vidya Devi Bhandari, which the former accepted and the latter pulled out at the very last minute, embarrassing hosts and guests equally. No credible explanation has emerged as to why (as also dismissing a fairly capable ambassador that Nepal had in Delhi after a long time), but one needs to go back to earlier events to try and understand this behaviour. In late January earlier this year, I had the opportunity to exchange views with an RSS functionary working at the BJP headquarters in Delhi directly under Rajnath Singh and looking after the Nepal desk. He mentioned a major grievance of Modi and the RSS against Nepal’s Loktrantick rulers who did not allow him to visit Janakpur and Muktinath during his last visit to Nepal. While he tried to impressive upon me how a very religious Modi felt deeply hurt by it, I had to remind him that India herself was to be blamed for this “affront”: thanks to Sonian India’s policy of regime change in Nepal since 2005, she has succeeded in not only sidelining a Hindu King but also bringing avowed acolytes of Marx to power (almost two-thirds of Nepal’s parliament) who hold that religion is opium of the masses. Why would they have any sympathy with Modi’s religious diplomacy? Is it that Rokaya has been able to see more foresightedly what his Leftie Comrades have not been able to and which has led to the deft footwork he has just executed?
It is the charitable explanations of Rokaya’s recants that perhaps carry more weight even though some geopolitical elements of the above cannot be dismissed off-hand. Rokaya is a deeply spiritual person who found his Ishwar in Christ as other Nepalis have found Him (or Her) in the Sufi mystic, the Sai Baba of Shiridi, Brahma Kumaris or even the heterodox Osho and a host of others. Hinduism, as Vivekananda has explained, does not believe in tolerance, which is at best a patronizing superciliousness that retains the Abrahamic “Thou art wrong and I am right about my One True God” attitude: it believes in acceptance of all paths as leading to That Transcendental Reality just as spokes of a wheel can start from opposite ends but lead to the center. Rokaya’s evangelism of the True Believer needed the space to spread the good news (Gospel) that worked for him. This is why, he argues in the interview, he supported the idea of secularism as meaning “religious freedom”. Ironically, this is something that Modi’s BJP has been arguing for as a more Southasian ethos rather than secularism, which they argue is something only applicable in the European historical context.
Since the Panchayat, indeed since Prithvi Narayan Shah, right through multi-party democracy, the Nepali state has discouraged that kind of evangelism as something insulting to the majority and thus leading to societal disharmony (and thus counterproductive to promoting secularism in its broader philosophical sense). In its defense, it must be admitted that the Nepali Hindu state has allowed the free practice of Christianity or Islam minus proselytization, the former to build churches all over and latter to even establish and run a mosque next to the royal palace (a temple placed as such is unthinkable in Saudi Arabia or the Nordic countries that support the hard core evangelicals). However, one must only listen to the hate spewing, almost ISIS-like sermons in the new evangelical churches (although not in the older and more responsible Jesuit Catholic ones) to realize how this is disrupting social harmony, less among the high caste Brahmins but more among the traditional Janjatis such as the Jyapus or the Gurungs. All this proselytizing has now invited a backlash and Rokaya seems to have woken up to this mess, better late, one might say, than never.
There might also be a deeper philosophical disjuncture behind Rokaya’s recent recants: the primary drivers behind the imposition of secularism in Nepal without a decent public debate have been the atheistic communists, of both the Maoist and UML variety, the former using it as a recruiting tool among the religious minorities for their peoples’ war and the latter, potato party as ever, as an opportunistic electoral tool among the swing vote minorities. (Nepali Kangress remained almost brain-dead during this transition: its unquestioning allegiance to Girja Koirala – who saw secularism as a tool to cut the Hindu King down to size and promote his own abortive attempt to be the first president of Nepal – is only now being challenged and that too by his own nephews.) This political move to jettison the Hindu character of Nepal has led to a strange set of bed-fellows: atheists united with deeply spiritual Christians, Buddhists and Muslims, the last of which has now begun openly saying that they felt safer and more cared for in Hindu Nepal than in a secular one. The Buddhists have recently woken up to the fact that the majority of the converts to evangelical Christianity (not to the more orthodox Catholicism) have been their own lay folks and not so much the Hindus. It was not an alliance that could last very long, and the ruptures are beginning to show. Rokaya is the latest in making a break with Nepali atheists.
In this looming battle between materialist atheists and spiritual transcendentalists, one more factor looms large: corruption, which is being experienced in Nepal never as pervasively as now. An atheistic state cut off from the moorings of its ethical values inevitably goes adrift on self-centered individualism. Where one can whole-heartedly sympathize with Rokaya is perhaps his innate belief that corruption cannot be addressed through pure materialism without upholding some kind of higher ethics that comes from our common spiritual heritage. Will our Loktantricksters listen? Are they even capable of listening?