5-11 September 2014 #723

Among believers

We should protect the right to religious freedom in the new constitution

It will soon be one year since Nepalis voted in the second CA elections, giving an overwhelming thumbs up to the NC and the UML.

That was a much-needed self-correction by voters who perhaps realised they had been a bit too forgiving and gullible about the Maoist promise of equality and justice.

Having saved ourselves from Mao-fication, however, in the past year the ruling coalition has been trying to turn the clock back. The 1991 Constitution restored religion freedom, and allowed conversion as long as there was no coercion and inducement. The 2008 Interim constitution went further and declared Nepal a secular republic. The new CA though is trying to retain a provision from the previous draft of the constitution prohibiting conversion. While the clause is qualified with ‘against his or her desire’, in reality it could undermine the cause of religious freedom and go against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of which Nepal is a signatory.

The new CA appears to be moving systematically to erode other gains in the 1991 and 2008 statutes, exhibiting a culturally intolerant and socially conservative streak. The clauses on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, on citizenships of children of single mothers, are worrying signs of a democratic reversal, lack of recognition of under-represented minorities, an apalling lack of gender sensitivity, and unconcern about structural discrimination against the marginalised.

The growth in proselytisation since 1990 did not happen in a vacuum, many Dalits and Janjati groups willingly turned to Christianity because of the exclusion of their caste, or of their ethnic group, by a rigid and orthodox state. However, the public perception (fed, it must be said, by sensational coverage in the media) that there is an ongoing mass conversion of Hindus to Christianity does not bear out in the 2011 census. Although the total population of those who ticked ‘Christian’ in the census forms grew three fold since 2001, only 1.45 per cent of Nepalis are Christians.

It must be said that there has been aggressive evangelism by well-endowed groups especially since 2006 among the economically desperate and victims of state neglect and discrimination. This has provoked a backlash from the Hindu right in whose interest it is to exaggerate the spread of Christianity for political gain. Some radical groups have even carried out deadly bombings of churches.

The fact that the RPP-N became the fourth-largest party in the CA mainly because of its stand in support of the Hindu state and against the activities of Christian groups, leads one to the anachronistic conclusion that while many Nepalis may be politically liberal, they are culturally conservative. The RPP-N, it must be said, did not win a single seat in direct voting, but showed strong support in the PR ballot. Recent public opinions polls, including by Himalmedia, have consistently shown that while most people reject a return to the monarchy, support for a Hindu state has been above 60 per cent.

The ascent of Narendra Modi in India riding the crest of a Hindu wave has boosted the morale of Nepal’s religious right. Although Modi did not explicitly back political Hinduism in his speech to the CA last month, it was replete with religious references. The vice-chairman of the BJP, Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, in a visit to Kathmandu in June suggested that Nepal should criminalise conversion. Soon after he left, Nepal’s Social Welfare Minister Nilam KC echoed that view, and senior NC leaders have been publicly calling for Nepal to be declared a Hindu state.

A lot of what happens in Nepal will be affected by India’s gravitational tug, but we have a chance to build on the past by writing a constitution that conforms to the ICCPR and guarantees the people’s right to choose and change their faith, or indeed, not to believe in a religion.  Failure to protect the freedom of religion will mean that instead of progress, we will have regressed.

Read also:

Making it count

Going local, Dambar Krishna Shrestha

Post-mortem of a defeat, Muma Ram Khanal

Back to the centre, Editorial

Back to square zero, Trishna Rana

A wide open field

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