Faith in toleranceDiversity is the basis of our national unity. Freedom of religion also means respecting the faith of others.
Dharan’s Bijayapur is home to both Hindu and Kirat places of worship, one of which is the Balgopal Temple. But in May, residents woke up one day to the arrival of Holy Trinity Believers Eastern Church across the street.
Various religious groups wrote to Dharan’s firebrand mayor Harka Sampang to urge him to relocate the church, saying it was built illegally. The Christian community also reached out to the mayor, defending the site.
Mayor Sampang instead of trying to defuse the situation, washed his hands off the matter and referred it to the courts. The city had already been on edge after the 2022 local election campaign when Sampang and his rival accused each other of stoking ethno-religious tensions.
Matters came to a head earlier this month when a gathering of indigenous communities dined on beef and live-streamed it. Killing cows is still punishable by law because it is Nepal’s national animal. The video ignited a wildfire of ethnic tension not just in Dharan, but across the country and in the diaspora.
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Radical Hindu groups in neighbouring districts of Jhapa, Morang, and Sunsari began to mobilise, organising a save-the-cow rally on 26 August. On social media, the discourse became extreme with threats of violence. Mayor Sampang had to declare a curfew to douse the flames, but continued to post inflammatory remarks on social media.
Sampang was elected in 2022 on a populist anti-establishment wave just like Kathmandu’s Mayor Balen Shah. But he has been on the defensive ever since a decade-old video emerged in which he appears to support conversion to Christianity.
Fortunately, Dharan’s former mayors who are from all ethnicities came together to call for de-escalation, describing Dharan as a culturally, linguistically, ethnically and geographically, religiously tolerant and diverse city. This has defused the situation somewhat, but the root of the problem lies in politicians of all hues using religious populism for support.
Dharan is now calm, but there is concern that it could be calm before the storm. There is also concern that outsiders are trying to keep tensions high by whipping up Hindutva nationalism and identity politics.
In Kathmandu, leaders from across national political parties released a joint statement expressing concern. Shekhar Koirala, who leads a rival faction of the Nepali Congress (NC), accused Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of plain identity politics.
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To stanch a possible conflagration that could spread across the country, the national parties need to reaffirm Nepal’s secular status to mean religious freedom and inclusion and the leadership must go beyond joint written statements.
But with the end of ideology in Nepali politics and winds of intolerance blowing from the South, Nepal’s politicians are falling back on populism and bigotry. Politicians should be worshipping at shrines dedicated to all religions, not just their own. It is not enough to give speeches from the pulpit saying they “respect all religions”.
A sitting MP and Nepal’s supposedly richest man invited a self-declared Indian godman who has repeatedly expressed misogynistic, casteist and Islamophobic sentiments and openly called for violence against minorities. He has been given a VIP welcome and politicians of all hues, including the Home Minister, lined up to pay respects.
Dharan’s troubles are a continuation of the ongoing debate about whether to name the province Kosi (based on geography) or Kirat (based on identity). This debate can easily be resolved if moderate politicians on both sides are more vocal, and not let the hotheads whip up tensions.
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The royalist-right Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) wants secularism expunged from the constitution, and the re-establishment of Nepal as a Hindu monarchy.
Nepal’s public sphere, disillusioned with establishment politics, has seen a shift to pro-Hindu discourse corresponding with Hindutva in India and its growing influence in Nepal. The political leadership and aspirants have taken notice, and weaponised social media to appeal to the voter base.
Nepal has long prided itself as being a ‘garden of many castes and ethnicities’ and for its religious tolerance and harmony. But often, ethnic and caste-based bigotry, discrimination, and violence are swept under the rug.
Nepal’s ethnic, cultural, and religious mosaic is our strength. Diversity is the basis of our national unity. Freedom of religion also means respecting the faith of others.
TikTok beefeaters were provocative, but so were the demonstrators who were disrespectful of the customs and culture of fellow-Nepalis.
Separation of powers also means keeping religion out of politics, that is the true essence of secularism. At any other time, the co-existence of a temple and a church next to each other could be a fitting symbol of the tolerance that Nepalis are supposed to espouse.
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