Unconventional convention

Hindu state agenda divides the Nepali Congress as religious tension grips the Tarai

Photo: KIRAN RAJ BISTA / RSS

Sabir Khan was riding his motorbike in Parsa on Tuesday when he was stopped by several men and boys wielding sticks and saffron flags. 

The encounter was captured on video. The men are heard forcing  Khan to venerate the Hindu god Ram, to which he replies that he has an urgent errand up the road. 

“I don’t care how important your errand is, you don’t get to leave without saying Jai Shri Ram,” one of the men says. Another man smacks Khan on the head. 

The audio cuts off at this point, but Khan must have eventually agreed to the threats, because he is allowed to ride away and the men begin to chant "Jai Shri Ram" around a burning tyre on the road. 

Such video clips have become commonplace across the border in India, but that it is happening in Nepal confirms what many had warned about: that India’s Hindutva ideology would spread to Nepal.  

This week, there were communal clashes at Ishnath Municipality in Rautahat over a procession to immerse the idol of goddess Saraswati. The tensions spread to Birganj, where groups staged demonstrations, prompting authorities to enforce curfews.  

Social media is awash with posts by sympathisers from across the border, many with sentiments like ‘Nepal was much more beautiful when it was not secular’, and praising Nepali activists for backing restoration of Hindu state.

“In Nepal, Hindutva as a political ideology is still nascent. Its seeds have been planted on a soil fertilised by democratic decay,” wrote Birganj-based media commentator Chandra Kishore recently in his column, Borderlines, in this paper. 

India’s shift to far-right Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Modi has emboldened those with a similar ideology in Nepal, and this is mixed up with a call also for the restoration of the monarchy. 

India’s opposition parties have tried but failed to stop the juggernaut of political Hindutva. And here in Nepal, leaders across the political spectrum have done little to quell the rise of religious intolerance and extremism. 

Instead, some parties are pushing faith-based politics to endear themselves to capitalise on what they see as an anti-secular vote bank during the next election. 

Nepal’s avowed Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal sought photo-ops clad in saffron in temples in Nepal and India. Former communist Prime Minister K P Oli attempted to provoke Hindus in Nepal and India by claiming that Lord Ram was actually born in Nepal. Nepali Congress (NC) leader Sher Bahadur Deuba expressed support for removing secularism from the Constitution during an all-party meeting last year. 

The call to restore a Hindu nation loomed large at the NC party convention in Godavari this week (pictured). This appears to be driven by Deuba’s need to pull the rug from underneath anti-secularist forces in his own party, as well as the growing popularity of the Hindu monarchist RPP.

NC lawmaker and central committee member Shankar Bhandari used the party’s convention to launch a campaign to include the restoration of a Hindu state at the party convention. 

In response, NC vice chair Purna Bahadur Khadka wrote in his policy proposal presented to a closed meeting of the NC: ‘The people seem to be delirious with the need to adopt populism and regress to authoritarianism.’ 

Bhandari’s proposal was rejected by the party leadership. But the NC in general and Deuba in particular have bigger fish to fry. Deuba is being challenged by not-so-young Turks like NC General Secretary Gagan Thapa, who is pushing the party to abandon its alliance with the Maoists in the next election.

Growing calls in the NC to go it alone have sent shock waves in the Maoist Centre, which is the third largest party in Parliament by a wide margin after the NC and opposition UML.

Prime Minister Dahal also faces calls from within his party about the partnership with the NC, and has been hinting that all is not well within the coalition, and that he may reshuffle the Cabinet. 

“The Nepali Congress had no choice but to form an electoral alliance with the Maoists due to special political circumstances. But upset voters see it as an ideological contamination of our party,” Gagan Thapa told the convention.  

For now, both Dahal and Deuba  maintain their commitment to the coalition because a breakup would mean that the premiership-sharing deal between Dahal, Deuba, and CPN-Unified Socialist chair Madhav Kumar Nepal would no longer stand, preventing Deuba from being prime minister for a sixth time. 

Meanwhile, NC General Secretary Bishwa Prakash Sharma, who has been an ally of Gagan Thapa, differed about going it alone in the next election.   

Said Sharma: “Our future electoral alliance or the lack thereof is a bridge we will cross when we get to it four years from now.”

Shristi Karki

writer

Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.

  • Most read