Crimson, saffron and green

An ideological vacuum is turning the Madhes into fertile ground for the religious right

The rally for peace and harmony in Birganj on 25 September was well attended by local luminaries and the public, and followed days of inter-religious clashes in Malangwa last week. PHOTO: JIYALAL SAH

It looks like the whole country is demonstrating on the streets. Ex-king Gyanendra has been attending rallies for the restoration of a Hindu monarchy in Kathmandu, teachers are on the warpath against federal control, striking doctors are protesting gang attacks on hospitals, activist Iih stood for 11 days outside Kathmandu City Hall protesting the mayor’s high-handedness.

Meanwhile, on Monday in Birganj there was a different kind of street demonstration – for tolerance and harmony. 

The municipality took out the rally to douse communal clashes that flared up in Malangwa of Sarlahi district for four days this week, serious enough for a curfew  to be clamped.  

In Birganj, businesses, intellectuals and politicians including Mayor Rajeshman Singh and Deputy Mayor Imtiaz Alam rallied for religious coexistence. Instead of saffron or green, they waved Nepal’s crimson double triangle.

Read also: Religiously following politics, Chandra Kishore

Madhes Province borders the Indian state of Bihar, and bonds of kinship, language, culture and trade bind communities in the two countries together. As India prepares for general elections next year, growing persecution of minorities there is starting to infect Nepal as well.

Hindus and Muslims in Nepal have lived peacefully for centuries. My own ancestral home is in the village of Balara near Malangwa. My 80-year-old mother still lives there and remembers the Muslim woman who sold her glass bangles. 

Despite untouchability at the time, she was allowed right inside the house to fit bangles and give blessings to the family. 

Malangwa itself derives its name from Malang Baba, revered by both Hindus and Muslims. The frontier town is therefore a symbol of the age-old solidarity between the two communities. Its message: do not spread division and strife. 

Read also: Secularism and sectarianism, Indra Adhikari

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A rally in Bhaktapur on 24 September was attended by a flag-waving crowd, but in contrast, was for restoring Nepal's Hindu monarchy. Ex-king Gyanendra attended the event. Photo: SULAV SHRESTHA/DESH SANCHAR

I have just returned from Malangwa which is limping back to normal. But the clashes have opened new fears that the attempt to ignite religious tension could spread to other border districts. 

We know from other sectarian conflagrations that the initial spark is from rubbing religion and politics together to create friction. This is a volatile mixture, and can be fanned by exclusionary populism -- especially in the age of social media. Sadly, no religion has a monopoly on extremism, even ones that preach compassion.  

The strategy of religious zealots is to propel themselves to power by neutralising symbols of tolerance, and discredit those who stand for togetherness. The tactic is to weaponise social networking sites to drive a wedge, and divide society into ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

Economic problems, joblessness and disillusionment with politicians is prompting new forces to stoke religious animosity. 

Read also: India’s Hindutva politics influencing Nepal, Santa Gaha Magar

The wind is blowing from the south this monsoon, and it is infusing ideas of majoritarian communalism. Let those who are fanning these flames be warned that they may well reap the whirlwind. 

The press should be playing a moderating check-and-balance role, but local media is itself spreading hate speech and extremism.
In every crisis, there will be some brave souls who will act on their conscience. But we did not hear those voices amidst the extremist din in Malangwa. 

An ideological vacuum is turning Madhes Province into fertile ground for the religious right, and a laboratory against federalism and secularism. Nepal with its diversity cannot be a theocracy-- the state has to be a protector of all peoples and faiths. Secularism means the freedom of each Nepali to practice their religion. 

Such acceptance is anathema to those who want to mix religion and politics: they want us to distrust and hate each other.
There is a lot of flag-waving going on, but at least the rally in Birganj showed that crimson is the new saffron and green.  

Read also: Faith in tolerance, Editorial

Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based journalist who writes this monthly column Borderlines in Nepali Times. @kishore_chandra

Chandra Kishore