Religiously following politicsNepal’s traditional communal harmony could be disturbed by imported intolerance
On an extended visit to India recently, it was clear to me that the country has changed. There is an infrastructure building spree and the economy is vibrant. But underneath it all, there is an ominous undercurrent of intolerance, persecution of minorities and silencing of the media.
During the Ram Nawami processions on 30 March there were communal clashes in Bihar and elsewhere. Those taking part wielded knives and raised slogans inciting violence against other communities. Black-or-white media coverage of the events magnified the slant and hate speech.
Combining politics with religion is a volatile mix, and this has polarised the two communities in India as extremism by one side is met with retaliatory action by the other. There is a long history of Hindu-Muslim clashes in India, and some of it dates back to the divide-and-rule policy of colonial Britain. The bad blood of partition has not yet coagulated, and the riots following the Babri Masjid demolition and the Gujarat pogroms are still fresh in the collective memory.
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Despite our open border with India, these communal conflagrations did not affect Nepal much in the past. After all, Muslims have been living largely peacefully in Hindu-dominant Nepal even before it existed as a nation state.
But things are changing. Just like all the other things Nepal imports from India, some elements coming in from across the border are also importing bigotry and politically-instigated fanaticism.
This year’s Ram Nawami and Hanuman Jayanti processions in Madhes Province were laced with religious tension. They were much bigger than earlier years with more saffron flags, knives and swords on display. In Janakpur and Birganj, this exhibitionism of supremacy and an angry reaction from the other community could have easily turned violent.
Across the Tarai, car stickers, posters and flags now show the fearsome aspects of Ram and Hanuman instead of their benevolent avatar. Hanuman used to be shown lifting a chunk of the Himalaya to bring healing herbs to Ram wounded in battle with Ravana, or kneeling in supplication before his lord. But we are now seeing a fiercer Hanuman visage being imported from propagators of majoritarianism in India. There is a deliberate message in these depictions.
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It is true what they say: gods reflect the personality of the humans who create them. It is when people use religious figures to propagate their political agenda that we push society to the edge.
There is now debate in India about this politico-religious fanaticism. We in Nepal have to be aware of what is happening in India so that the virus of intolerance does not spread across the border.
During the Covid pandemic two years ago there was an organised effort in India to blame Muslims for being superspreaders. Seeds of this were planted in the Nepal Tarai as well but, luckily, did not take root.
There is a danger of escalation on both sides of the India-Nepal border as hatred breeds more hate and various groups compete for a show of force on the streets. It takes only a spark to ignite this tinder-dry community at large.
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Religious belief is a personal matter. Nepal’s Constitution gives every citizen the right to believe in whatever they want to. But when one group interferes with another’s right to worship as it sees fit, or when weapons are displayed threateningly and the visuals spread through social media -- that crossing the line.
With freedom comes responsibility. Unless the authorities in Madhes Province curb such threatening activity, Nepal will face tensions similar to the ones in Indian states during religious commemorations. Sacred observances will turn into festivals of fear and hate.
Nepal may have an open border with India, but the collective psychology of Nepalis is different than what prevails on the other side. Our traditional tolerance is now being disturbed by hate speech on social media platforms in India. This is creating a rift in Tarai society that could lead to violence.
The Nepali media has to be careful not to be a weapon of intolerance and fan the flames. There was a precedent for this in the 2007 Kapilvastu riots when FM radio stations were implicated.
Nepal’s municipalities need a strict code of conduct for religious processions. Hindu-Muslim religious harmony exists across a broad societal spectrum in Nepal. There are instances of joint religious observances. The Janaki Temple honouring Sita was built by Muslim artisans, and Muslims in many parts of the Tarai greet their neighbours in the morning with a friendly “Ram-ram”. Let no one disturb and distort this co-existence for narrow political ends.
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