The south wind blows

Nepal’s Hindu right is climbing on to a train without knowing which way it is headed

People circumambulate the statue of Prithvi Narayan Shah at Singha Darbar during a rally held to mark Prithvi Jayanti on 12 January.  Photo: NABN POUDEL/RSS

We all knew that the populist surge in India would impact on Nepali politics at some point, especially as the great neighbour across the open border to the south nears elections this year. 

But the saffron that has begun to pigment the Nepal Tarai is different from India’s saffron wave. Events in India do colour Nepali politics, but it is important to make a distinction between India’s Hindu-tva and Nepal’s Hindu-ism.

India and Nepal both have Constitutions that guarantee the separation of politics and religion. However, at least in India, that has become a relic of the dim past. The lines between faith and ideology are becoming blurred.

Is the attraction to faith-based politics in Nepal affected by religio-cultural needs, or is it the political agenda of some political parties? There are different strands of Hindu right politics in Nepal, and we have to see the distinction.

Read also: Crimson, saffron and green, Chandra Kishore

The Shah dynasty that was removed after the abolition of monarchy in 2008 is attempting to ride India’s saffron wave. The irony is that it was a Centre-Left government in India at the time that pushed for Nepal to adopt a federal republican structure.

But at the people’s level, Hinduism transcends religion--it is a way of life and its concepts of tolerance (बसुधैव कुटुम्बकम ) or equity (सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिन) touch the everyday lives of communities on both sides of the border.

Hindutva politics in India is not new; it has a long history that goes back to the independence struggle against the British. But today, it has become a part of mainstream politics. It has latched on to many contradictions and regressive ideas, but has become a political ideology of the ruling party, sidelining other secular and regional parties.

However, in Nepal, Hindutva as a political ideology is still nascent. Its seeds have been planted on a soil fertilised by democratic decay. There was an attempt to push the Hindutva agenda during the 2006 People’s Movement, but it did not take root in the desiccated post-war polity.  

Read also: Faith in tolerance, Editorial

But today, mainstream parties (even avowed Communist ones) are competing with each other to cloak themselves in saffron. Old, new, democratic, communist, reactionary--all kinds of parties are on the bandwagon.

Even though Nepal was till recently a Hindu monarchy, religion was never overtly the basis for politics in democratic Nepal. But because the political parties post-2006 have failed so miserably to address the people’s basic needs, they wave the saffron flag to maintain their base.

To the south, Hindutva ideologues have already identified who the ‘Others’ are. India’s minorities feel they are being targeted, and those who believe in secularism have been declared enemies of the state.

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

Some of Nepal’s parties want to use faith-based politics to turn the clock back on republicanism and inclusion while others just want to delete secularism from the Constitution. Others want federalism scrapped. It is not just domestic disillusionment that is driving this--the wind is also blowing from the south.   

India’s Hindutva forces have been involved in a decades-long strategy to influence literature, Bollywood, think tanks, the mass media, and other sectors of national life. However, in Nepal, the parties that espouse Hindutva have borrowed it for political expediency, not because they actually believe in its relevance or have a clear plan.  

Simmering discontent with secularism was fanned by India’s Hindutva forces over time to turn it into a raging blaze. The Indian Congress and regional parties appear powerless to challenge this juggernaut at the national level. Some of them have gone soft, while others have also fallen into the trap of communalism.

In Nepal, reactionaries are using faith-based politics to jumpstart their failed careers. They do not understand that this can lead to a fluid situation with unintended consequences as we have seen with recent communal tension along the Tarai.

Read also: Religiously following politics, Chandra Kishore

The same social media symbols and tropes that are being pushed in India are also being spread in Nepal. In India, there is just the BJP that is the locomotive of Hindutva, but in Nepal it is every opportunistic party either in the fringes or mainstream. And they are all competing with each other to be more saffron.

Even the RPP and king Gyanendra have not been able to prove themselves as the main driving force. Which is why the secular parties are sanguine that Hindutva ideology does not have widespread support.    

But it is essential to sort out whether Hindutva is just using Nepal’s open and pluralistic politics, or if it really has a larger following. There is an attempt at historical revisionism, and to a certain extent it is impacted by regional political alignments in India.  

Whatever happens during India’s election year, Nepal’s politics has its own dynamics even if it may echo slogans heard from across the border. But this is a train they are climbing on to without knowing which way it is headed.   

Read also: Long leave the King, Alisha Sijapati

Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based media commentator and writes this monthly column Borderlines for Nepali Times.


Chandra Kishore