Secularism and sectarianism

Nepal is not yet secular. We still have a long way to go.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, Ramdev and Pushpa Kamal Dahal inaugurating an unlicensed tv network on 18 November 2021. All photos: HIMAL.

The word ‘secularism’ is mis-translated into the Sanskritised Nepali as ‘धर्मनिरपेक्ष’, and has been taken by many to mean anti- or non-religion. This has created a misunderstanding about the concept among Nepal’s deeply religious people.

All secularism means is separation of state and religion, and in practical terms it connotes freedom of religion. An individual’s belief, faith or lack thereof are inherently personal. It is when a dominant religion is mixed with politics that divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ come up.

As scholars have pointed out, the Sanskrit word ‘धर्म’ also does not have an exact translation in English. When the British were in Bengal that they loosely translated ‘dharma’ to mean ‘religion’, whereas institutionalised religion has other Sanskrit synonyms like ‘पन्थ’ or ‘मार्ग’. Hinduism, as Gauri N Rimal points out in Himal, is a ‘dharma’ not just a religion.

World history is replete with wars fought in the name of one god or another, where propagation of religion has driven conquests, and faith-based fissures have plunged countries into internecine conflict.

The concept of ‘secularism’ was imported into Nepal from the post-independence Indian constitution after communal pogroms of partition in the Subcontinent cost millions of lives. India inherited secularism from its colonial ruler, Britain, which itself had a long history of mixing church and state, and of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants.

In a country with such a diversity of dharma as Nepal, it is strange for one religion to be dominant. In fact, B P Koirala mentioned in 1980: ‘Nepal is not a Hindu state, it was never a Hindu state, and it will never be a Hindu state.’ Much before in 1962, he stated that 'declaring Nepal as a Hindu State is a fraud.’

Even when Prithvi Narayan Shah and his progeny unified the country that would later be called Nepal, it spread far beyond just his hilltop principality of Gorkha and its patron deities. Nepal’s later rulers found it advantageous to define the new country as a Hindu state because top-down hierarchy made it easier to govern. Perpetuating the caste system, and confining each group in its place and profession, made it easier to divide and rule.

Even though the concept of ‘Sanatan Dharma’ denotes ordained collection of practices and duties regardless of caste, sect or class, in actual practice most festivals and rituals in Nepal today are derived from Hinduism. They have continued in Nepal’s so-called ‘secular’ state where the traditional caste and sect divisions are perpetuated in the name of tradition and heritage.

This means that although Nepal is now supposed to be a secular republic, decisions of the state including the observance of religious holidays of dominant groups, participation of politicians in rituals, and the fall-back on populism, are anything but secular.

Religion is a matter between an individual and their god, but rulers use it as a strategy to come to power and retain it. Marx called it ‘the opium of the masses’. The big historical wars of the Subcontinent were usually about territorial conquest, not based on religion. The colonial period used divide-and-rule tactics, and thereby laid the seeds of communal violence.

Some of these same methods are being used by India’s rulers today. After partition, the religious extremism in the Subcontinent within India, between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and the AfPak-Iran region, now also have geo-strategic ramifications.

It is because religion is so personal that it should not be mixed with politics. We see where this can lead to in India today, where people have been killed because of disputes over what is deemed sacred by some. Nepal should learn lessons from this, since certain ethnic groups eat animals that others regard as holy, while some do not eat other animals.

The way to peacefully resolve these issues is by not allowing one religion or dominant group to direct what is lawful and what is not. One indicator of a truly democratic state is how well it protects the rights of its minorities. When a country’s leader is seen as the protector of only the majority group or faith, it can invite conflict. Leaders who create divisions based on religion among citizens, and incite them to violence against each other, may call themselves ‘nationalists’ but they are anti-national.

When Nepal became secular, we thought it would finally liberate women from entrenched patriarchy. Most of the burden of rituals and festivals still fall on the shoulders of women, and many are still treated as non-citizens.

Nepal is not yet secular. We still have a long way to go.

Indra Adhikari is a political analyst specialising in international relations and security issues. This opinion is extracted from a Himal Sambad discussion on 16 December.