August 15, 2015

A State Under The Swastika (Pranay Sharma)

Nepalese during the Bala Chaturdasi festival at the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu
secular stocktaking
A State Under The Swastika
A demand for restoring the ‘Hindu state’ in Nepal enthuses and concerns Indians of various stripes
Special Issue: Independence Day Special  Independence Day Special
Less than a decade after the guns fell silent in Nepal, rumblings are once again being heard from the Himalayan kingdom. What these disturbances would translate into is still being debated in various quarters. But there is a strong possibility that their impact would be felt not only in Nepal but in the region, and especially in India, a democratic secular republic that is entering its 69th year of independence.
Nepal’s 11-year-old Maoist insurgency ended in 2006 when the rebels joined the political mainstream to continue their str­uggle through democracy. Once they seized power through the bal­lot, they overthrew the monarchy, jun­ked its ‘Hindu rashtra’ and turned Nepal into a “secular, democratic rep­ub­lic”.
But the cheering crowds that thronged the streets of Kathmandu to welcome the Maoists are once again out in large numbers, staging demonstrations in the capital and other towns. This time around, slogans are being raised against the Maoists; the demand is for reinstating the words ‘Hindu rashtra’ in the Nepalese constitution—something that is in the process of being written—to restore Nepal as the world’s only Hindu nation.
“There is a growing feeling among the people that secularism was brought in to destabilise Nepal and divide its people,” says political commentator Yubaraj Ghi­mire. “Much of this, they feel, was done without their consent or a debate.”
The popular mood in Nepal, therefore, will have to be seen both in terms of developments within it and also how the issue of secularism has been playing out in South Asia as a whole.
Nowhere is this issue more relevant  than in India. It is not only the biggest nation in the region, but also has a Hindu majority and a sizeable Muslim population (the third largest in the world), along with other religious minorities. How India, especially the ruling BJP and its other affiliates in the Sangh parivar, reacts to the ongoing efforts by sections of Nepalese to throw out ‘secularism’ from its constitution is of considerable importance to many Indians.
“This is a welcome move. The RSS sup­p­orts and welcomes it,” says Rajiv Tulsi, the RSS’s media head in Delhi. “Probably the Nepalese realise their cul­t­ure is set in Hinduism and it’s in their blood, and so they should be a Hindu nation. It is a good step,” he adds.
Three religions—Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism—dominate South Asia. Nepal, like India, is Hindu majority, while Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives have an overwhelming Muslim majority. Sri Lanka and Bhutan have a Buddhist maj­ority. However, all seven nations have various other religious minorities (see graphic) within their countries.
Seven decades earlier, leaders of most South Asian countries took a more tolerant view of their own religious minorities.The trauma of Partition not­w­­i­t­­h­standing and despite Pakistan being created on the basis of religion, its founding fath­ers—Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali—both had liberal views about religion and religious minorities. That attitude changed in subsequent years. The pandering to the religious majority and hardliners that began with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s regime was formalised and consolidated further when his nemesis, military dictator  Muhammad Zia ul-Haq took over. Today, Pakistan not only wears its Islamic republic badge with pride, but also leaves very little space for its religious minorities—not only Christians and Hindus, but non-Sunni communities  like the Ahmadiyas and Shias too.
Neighbouring Bangladesh, since it broke away from Pakistan in 1971, gave particular emphasis on its linguistic ide­ntity, Bengali, and initially tried to make space for other religious minorities. But a series of military rulers and civilian lea­ders fell back on the country’s religious identity to consolidate individual political power. In a lan­dmark judgment, the country’s Supreme Court brought back “secularism” along with “nationalism, democracy and socialism” in the constitution in 2010. However, the Sheikh Hasina government has done very little since then to dilute provisions that continue to proclaim Islam as Ban­gladesh’s guiding religion. The series of murderous attacks on secular bloggers in Bangladesh in recent years is a crude reminder of how intolerant the once-liberal Bangladeshi society has become.



The murders of several secular bloggers in Bangladesh are a reminder of how intolerant its once-liberal society has become.

Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is the dominant religion, hardly fares better. During its long ethnic war with the Tamil Tigers, Sinhalese leaders in Colombo did not hesitate to recruit the militant Bud­dhist clergy to isolate the Tamil minority in the north and the Muslim minority in the east. The consolidation of Buddhist power went on even after the bloody ethnic war ended, when former president Mahinda Rajapakse blatantly used stormtroopers of the Buddhist Bodu Bala Sena to entrench himself in power and silence Muslims and other minorities. There are indications that in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka, he may again seek the consolidated support of the Buddhist majority to become the country’s next PM.
In Maldives, where a non-Muslim is nei­­ther given nationality nor voting rig­hts, recent events suggest the ass­ertion of Islamic fundamentalist gro­ups. Attempts by its democratically ele­cted president Mohammed Nasheed to take on these sections led to his ouster in 2012.
In this prevailing regional scenario, the developments in Nepal have gathered more salience for India. However, scept­ics are not taking the demand for res­t­o­ring Nepal as a ‘Hindu’ nation seriously.
“At this stage, sentiment for a Hindu rashtra is not that overwhelming,” says Rak­esh Sood, former Indian ambassador to Nepal. “Also,” he adds, “those supporting it are aligned to the erstwhile monarchy and that linkage does not generate much resonance.”
But there are others with reasons to worry. CPI leader Pallab Sengupta, whose party, along with other Indian leftist parties, took the initiative of bringing the Maoists and other democratic forces in Nepal together, sees the development there as “extremely disturbing”. Though he hopes that attempts to do away with secularism would face stiff resistance from liberal quarters there, his concern also stems from its possible fal­lout on India under the present BJP leadership.
“Being the only Hindu state in the world, Hindu Nepal had a great symbolic value and the monarch was a great Hindu icon for the Sangh parivar,” says political scientist Pralay Kanungo of Delhi’s jnu. “The loss was significant for them.”
But the political uncertainty in Nepal—the inter-party bickering over a constitution has continued for years—and erosion of the Maoists’ credibility has also negatively impacted secularism. Many obs­ervers feel that the RSS, which has had influence over large sections of Nepalis, may now try to take advantage of the troubled situation. “There is no doubt that if Nepal reverts to being a Hindu state, it will be a huge victory for the Sangh parivar,” says Kanungo.
While that could be seen as an predictable reaction of the RSS, it’s unclear how saffron groups will act here if such an event comes to pass. Can it trigger attempts to revive a similar movement in the country to do away with secularism from our Constitution?
The word ‘secularism’ was incorporated in the Indian constitution in the 1970s by Indira Gandhi. Though it wasn’t there initially, the fact that the founding fathers did not want to designate any particular state religion clearly showed that secularism would be a guiding principle of free India.
By incorporating the word, Indira Gandhi, in a way, only stated what was all along obvious to most. Moreover, when the Janata Party government came to power, in which both Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were ministers, no attempt was made to amend the word ‘secularism’, put in Indira’s time.
Nevertheless, a feeble attempt to drop the word was made earlier this year when copies of the Constitution which did not contain the word were displayed in the government’s advertisements during the Republic Day celebrations. The widespread protest it sparked off had forced a hurried ret­reat. Given that, right-wingers within India—emboldened by the growing mood against secularism in Nepal—might just stop in their tracks. The secular nation’s well-being can depend on the strength of their mis­­givings and doubts about their success.