One of the many unintended consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic is the rekindling of people’s faith in religion. It is no surprise though, as we have witnessed resurgence of religions during times of uncertainty throughout history. Moreover, modernity has not lessened the salience of religion. In fact, it has heightened it. Around the world, more and more people are leaving their ancestral lands and heading to cities in search of better opportunities. In doing so, they leave behind their joint families and strong social ties. Even as they are bereft of their social support, the consumerist and individualistic urban lifestyles heighten their sense of alienation. In these hard times, they can find great solace in invoking god. Yet, the inexorable march of urbanization does not stop.
Officially, as of 2018, around 80 percent of Nepal’s population was rural, down from nearly 97 percent in 1960. The actual percentage of urban population in Nepal could be even higher when considering the effects of seasonal migration. In India, over 30 percent of its citizens now live in cities. In China, around 60 percent do. This has not been missed by politicians, who would like to cash in on this often alienating experience of modernization and urbanization.
The BJP in India (80 percent Hindu) has openly and successfully pandered to its fast-urbanizing Hindu population. Political parties in Nepal (over 80 percent Hindu) also can’t ignore their Hindu vote bank. The pro-Hindu RPP Nepal emerged as the fourth biggest party from the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013, with its greatest support reported in the Kathmandu Valley. Had Kamal Thapa not so badly compromised on his Hindu agenda when in power, a big section of the population could still be backing him. Top leaders of the NCP and the NC know this.
Donald Trump, a serial philanderer and liar, was elected and sworn in by the Bible in 2016. He understands the continued importance of being pictured as a pious Christian once a while. From India to Indonesia, Brazil to Burma, religious politics are making a comeback. Nepal is now a constitutionally ‘secular’ state. But as the country was declared secular almost overnight, with little debate about what it entailed, most Nepalis still don’t know what to make of it. They also see how the ‘irreligious’ communist government, the strongest democratic government Nepal has ever had, is failing the country.
Because of this, it may also be the perfect time for the revival of religious politics. For whenever there is a big natural disaster, the number of faithful increases. Apparently, most of the devout, whatever their religion, believe these natural phenomena are the result of people abandoning their faith—and not of god abandoning them. There have been countless tales of how people’s loss of fear in gods had contributed to the 2015 Nepal earthquakes. Now, many well-educated Nepalis are visiting temples to ward off Covid-19.
These are the same folks who never tire of saying that if there is a referendum on religion, Nepal would be declared a Hindu state by a landslide. Even Karl Marx (‘Religion is the opium of the masses’) acknowledged how religion provided succor to those going through hard times.
People want to belong and for their lives to be meaningful. But urbanization and modernization are pushing them into a seemingly soulless, anonymous existence. The Covid-19 crisis is exacerbating this trend. Expect religious politics to make a roaring comeback in its aftermath.