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Dahal’s journey from Mahakaleshwar to Pashupatinath

Dahal’s journey from Mahakaleshwar to Pashupatinath
“Prime Minister Prachandaji, you will visit Indore and the religious city of Ujjain. I am sure your visit to Ujjain will be full of energy, and you will also have a spiritual experience in this journey from Pashupatinath to Mahakaleshwar.” This was the statement made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the press conference organized in Hyderabad House after a delegation level meeting with Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Modi’s statement clearly indicates he wants Nepali leaders to be more committed to Hindu religion. The next day, Dahal offered an elaborate Pooja at Mahakaleshwar temple in Indore. Images of him, a communist atheist clad in Dhoti and Janai performing an act of piety was quite a spectacle. The prime minister was joined by the members of his delegation that included five ministers. Soon after his return to Nepal, Dahal went on to perform another out-of-character move by visiting Pashupatinath temple. Here was the leader of the Maoist revolution whose party detested religion discovering faith, so to speak.

His move has also triggered a debate whether it goes against the secular spirit of the 2015 constitution. Dahal has defended himself saying that he visited the temples and participated in rituals as the head of the government. But many are not convinced. Even his long-time colleague and former Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai has said: “When an individual goes to the temple, we cannot raise questions because it is a matter of his belief, but when the whole Cabinet goes there that becomes a political issue.”

Why are major political parties who drafted a secular constitution in 2015 are now drifting toward Hindu religion?  Dahal is not the first leader who as a prime minister has tried to appease the Hindu constituency. Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba and CPN-UML Chairman KP Sharma Oli did the same when they were in power. For instance, Deuba as a prime minister in 2022, performed a Pooja at Kal Bhairav and Kashi Vishwanath in Varanasi. As a prime minister from 2018 to 2022, Oli took a series of measures to woo the Hindu voters. Analysts say it clearly indicates that there is growing influence of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS) inside Nepal’s political parties. Of late, more and more BJP leaders and RSS representatives are traveling to Nepal to step up engagements with various sections of society. A few months back, a RSS representative said: “For us, both India and Nepal are already Hindu states as we do not regard both countries as secular states.” Over the past few years, BJP has expanded its party-to-party relationship with Nepal’s political parties including the communist leaders. Publicly, BJP leaders have not told anything to our leaders about Hindu religion, but they are speaking about enhancing the age-long cultural ties. In their private meetings with Nepali leaders, BJP leaders often mention ‘cultural nationalism’ which means promotion and protection of Hindu religion Since Nepal adopted a secular constitution in 2015, BJP and RSS have been expressing their concerns about religious conversion in Nepal. They believe that there is a growing attack on Hindu religion in the name of secularism. BJP has been reportedly suggesting Nepal’s political parties to take measures to protect the Hindu religion. It is no coincidence that the voices of reinstatement of Hindu state are gaining ground inside major political parties of Nepal, including the Maoists. In the second week of May this year, Maoist leader Ram Kumar Sharma submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Dahal demanding a referendum between Hindu state and secularism. It was the first instance of the Hindu agenda being raised inside the party. Inside the NC, such voices are already strong and vocal.  NC Central Working Committee leader Shankar Bhandari and several other leaders are demanding a referendum on secularism. But party President Sher Bahadur Deuba has so far managed to quell such a demand.  During the 2018 meeting of the Mahasamiti, the party’s second-most powerful decision-making body, over 40 percent of the delegates had petitioned the party leadership to amend the party charter to address the issue. Advocates of the cause argue that the people were not consulted on religion during the writing of the constitution. Of the 1,600 party delegates assembled in Kathmandu for the meeting, around 700 (over 43 percent) supported a signature campaign to press the party leadership to reinstate Hindu state. Inside the CPN-UML, too, the call for Hindu state is growing rapidly. A chunk of UML leaders are demanding a re-think on federalism and a referendum on Hindu agenda. In the second week of May, some leaders proposed a discussion on federalism, but the party chairman, Oli, did not agree Observers say this is not only about the influence of BJP, major parties are in fact trying to appease the Hindu constituencies to gain votes. There is a growing realization among major parties that antagonizing the Hindu population, which constitutes 81 percent of total population, is not in their interests. In 2022, Rastriya Prajatantra Party, which advocates for the Hindu state, secured 14 seats in the national parliament. In a public opinion poll conducted a few years back by Sharecast Initiative Nepal, an NGO, 51.7 percent respondents—slightly down from a 15-year average of 60 percent—said Nepal should be declared a Hindu state, 40.3 percent said they are okay with secularism, while 8.1 percent respondents withheld their views. According to the survey, the support for Hindu state, at around 70 percent, is the highest in Province 2, now Madhes province. As major parties are drifting toward Hindu religion, is there a chance of a referendum? Many politicians and experts that ApEx spoke to do not rule out such possibility. They are of the view that as people’s frustration is boiling up against the current system, there are clear risks to Nepal’s secularism. One senior politician said: “In 2015, political parties had almost agreed to not mention anything about religion in the constitution, but that did not happen. There may not be a revival of Hindu state, but there may be an amendment to the constitution to remove the mention of religion.” Political analyst Dambar Khatiwada said since Prime Minister Dahal has lost all ideological, ethical and principle grounds, there is no point commenting about his recent temple visits in India and Nepal. “During the insurgency period, they [Maoist rebels] destroyed temples, killed priests and spoke about the cultural revolution. Now they have totally changed,” he said. Lawmaker Amresh Kumar Singh said Dahal has abandoned all his principled position to remain in power.  “Prime Minister Dahal is traveling to the temples of India and Nepal only to appease the BJP and RSS, which is not helpful to the country. Personally he may take some benefits, particularly cementing his hold on power,” he said.  Singh does not believe that Nepal’s secularism is in crisis, but he does not rule out the possibility of debates and controversies over religion in the future. Chairman of Rastriya Prajatantra Party Rajendra Lingden, which is advocating for the restoration of Hindu state and monarchy, said Prime Minister Dahal’s Pashupati visit immediately after his India visit was significant.  “We are very happy that Prime Minister Dahal accepted the agenda of Hindu state. But if this was just an act that he was putting on to make someone happy, it will be very unfortunate.”