At the ongoing meeting of Nepali Congress Mahasamiti, the party’s second most powerful decision-making body after the general convention, over 40 percent of the delegates petitioned party leadership to change Congress charter to again designate Nepal a Hindu state. The leadership of the main opposition party is divided into three camps. The first comprises second-rung leaders such as Bimalendra Nidhi and Krishna Prasad Sitaula, who are of the view that the party should stick to secularism. In their reckoning, NC cannot give up secularism as a secular constitution was promulgated under its leadership.
The second group includes General Secretary Shashank Koirala, who has publicly asked for a referendum on the issue, and central working committee members such as Shankar Bhandari and Pushpa Bhusal, all of whom want to restore the country’s Hindu character.
Likewise, the third group including senior leaders like Ram Chandra Poudel and Shekhar Koirala, have taken a middle-of-the-road position and are in favor of mentioning ‘religious freedom’ instead of ‘secularism’ in the national constitution.
Advocates of Hindu state in Congress argue that during the writing of the constitution people were not consulted on religion. Party President Sher Bahadur Deuba and other senior leaders don’t want to criticize the advocates of Hindu state as their support will be crucial if they hope to keep their leadership roles.
This attempt of the main opposition to turn the clock back has not amused political analysts. They say Congress would be flogging a dead horse and that such an approach would be electorally suicidal. But on current form, this dispute over religion will continue to dog the Grand Old Party, and could be a defining issue at the next general convention due in March 2020.
Nepali Congress and a Hindu state
Of 1,600 party delegates assembled in Kathmandu for the meet, around 700 (over 43 percent) supported a signature campaign at the Mahasamiti venue to press party leadership to support the Hindu state
A decade after the country was declared a secular republic, a sizable section of Nepali Congress (NC) is pressing party leadership to rethink secularism, a demand that goes against the new constitution.The demand has surfaced during the ongoing Mahasamiti meet as well (the meeting continued as we went to press). NC’s second biggest decision-making body after the general convention is mandated to discuss party policies and programs but not to change party leadership. Of 1,600 party delegates assembled in Kathmandu for the meet, around 700 (over 43 percent) supported a signature campaign at the Mahasamiti venue to press party leadership to support the Hindu state.
Up against a potent communist force, they believe religion can be an effective tool for the party’s revival during the next electoral cycle. General Secretary Shashank Koirala leads this front.
On religion, party leaders are in fact divided into three factions. The first group is comprised of second-rung leaders such as Bimalendra Nidhi and Krishna Prasad Sitaula, who are of the view that the party should stick to secularism. In their reckoning, as a secular constitution was promulgated under NC leadership, the party cannot deviate from this line.
The second group includes General Secretary Shashank Koirala, who has publicly asked for a referendum on the issue, as well as central working committee members such as Shankar Bhandari and Pushpa Bhusal, all of whom want to restore the country’s Hindu character.
Likewise, the third group including senior leaders like Ram Chandra Poudel and Shekhar Koirala are in favor of mentioning ‘religious freedom’ in lieu of ‘secularism’ in the constitution.
Advocates of Hindu state in Congress argue that people were never consulted on religion and the decision to do away with the country’s Hindu designation was made by a handful of leaders. Party President Sher Bahadur Deuba and other senior leaders cannot criticize these advocates because their support is crucial if they hope to remain in leadership roles.
Political analysts say raising the issue of religion now is irrelevant and the Hindu card is an outdated political instrument
At the 13th general convention, late NC leader Khum Bahadur Khadka had made the party’s backing of Hindu state a condition for supporting Deuba’s candidacy for party president. For a long time, Khadka had led the campaign for Hindu state in the party. Before that, late Nepali Congress leader Krishna Prasad Bhattarai had notably left the party when NC officially ditched monarchy and Hindu state.
To appease Hindu loyalists in the party, Deuba, during the last party convention, had publicly said that the party was failing to honor Hindu sentiments. Deuba thinks that a volte-face now could do him political harm.
The signature campaign in favor of Hindu state during the Mahasamiti meeting clearly shows a big support to reverse the course. “A plurality of Mahasamiti members want to turn the country into a Hindu state,” said Min Krishna Maharajan, a delegate from Kathmandu district who had taken the initiative of signature campaign. During the Mahasamiti meeting supporters of Hindu state were seen putting up posters and handing out pamphlets to support their cause. They were also urging central committee members to stand in favor of Hindu state.
Congress leaders say such voices were always there in the party. “The government decision to support and organize a program of a Christian organization seems to have given new fuel to these dormant voices,” NC leader Nabindra Raj Joshi told APEX. “We are committed to secularism but I think it will become a major agenda at the next general convention.”
Political analysts say raising the issue of religion now is irrelevant; the Hindu card cannot be a political instrument to revive the party’s fortunes.
“NC leaders must learn from Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal which had gone into the last round of elections with the Hindu state agenda. People rejected it,” said political analyst Shyam Shrestha. “People are not in favor of any religious or caste conflicts in Nepal. That certain Congress leaders are bringing up this issue is indicative of the weak leadership of Party President Deuba.”
As the Hindu agenda gathers momentum in Congress, it has raised eyebrows in the ruling Nepal Communist Party. Speaking at a function in Pokhara on Dec 10, NCP co-chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal said, “Even though NC played a vital role in the peace process, its current role is suspicious. Many of its leaders are unhappy with the changes.”
RPP-N, a party which has long been advocating a Hindu state and monarchy, is upbeat about the recent turn of events in Nepali Congress. “We can collaborate if NC officially decides on Hindu state,” its chairman Kamal Thapa said recently.
Nepal was formally declared a secular state in 2006 by the reinstated parliament through a House proclamation, a designation which was later cemented in the Interim Constitution 2007. During the constitution drafting process in 2015, it was one of the disputed issues. Nonetheless the country’s new secular character was retained.
Reportedly, one of the reasons India imposed five months of blockade on Nepal during 2015-16 was that top Nepali leaders had reneged on their promise to remove the provision on secularism during the 2015 constitution-making process. During the process, RPP-N’s proposal that the country be made a Hindu state again was snubbed by two-third Constituent Assembly members. The new constitution adopted on September 20, 2015 declares the country a secular state, and defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom”.