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Is religion still an effective political mobilization tool in Nepal?

Is religion still an effective political mobilization tool in Nepal?

On July 13, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli made a controversial statement over the birthplace of Lord Ram. He accused India of creating an artificial Ayodhya in India, when Ram was actually born in Nepal, in Thori village west of Birgunj.

PM Oli’s statement invited fierce criticism in Nepal and India alike. Leaders of Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in particular were livid.  

After the opposition to PM Oli’s statement escalated in India, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to tone things down. “The remarks made by the Prime Minister are not linked to any political subject and have no intention at all to hurt the feeling and sentiment of anyone,” read the statement. “As there have been several myths and references about Shri Ram and the places associated with him, the Prime Minister was simply highlighting the importance of further studies and research of the vast cultural geography the Ramayana represents...”

But the prime minister’s claim also resonated with sections of Nepalis who would like to believe a revered deity like Ram was born in their country. Thus, some speculated, Oli really did want to gain the sympathies of the country’s Hindu population.

In India, the Hindu nationalist BJP had come to power for a second term on a strong Hindu nationalist plank. Some espy the emergence of a similar movement in Nepal to challenge its current secular status, perhaps with the help of some senior BJP leaders who have lent their voice in support of a Hindu Nepal.

Currently, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) is the only notable political force in Nepal supporting the restoration of monarchy and Hindu state. But the party has of late struggled as an electoral force, and failed to win a single directly contested seat in the 2017 federal and provincial elections.

There are voices in Nepali Congress, the main opposition, in favor of a Hindu state. In the upcoming general convention scheduled next February, Hinduism could become a prominent agenda. The ruling Nepal Communist Party too professes secularism, yet many of their leaders also have a soft spot for Hinduism. This is perhaps understandable as a sizable chunk of their electorate are devout Hindus. But how big is this support?  

Politically irrelevant

Political analyst Shreekrishna Aniruddh Gautam says the use of religion as a political tool can never be ruled out. Yet he reckons its salience as a political tool is decreasing in Nepal. “Rather than backing for a particular religion, PM Oli’s remark represents a continuation of Mahendra-era nationalism. By raising this issue that was sure to pinch India he was trying to consolidate his hold in his own party,” Gautam avers.

Another political analyst Hari Roka also does not believe the PM’s statement on Ram was intended to please Nepali Hindus but rather “to cover up his failure on both domestic and foreign fronts”. Roka says religion-based politics has already failed in Nepal.

Senior journalist Dev Prakash Tripathi, who is leading a campaign called ‘Matribhumi ka Lagi Nepali’ aimed at restoring the Hindu Kingdom, says the issue of religion was politicized in Nepal mainly after the 2006 political changes. Yet the NC district-level leader in Dhading too disclaims the view that Oli’s motive was to drum up support from Nepali Hindus.

“Secularism was not something people had asked for during the second Jana Andolan. Political parties inserted it in the new constitution at the behest of foreign forces,” Tripathi says. Matribhumi ka Lagi Nepali, which has brought together NC leaders and cadres who are in favor of Hindu state, has now launched a signature campaign for the restoration of the Hindu state. He says existing political parties have lost people’s trust and as such cannot take up the issue of Hinduism.

According to him, if a new force takes up revival of Hindu state as a key agenda it will win great support. “I am confident that a new Hindu nationalist party will emerge in Nepal as a large chunk of the Hindu population is unhappy with the country’s secular status,” Tripathi says.

Self-appointed gods

It was the erstwhile Nepali monarchy that established Hinduism as a state religion. This was done as the monarchs wanted to propagate the myth of their holy Hindu lineage, with the reigning monarch being no less than an avatar of Lord Vishnu, and as such above the law.

The democratic constitution of Nepal adopted in 1959 was silent on religion. Then the 1962 panchayat-era charter declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom. When a new constitution was promulgated in 1990 after the people’s movement, the new charter retained Nepal’s Hindu status despite protests from minority groups that wanted a secular state.

Between 1960 and 2006, the monarchy actively promoted Hinduism with the backing of Hindu organizations like the World Hindu Federation Nepal. In fact, the organization is still on its mission to promote Hinduism and monarchy. Yet the growing consensus among Nepali intellectuals and the political class is that Hinduism can no more be used as the primary tool of political mobilization in Nepal. The people of Nepal have still less appetite for a return of monarchy.