Nepal, then the only Hindu kingdom in the world, was declared a secular state under the new constitution. The decision came at a time Madhesh was unconvinced of the constitution’s inclusiveness and thus a violent struggle ensued, resulting in India imposing a months-long embargo.
Amid the chaos, the dissenting voices of pro-Hindu state leaders, particularly those from the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), were drowned.
In the following years, Hindu nationalist parties and organizations have more forcefully opposed Nepal’s status as a secular state, arguing Nepal has been a Hindu nation for centuries and Hinduism is not just a religion but a way of life.
The pro-Hindu fringe also wants the monarchy restored.
In January, the Far-West Province saw a massive rally for Hindu state. In the days that followed, there were similar protests in other parts of the country, again with significant public participation. All these protests suggest the forces backing the pro-Hindu agenda have grown in strength.
According to the National Population and Housing Census 2011 (National Report), 81.3 percent of Nepal’s population are Hindus. The Hindus also consist of a huge number of ‘upper-caste’ people with the monetary, social and political strength to influence voters and decision-makers.
Over to Oli
When Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli visited the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu in January, he became the first incumbent communist PM to do so. The prime minister also declared that the government would donate to the temple 101 kg of gold. The gold-plating on the roof and jalhari would be a break in tradition, Oli told the media. In the following weeks, Oli also announced that he would be building a Ram Janaki temple at Ram’s alleged new birthplace in Thori, Chitwan, with his personal resources.
Sociologist and educator Neeti Aryal Khanal says she has been observing the strange mix of communism and religion with some curiosity. In her opinion, NCP leader and PM Oli is trying to use religious sentiments to secure his vote-bank.
“This is not something new,” Khanal says. “Globally, religion has played an important role in politics. Politicians have understood how to use religious sentiments as political weapons to mass mobilize, influence vote banks and drive their agendas.”
In Nepal’s context though, there is a contradiction between what the communist politicians practice and the ideals they supposedly believe in. “In Marxist theory, religion is compared to opium,” Aryal explains. “Marx’s followers question religion and religious authority. Here, we see the opposite.”
Aryal sees another extremism brewing in Nepal. PM Oli is using Pashupatinath and the controversy surrounding Ram’s birthplace to cement his political hold. Just like his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, who used the Hindutwa card to come to power, she adds, Oli is banking on Hindus to re-elect him.
“In the long term, this will fuel religious fundamentalism and extremism,” Aryal says. “As it is, the threat of the use of violence for religious purpose has grown in Nepal.” Aryal gives the recent example of a women’s march where poet Sapana Sanjeevani had recited poems against religious patriarchy. “In return, she got rape and death threats from religious fanatics,” Aryal informs. “If these people feel they will be politically protected, the situation could get worse.”
A Facebook group called Isaaikaran Biruddha Janachetana (‘Awareness against Christianity’)—which self-translates as ‘People awareness against converted jhola’—has been spreading hatred against Christians in the name of raising awareness for Hinduism. The group consisting mostly of youths was public on Facebook and had a following of over 100,000 people before it went private recently—and it still has over 38,000 members. (This scribe was blocked from the group for trying to contact some admins and moderators.)
Some of the writings in the page are coarse, derogatory and filled with toxicity. The group members, which strangely also include young Christians, exchange verbal spats on a daily basis, sometimes even culminating in physical threats. The language used is so strong that we would not want to translate it for our readers.
An example of the group’s content is its admin Durgesh Ghale’s garbled post. “Teaching Jesus’ Nepali sheep is the responsibility of today’s informed youth. Jesus is a bastard child whose father is not known,” Ghale writes.
Out of the dozen or so group admins, we managed to get a reply from one Tej Prasad Adhikari from Butwal, who is currently working abroad. In a conversation over Facebook Messenger, Adhikari asserts the group’s importance in raising awareness against rampant religious conversions.
“Religion and culture are the identity of any country. Attacking that is a crime. Without our culture and religion, we will lose our existence,” writes Adhikari, as he accuses Christian missionaries of making religion a business and converting gullible Nepalis. The group, which has been active for five years, has members from all walks of life, from students to aspiring politicians.
Asked about the consequences of online rifts and if they could lead to a religious conflict, Adhikari acknowledges the possibility but again blames Christianity followers who, he speculates, could lead physical attacks against Hindus when their reasoning fails. “We don’t need weapons to fight this war,” Adhikari says. “If we make all Nepalis aware and expose these head-counting missionaries, we will win.”
Social media, especially Facebook, has turned into a battleground between Nepali youths of different religions. A quick Facebook search will take readers to dozens of these groups, moderated by young users, who use the safety of anonymity and distance to spew hatred and incite violence.
Ram Krishna Upadhyaya, president of Hindu Jagaran Nepal, says Nepal is inherently a Hindu country and the only country in the world that deserves the title. The government has to listen to the majority if it wants to maintain peace and harmony. If Nepal becomes a Hindu state, it would be a matter of pride not only for Nepali Hindus but also for Hindus around the world. The youth of Nepal, Upadhyaya adds, are ready to struggle for it.
Upadhyaya goes on to say that if the ‘forced’ conversion of Hindus goes unchecked, Hindu groups might have to take matters into their own hands to protect the ancient religion. “We see lots of new converts influenced by money from external forces who are trying to discredit our religion. If this continues, there might be a war,” Upadhyaya warns, adding that there have been some physical retribution against other religions in parts of the country. “This is an international tactic, including by the US, to create a war zone in the country to serve their purposes. We don’t need other religions here.”
Singer turned politician Sanjaya Shrestha has an even more radical line. “The Christians here are supported by dollars,” Shrestha claims. “A lot of money was spent by external forces to undo the Hindu kingdom.” A local level candidate for the RPP in 2013, Shrestha, still considered a youth leader, is most critical of the communist government, especially the Maoists.
Shrestha still writes ‘Hindu kingdom’ in all his social media posts and believes that a paper signed by ‘601 corrupt politicians’ cannot change the country’s Hindu status. Christian churches, which he compares to public toilets, can be removed any time as Nepal is and will always be a Hindu country. “These one-roomed, public toilet-like churches may fool gullible people or coerce some to convert. But we can all change this overnight if we want,” Shrestha says. “These money-minded Christians seem to want war in our country. But with our majority, it won’t even be a war.”
“I am a devout Hindu and being true to my faith, I am tolerant of all other religions as well,” says Pandit Prajwal Luitel. The 30-year-old is a Hindu priest by profession and graduate of Nepal Sanskrit University, hence the title. Luitel, a popular member of the famous Men’s Room Reloaded (MRR) group on Facebook, began studying to become a pandit from the school level itself.
“Our generation does not have many Sanskrit scholars. It’s probably because during the insurgency the Maoists prohibited most schools from teaching Sanskrit,” Luitel says. Studying Sanskrit and practicing Hindu rites is Luitel’s way of protecting the religion and preserving its traditions. A Hindu needs a priest from the time of birth till after death. And as the young generation was not much into it, Luitel decided to take the task upon himself.
Luitel does not support the politics behind declaring Nepal a secular state, but neither does he oppose it. As for reclaiming the country’s Hindu status, Luitel is least bothered as long as he is free to practice his religion. “I am a pandit who respects all religions equally,” Luitel says. “I’d never join protests asking for a Hindu nation. Everyone should be free to practice the religion of their choice.”
What’s on offer?
One thing Dev Kumar Sunuwar, a journalist and indigenous rights activist, has noticed is that religion can be an effective mobilization tool for the youths. Even those who were previously not bothered by politics or did not understand it are now animated by religious agendas.
Since PM Oli has recently been inviting speculations of Nepal moving towards a Hindu nation again, the idea has created a wave among the youth, Sunuwar believes. “I still don’t think there could be a mass movement for this,” Sunuwar says. “But there will always be one or the other group keeping this agenda alive for political purposes.”
As for the conversion of indigenous peoples into Christianity, Sunuwar says the numbers might be bigger than what has been reported in the media. Again, indigenous people of Nepal is not a homogenous group, so the conversion rates also depend on the caste system. “I know that in our Sunuwar community, almost 50 percent have converted to Christianity,” Sunuwar says. “The numbers are also huge among the Tamang community and Dalit groups.”
Sunuwar says Christian churches and organizations offer various packages to the newly converted. “The indigenous minorities were already discriminated and on the top of that, people started getting health insurance, scholarships, financial aid and other packages,” Sunuwar says. “Also, the government cut off many public holidays of the indigenous people and it also became clear to them that opting for Christianity would save them from observing expensive Hindu rituals.”
The problem with these conversions, Sunuwar fears, is that the indigenous people will lose their true identity. “Take our Sunuwar community. Our organization has declared that we are Kiratis. In the past, most of us used to be listed as Hindus,” Sunuwar explains. “Now that almost half of us are Christians, we have a hard time giving a single identity to the already small community of nature worshippers.”
Not on the cards
Political analyst Shyam Shrestha believes PM Oli started playing the religious card after all his other ploys failed. The Oli administration has failed to live up to its promises and when Oli dissolved the parliament and announced fresh elections, he used the religion card.
“But this is a risky bet,” says Shrestha, “We are not religious extremists, and this point was proven when the pro-Hindu RPP did not even get 1 percent of the total votes in the last elections.” Shrestha sees this as a desperate attempt by Oli, knowing that he might otherwise not return to power.
But what if Oli goes, as now seems likely? Shrestha is confident that none of his possible replacements as prime minister—Madhav Kumar Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Sher Bahadur Deuba—will play the religious card.
“Nepal and Dahal have always been supportive of a secular state. The Nepali Congress also supported it. So I don’t think any of these leaders will follow on Oli’s footsteps,” says Shrestha. He thus also rules out any prospect of a plebiscite on the issue.