The head of a communist government claiming a religious figure from ancient mythology for his country was, admittedly, a touch strange. Yet Prime Minister KP Oli seemed to know what he was doing. Unlike in India, religion is proving to be a poor tool for political mobilization in Nepal. Yet when you dare claim the chief deity of the ruling party in India, the traditional hegemon, people at home are bound to notice. Is it possible that Lord Ram was born in Nepal, many of them questioned? As the historicity of Ram’s birth or his birthplace cannot be established, what is the harm in believing that Ram was a fellow Nepali from Thori near Birgunj?
When the prime minister’s remark had the predictable effect, at least in India, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs set out to control the damage. Oli understands a complete rupture with India is also not in his interest. “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 MoFA 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...”
PM Oli’s Bhanu Jayanti speech was miles from ‘highlighting the importance of further studies and research’. Nonetheless, all the political analysts APEX talked to agreed that the prime minister was not taking a stab at religious politics. 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 an issue that was sure to pinch India he was trying to cement his hold in his own party,” Gautam says.
Senior journalist Dev Prakash Tripathi, who is leading a campaign called ‘Matribhumi ka Lagi Nepali’ to restore the Hindu kingdom, says religion came to be 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. He says existing political parties have lost people’s trust and they cannot be trusted to take up the sacred issue of Hinduism.
It was the erstwhile Nepali monarchy that established Hinduism as a state religion. The monarchs wanted to propagate the myth of their holy Hindu lineage, with the reigning monarch projected as no less than an avatar of Lord Vishnu, and as such above the law. In republican Nepal, the country’s democratically elected rulers continue to use religion. The goal this time is to employ the fabled opium of the masses to puff up the rulers’ anti-India nationalist credentials.