Politics of Religion and Conversion

By Dinesh Wagle

A conference of Nepali and Indian ultra-Hindu rightists in Mumbai last week has decided to launch “a coordinated campaign to re-establish Nepal as a Hindu state”. Kamal Thapa, who sees his future in religion-based politics, participated. Thapa said the conference expressed concern over sinister plans being carried out in Nepal to wipe out the identity of a Hindu state.

On a sweltering April afternoon in New Delhi, I met a former Nepali Congress lawmaker who is best known these days for pulling strings at the highest levels of the Indian establishment to get his wife deported to Nepal a few months ago. But Amresh Kumar Singh is not a man to be taken lightly when he talks about political happenings in Nepal.

“Do you think Ramdev went to teach yoga?” he asked referring to the Indian yoga guru’s highly publicised trip to Nepal a week earlier. “No. He was there to explore possibilities of establishing a new political party. That is why he met and talked to a variety of people during his stay.”

“You mean Ramdev will open a party in Nepal?”

“No, he and other people [from India] will help Nepalis to form a political force,” Singh said.

“Mark my words; we will soon see a rightist party in action in Nepal that will advocate restoration of Hindu Rashtra Nepal.”

The chronic disease of Hindu fundamentalism that has been spreading the viruses of hatred in India has slowly been asserting itself in Nepal in recent months. Under the more appealing banner of Hindutva, Nepali agents of the Indian Hindu right are gradually pushing the agenda of restoration of the monarchy. As the popularly elected political leadership is struggling to draft a constitution and take the peace process to a logical conclusion, these religious zealots are equating the issue of Hindu Rashtra with the dead monarchy.

What I know for sure is that people like me, liberal Hindus with a secular mindset, are in an overwhelming majority in Nepal. We want the country to be a forum equally accessible for people of all faiths. My own view — expressed first on my Facebook profile — is that religion is certainly not opium but a cigarette that should be smoked in private without disturbing other people. It’s a very personal thing. Politicising religion is dangerous as it inevitably invites conflict and violence in society. I even feel that people shouldn’t be classified according to their religious standing. They shouldn’t be asked about their religion in the national census. People should be given complete freedom to have or not to have faith in religion. That is precisely what our Interim Constitution does. More importantly, it bars forced conversion. While the constitution, for example, lets me dump my current religion and go for another if I wish to do so (because this act involves no one but me) it bars me from luring a person of a different faith to my religion (because this act involves a person apart from me).

But some people with vested interests are not happy with this constitutional provision. Take, for example, our cash rich European brothers who believe that they can buy Nepali dignity with some scratched euro or pound notes as if it were a stale pizza on sale in a rural Italian bakery. I was shocked to read a report in the Post few weeks ago that said, “The European Union… urged the [Nepal] government to allow ‘full freedom’ to proselytise while drafting the new constitution.” A letter forwarded by the French Embassy, in its capacity as the EU local presidency in Kathmandu, to the government said the current constitutional provisions on religious rights were “limited”. The sinister motive of the letter is clear: Buying poor Nepalis to Christianity should be legalised.

Who are the Europeans kidding here? This letter is a textbook example of unsavory forces trying to fish in the troubled waters of Nepal that is going through a difficult transitional crisis. Instead of doing so, the Europeans should look at themselves in the mirror where they will see countries like Malta, Monaco, Greece, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and England that, with their official religion, have a long way to go to become a secular nation like Nepal. The EU should write such letters to Germany and Finland, apart from the aforementioned countries, where the Evangelical and Roman Catholic Church and Finnish Orthodox Church enjoy de facto privileged status. Okay, for once, forget all this. Go and tell the Vatican City to become secular before lecturing us on religious freedom. Ask the BBC to give equal coverage to Benedict XVI and Ramdev, will you? This type of brazen intervention undermines our, secularists’, fight against Hindu fundamentalists in Nepal. This intervention also strengthens people like Kamal Thapa.

And France, by the way, should be the last country to advise us on religious affairs. The country, where religious minorities are treated very badly, has a terrible record on religious freedom. I am not saying this. In its 2009 edition of the annual International Religious Freedom report, the US State Department says the French government’s “discriminatory treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists remained a concern”. The report says, “Some religious groups voiced opposition to legislation passed in 2001 and 2004, which provides for the dissolution of groups under certain circumstances and bans wearing of conspicuous religious symbols by public school employees and students.”

France not only violated its own 1905 law on the separation of religion and the state that prohibits discrimination on the basis of faith by banning Muslim symbols and allowing Christian symbols to be worn. No one has left Nepal because of an unfriendly religious environment; but according to several reports, many people belonging to the Muslim faith have been forced to leave France because of tightening control over religious freedom. No student has been expelled from a Nepali school for their faith, but two female junior high school students, Dounia and Khouloudewere, aged 12 and 13 respectively, were the first to be expelled under a draconian French law for refusing to take off their headscarves on Oct. 20, 2004 from a school in Mulhouse, Alsace.

The Europeans, instead of unnecessarily poking their nose into Nepali affairs, should rather go for trekking in the Himalaya and enjoy their Nepal assignment which anyway is nothing but a long holiday for them. If trekking is not enough and you miss your home, here is a suggestion: The Roadhouse Café in Thamel serves mouthwatering pizza; Délices de France, a restaurant run by a wonderful French woman and attacked by Maoist thugs during the recent strike, serves excellent chicken liver terrine; and nearby Dohori Saanjh restaurants serve unlimited glasses of beer. Chew, drink and cheer for your favourite football team. The World Cup is coming.

This article first appeared on the Op-Ed page of today’s Kathmandu Post.

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