Religion in the public sphere of Nepal

On 31 August 2004, Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, was in total chaos. On the day before 12 Nepali workers had been killed, 11 were shot and one was beheaded, in an Iraqi city by an Islamic extremist group called Army of Ansar al-Sunna. It was one of the "worst days" in Nepal’s history. The militants said the 12 Nepalis had been killed because they "came from their country to fight the Muslims and to serve the Jews and the Christians". This incident brought unprecedented waves of protest and anger in the streets of Nepal. Thousands of angry protesters came to the streets, and for the first time in Nepal’s history a mosque in the heart of the capital city was attacked and destroyed. At the same time the political elements who were secretly working against the stability and democracy in Nepal also used the situation in their favour and fuelled the demonstrations to achieve their political aim. In the beginning, the Muslim community in the country was targeted; however, later the violence spewed into almost all sectors of the society causing several killings, injuries and a huge economic loss. The capital city was under curfew for several days and the religious minorities felt insecure and intimidated. This incidence radically shook the religious tolerance of Nepal which had been a Nepali identity since time immemorial. On the other hand, it raised a major question about the relationship between religion, society and the state. Nepal was the world’s only constitutionally declared Hindu state till 2006, though a revolutionary political change of April 2006 made the country a secular state. For almost 240 years the country had been ruling by the Shah dynasty who were believed to be the reincarnations of the Hindu gods. In this way, the rulers used Hinduism as a tool for the perpetuation of their oppressive reign. According to the 2001 census, 80.6 percent of Nepalese are Hindu, whereas, 10.7 and 4.2 percent believe in Buddhism and Islam respectively. Almost 3.6 percent of Nepalese are Kirati, followers of an indigenous religion called Kirat, while 0.5 percent being Christian believers. Before the establishment of democracy in Nepal in 1990, Hinduism would play a significant role in socio-political matters. The kings, believed to be reincarnated gods,

would work as the absolute rulers and the laws would be built on their wish which would largely be based on Hindu norms and doctrines. Moreover, donations obtained from the Hindu temples would be sent to the royal palace instead of social welfare works. Social life was also intricately linked and governed by religious beliefs. Majority of social norms, traditions and rules were based on mythological Hindu texts and their interpretations. In absence of democracy, media was not free and the state-owned radio and television would start their broadcast by chanting Hindu mantras and songs. However, the Nepali society did not let its religious harmony erode even during the most difficult days. There have been no major religious scuffles in the modern history of Nepal except few exceptions such as the inter-religious riot of August 2004. The new social and political paradigm of post 1990 significantly decreased the role of religion from the socio-political sphere. Democratic norms, values and customs started superseding the narrow religious codes. The 1990 democratic constitution ended the state’s promotion of Hindu nationalism and official suppression of political participation based on religious, cultural, and linguistic traits offering greater freedom of religious expression. Recent statistics show that the number of Hindu believers is steadily declining from the population of Nepal; however, there has been gradual increase in the number of Buddhist, Christian and Kirat believers. The present Nepali scenario vividly demonstrates that the role of religions in public sphere is gradually declining. Whereas, there is another reality that Hinduism still plays a major role in shaping individual behaviors and it has been the source of many cultural traits since time immemorial. However, when people have to take an important decision regarding personal or public affairs, rationality plays pivotal role instead of religion. Moving forward from the 1990’s constitution, today’s interim constitution of Nepal has declared Nepal as a secular state. One interesting fact is that these days many important cultural ceremonies are attended by the prime minister as an acting head-of-state, but in previous days the king would be revered in such festivities as a reincarnation of God. Today all Nepali people know that a king can be a dictator, but not God. After assessing all the circumstances, it can be generalized that Nepal will be more secularized in future. Nepali media sector has mushroomed after the establishment of democracy. Today there are at least half a dozen private TV stations and dozens of radio stations all over the

country; however none of them was established to promote religious propaganda. All of them are espousing the tenets of modernization, democratization and secularization. On the other hand, at a time when people are loosing their faith in predominant world religions, new spiritual beliefs and thoughts have emerged and, interestingly, they have attracted a significant number of people. It can also be argued that in contemporary Nepal, where ethnic diversity and cultural pluralism create problems of social harmony, a kind of civil religion can generate powerful sentiments of national solidarity and purpose. In conclusion, the role of religion has been decreasing in Nepal especially in the political and public sphere, and indications clearly demonstrate that the trend will remain the same at least for some years. People have started using rational judgments in every area of knowledge and the days of superstition are no more in existence. REFERENCES CBS (2006) Nepal in Figures 2006, Government of Nepal, Central Bureau of Statistics Kathmandu-Nepal, www.cbs.gov.np

By: Manoj Bhusal, DSS C 23

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