Nepal Likely To Junk ‘Secular’ Tag

Nepal Likely To Junk ‘Secular’ Tag

There is a general consensus among all major parties in Nepal that the country need not proclaim itself to be a secular republic. Deep Kumar Upadhyay, Nepal’s ambassador to India, spoke on that and other issues with Swarajya. 

The drafting of a new Constitution for Nepal is in its concluding phase and the president of the Constituent Assembly has set September 5 as the deadline for filing amendments to the draft Constitution. Once the amendments are received, debated and passed or rejected as the case may be, the draft Constitution (incorporating whatever amendments are accepted) will be passed by the Constituent Assembly and will become the new Constitution of Nepal.

This new Constitution will, in all probability, not pronounce Nepal as a secular republic. Nepal, which was a Hindu ‘rashtra’ under the monarchy, became a secular republic under an interim Constitution that was enacted after King Gyanendra was stripped of his powers following widespread unrest against his rule in April 2006. Hinduism was no longer the official state religion, and the ‘secular’ constitution opened the floodgates to evangelizing Christian missionaries who have, over the last nine years, proselytized lakhs of poor Hindus, Buddhists and Kirantas (people who practice a blend of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism). Christian missionaries were present during the monarchy too, but could not be as blatant about their proselytizing as they have been over the last nine years.

This large-scale conversion of Nepal’s population to Christianity has, obviously, sparked a severe public backlash. Nepal’s first census in the late 1950s put the number of Christians in that country at only 30! By 1990, Christians numbered 200,000. At present, claim Church groups, there are two million practicing Christians in Nepal. It is estimated that about 8% of Nepal’s population has been converted to Christianity by proselytizing missionaries in the last 18 years with most of this happening in the last nine years. Nepal’s population, according to that country’s last census in 2011, was nearly 26.5 million. Since Christianity is not officially recognized in the Himalayan country, there are no official figures on the total number of Christians there and one has to go by the figures given out by Church and Christian groups.

Nepal Likely To Junk ‘Secular’ Tag

The alarming rate of conversions has created strong resentment against the unchecked proselytizing indulged in not only by Christian missionaries but also evangelizers in the garb of organisations carrying out humanitarian work in the poverty-stricken country.

After the April 25 earthquake that claimed more than 9000 lives in Nepal and devastated many parts of that country, many such organizations entered Nepal and, in the name of relief and rehabilitation, have been converting people to Christianity. So widespread is the public anger against such conversions that the second Constituent Assembly, which has been engaged in the task of drafting a new Constitution, decided to drop the word ‘secular’ from the draft Constitution.

There is a general consensus among all major parties, including the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN-UML] and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [UCPN-M], that Nepal need not proclaim itself to be a secular republic.

Pushpa Kumar Dahal (better known by his nom de guerre of ‘Prachanda’), who led a bloody decade-long Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006 that claimed 15,000 lives and displaced about 1.5 million people, acknowledged this public anger against growing conversions and said earlier this month that the activities of Christian missionaries and faith-based organizations (FBOs) that were encouraging the beneficiaries of their ‘humanitarian’ missions to convert to Christianity ought to be checked. He said he was all for dropping the term ‘secular’ from the country’s new Constitution and replacing it with an “appropriate term”. Significantly, it was the UCPN-M that was the primary force behind Nepal being declared as a secular nation.

Prachanda and other politicians can just not ignore public sentiment. And these public sentiments were on ample display during the two-day process of public consultations on the draft Constitution. The second Constituent Assembly had made public the entire draft Constitution and held public consultations in all the 240 electoral constituencies to get feedback on the draft Constitution over two days in end-June. An overwhelming majority of the millions who submitted their opinions to law makers and officials of the 2nd Constituent Assembly over the two days favored junking the term ‘secular’ from the draft Constitution and its replacement with a term that upholds religious freedom but bans proselytizing. After receiving this feedback, Nepal’s top political leaders said that the new Constitution would not have the ‘secular’ tag

Nepal’s marginalized and backward communities like the Tharus and the Tamangs have been the targets of Christian evangelizers. There have been countless reporters in the Nepali media about Christian missionaries and FBOs providing aid to the poor encouraging and carrying out conversions.

A large number of Buddhists in the mountainous areas of the country have been converted and unconfirmed reports say that some monasteries have been razed and new Churches built on those sites. Christian missionaries and FBOs, many of which receive funds for their humanitarian work from the US government-funded USAID, are flush with funds and have been using them to lure Nepal’s poor away from their faiths and convert.

The new Constitution is likely to have a provision banning conversions. The draft Constitution proposes a law that prohibits “any act which may be contrary to public health, public decency or morality or incitement to breach public peace or act to convert another person from one religion to another or any act or behavior to undermine or jeopardize the religion of each other is not allowed and such act shall be punishable by law”.

Christian missionaries and some other FBOs have started criticizing this proposed provision. They claim that the poor people they serve convert to Christianity out of their love for that religion.

But it is an undisputed fact that these missionaries and Christian FBOs operating in Nepal and other countries, including India, proclaim that spreading the Gospel is their ultimate mission. Their professed activities like providing relief to the earthquake-affected or providing livelihood options to the poor, among others, are just a means to lure the beneficiaries to the Christian fold.

It is well-nigh impossible, as Kamal Thapa of the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) that wants restoration of the monarchy says, for very poor families to resist the lure of the lucre held out by the Christian missionaries. “They (the Christian proselytizers) gift food and other provisions to poor families, especially in the rural areas, and hold out the promise of jobs. They also speak ill of Hinduism and Buddhism and convince the poor to convert,” he said. The only way out, he added, is a law banning conversions. An overwhelming majority of Nepalis seem to be holding this view and the lawmakers are in no position to ignore them.


Swarajya: Will the new Constitution do away with the ‘secular’ term?

Upadhyay: That is for the lawmakers in the 2nd Constituent Assembly to decide. They will deliberate and decide. But yes, public sentiment seems to be against retaining the ‘secular’ word. The ‘Omkar’ parivar (Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs) makes up for more than 90% of Nepal’s population. Secularism was not on the agenda of any political party or organization that has been working for a new Constitution of Nepal.

Swarajya: Are Indo-Nepal ties improving?

Upadhyay: Yes. The ties had floundered for more than a decade and it was only after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of your country that the ties received a big boost. He visited Nepal twice within the first three months of his tenure. A number of agreements like the power trade agreement, one to lay a fuel pipeline to Nepal, another to sort out the boundary dispute between the two countries, have been signed. He is positive about Nepal and I am sure the traditional good ties between the two countries will not only be restored but also improved. Nepal and India share a unique relationship, we share civilizational ties and values. We are like one family.

Swarajya: There have been some concern in India in the past about Nepal leaning towards China.

Upadhyay: These fears are totally unfounded. As I said, our ties to India are too strong. In the Terai, people have a ‘roti-beti’ ties with people of India. Most families in the mid-mountainous regions have close ties with India—their family members serve or have served in Indian armed forces, many have settled down in India. These ties are too strong to get disrupted. We also have to deal with China and better Indo-China ties will benefit Nepal too. But our brotherly ties with India can never get weakened by our friendship with China.

Swarajya: Why is the drafting of the new Constitution for Nepal taking so long?

Upadhyay: After the (Maoist) revolution and the mass uprising against the monarchy, there was total confusion in the country. An interim Constitution was drafted and the Constituent Assembly was tasked to frame a new Constitution. The 2006 peace accord, in which India played a crucial positive role, had been signed. The Madhesis (in terai) had launched a fierce agitation. Girija Prasad Koirala (of the Nepali Congress) who headed the government then had to make compromises with various agitating groups and had to make many compromises with them to bring about not only peace, but also ensure that all sections of the people, all communities and tribes participated in the Constituent Assembly. People of various regions like the far west bordering Uttarakhand, the south bordering Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the far east bordering Bengal wanted the structure of their provinces to remain as it was and so agreements were signed with them promising them that. These are widely divergent issues and are being played out now. There are many pulls and pressures and so this delay.

Swarajya: Can the Constituent Assembly achieve a total consensus on the new Constitution?

Upadhyay: I don’t think a 100% consensus will be achievable right now. A 75% consensus is the acceptable baseline and the political parties are aiming for a 90% consensus which will be very good.

Swarajya: Does the 1950 Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty need to be revised? This seems to be a sore point among some sections in Nepal.

Upadhyay: As your Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly said, if the Treaty needs to be amended, that will be done. Revising the treaty is a political slogan that’s raised in Nepal from time to time by some sections. One need not get upset by that. Right now, Nepal’s priority is to give itself a new Constitution. The Treaty and other issues will be looked at after that.

Swarajya: What are the irritants in Indo-Nepal ties?

Upadhyay: There are some issues. Nepal is not getting the quantum of water and power guaranteed by the agreements on the Kosi, Gandak and Saradha barrage and irrigation projects between the two countries. This creates resentment in Nepal. India has, without consulting Nepal, constructed roads and barrages on its side of the border that has hampered the free flow of rivers. As a result, many areas in Nepal get flooded every monsoon. This is a very sore issue and needs to be addresses.

Swarajya: How has the task of rebuilding Nepal (after the April earthquake) been progressing?

Upadhyay: Very well indeed. India and Nepal are working very closely together on this major task. We need India’s help because we share civilizational ties and values and the same Eastern philosophy with India. Funds are no problem in the task of rebuilding. It’ll take about three years to repair and restore everything, including the heritage structures.

Jayant Chowdhury is an avid observer of and commentator on politics and society in Bengal and eastern, including north-eastern, India.

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