ucanews.com reporter, Kathmandu
Updated: August 14, 2018 05:47 AM GMT
Self-styled religious leader Dinesh Pandit "Acharya Shree Niwas" (center) following his arrest by Nepalese police. The 25-year-old has been charged with staging his own shooting and attempting to incite communal violence. (Photo courtesy of Deo Narayan Sah)
A self-styled religious leader in Nepal linked to hard-line Hindu nationalists has been accused of faking an attempt on his life by instructing a bodyguard to shoot and wound him.
Dinesh Pandit, 25, revered as "Acharya Shree Niwas" by Hindu devotees, was shot on April 8 in the country's east shortly before he was scheduled to address a mass religious gathering.
Some devotees, seeking to fuel street protests, claimed that it was a premeditated attack by Christians.
The government said it would pay for Acharya's medical treatment while the main opposition political party called for an upgrading of protection for religious leaders.
Acharya was discharged from hospital after 21 days, but on May 8 police detained him before he could board a flight to India. Subsequently, Acharya was charged with staging his own shooting and attempting to incite communal violence.
The initial investigation carried out by police indicated that Acharya had instructed his bodyguard, Madhav Chaudhary, to shoot him in one arm so that it would look like an assassination attempt.
Chaudhary, who was arrested 26 days after the attack, reportedly confessed his role.
Last week, the administration office in Morang district remanded Acharya in custody.
"He is likely to be tried for possessing firearms, but we are yet to find any link suggesting his intention to provoke communal violence in the country," said Ram Prasad Acharya, who is the chief district officer.
"The investigation is ongoing, so we can't say more now about this case."
Dinesh Pandit is revered as "Acharya Shree Niwas" by his followers. He remains in police custody. (Photo courtesy of Deo Narayan Sah)
But Deo Narayan Sah, a local journalist, noted Acharya's strong links with nationalist Hindu groups, including the Nepal chapter of Shiva Sena that has close ties to Nepal's former monarchy.
A week before the allegedly staged shooting, Acharya was seen with deposed King Gyanendra Shah who was visiting various religious sites in the eastern region.
Acharya lived for 15 years in the Barahkshetra area, a famous Hindu pilgrimage site in Sunsari district, and was frequently visited by followers from both India and Nepal.
Some Christians suspect that Acharya's shooting scam was part of a wider conspiracy to suppress religious freedom and spur attacks on non-Hindus.
BP Khanal, Nepal chapter coordinator of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, said that despite Nepal being officially secular, the state still encouraged the notion that Nepalis had to be Hindu.
"Religious minorities are often persecuted and attacked," he said.
Khanal added that just a day after police arrested Acharya, an unidentified group attacked a church in the west of Nepal.
And there were daily incidents in three different places between May 9 and May 11 in which churches were vandalized.
"The nature of the attacks was similar," Khanal said.
In each case, entry had been gained through a church window.
Khanal added that local authorities had failed to conduct proper investigations to identify and prosecute culprits.
In March, a church in Dhading, a hilly-district bordering Kathmandu, was set on fire.
And in recent years Christians have been victimized over the alleged killing of cattle as well as the distribution of Bibles and conversion of non-Christians.
Reverend Joseph Shrestha, chairperson of the Christian Society in Nepal's Province 7, said that in December 2016 Hindu extremists organized mass protests following the deaths of cows in the Kailali district.
However, he said an investigation found that Christians had been falsely accused of killing the animals.
An interim constitution formulated in 2007 identified Nepal as a secular state, ending a century-long Hindu monarchy.
This was confirmed in the country's 2015 constitution, bringing a sigh of relief from members of minorities seeking religious equality and freedom. However, stipulations remained requiring protection of the Hindu faith and criminalizing religious conversions.
Christian leaders have continued to complain about unequal treatment.
"While Hindus who still rule the country get public holidays for their major festivals, the government has decided to remove Christmas as a public holiday," Reverend Shrestha said. "This is discriminatory."
He predicted that there would be many more challenges ahead. "The formulation of discriminatory new laws against minority religious communities will further threaten religious harmony and freedom of expression of religion or belief," he said.
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