Nepalese Buddhist activists take part in a rally in Kathmandu Aug. 19. Religious minorities, including Christians, are calling for secularism in the country’s new constitution. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
As Nepal's constitution-writing process nears completion, the provision of a secular state — one of the key achievements gained through the country's democracy movement — is likely to be dropped from the new document.
Backtracking from past agreements reached on a secular state, major political parties are instead pushing to drop secularism from the draft constitution, raising serious human rights concerns from religious minorities, including the Christian community.
Religious minorities, who constitute less than 20 percent of Nepal's population, fear that freedom and equality would remain unattainable if the country fails to institutionalize secularism.
"Secularism is very fundamental and close to democracy and human rights. For democracy to flourish, and for human rights to be equally shared with all the people, we need secularism," said Father Pius Perumana, executive director of Caritas Nepal.
In a democratic state, every citizen has a right to their own beliefs, including their religious choices, and this is possible only if the state treats all religions equally, he said.
"Religious affairs should be left to every Nepali. Every Nepali should be free to choose the type of faith they want to follow," Father Perumana said.
‘Democracy is not only for the majority’
Since a Maoist insurgency in the 1990s and political unrest in the mid-2000s, Nepal has transformed itself as a democratic, inclusive and liberal state. In 2007, the political parties agreed to make Nepal a secular country.
Nearly eight years later, religion has emerged as a key point of contention among top political parties. The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) are lobbying to remove references to secularism from the draft constitution, while a section of political parties with nominal votes are pushing for enshrining Nepal as a secular state.
The leading parties have remained adamant to either dropping secularism completely or rewording the constitution with a watered-down right to religious freedom. Either way, it is increasingly less likely that Nepal will remain the secular state envisioned by the previous constitution, analysts said.
Barshaman Pun, a leader of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which led a decade-long "people's war" against caste inequality and ethnic discrimination, said removing secularism from the country's constitution would marginalize minorities and ethnic communities who have long struggled under the dominance of Hindu leaders.
"Democracy is not only for the majority or those who have a stronghold in state affairs. A democratic nation cannot take the side of a single religion, even though it has a majority," Pun said.
In an interview with the English-language daily Kathmandu Post, Baburam Bhattarai, a senior Maoist leader involved in drafting the constitution, said secularism and an inclusive democracy were the main achievements of Nepal's popular uprisings of the 1990s and 2000s. He said that the new constitution should be written based on those fundamentals.
"Secularism is also the foundation of a democratic republic. A certain religion may have a majority but a real democratic state protects the minority. Democracy and secularism are inseparable," Bhattarai said.
The discourse on religion gained ground soon after 2007's interim constitution that declared Nepal a secular state, a year after the democracy movement successfully toppled the 240-year-old monarchy and restored democracy.
Dissatisfied Hindus, who comprise more than 80 percent of Nepal's population, are demanding Nepal be restored as a Hindu state.
"We cannot ignore the sentiments of the majority who practice Hinduism as their religion. There are secular countries, Islamic nations and Christian nations, but no Hindu country. Nepal … should be declared a Hindu state," said Mohan Shrestha, a leader with the pro-Hindu Rastriya Prajatantra Party.
In the meantime, various groups and political parties have been organizing protests throughout the Kathmandu Valley in an attempt to influence the constitution-making process.
In mid-August, pro-Hindu groups clashed with police, leaving dozens injured. Hindu hardliners believe secularization would leave Nepal vulnerable to religious conversions and other outside influences, thereby threatening the existence of Hindus.
But Father Perumana offered India as an example of a secular state that has maintained its Hindu identity, while allowing minority religions to freely exist.
Various religious minority communities, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others, have launched their own protest to demand a secular state.
"We cannot think of a constitution without secularism,” protesters chanted during an Aug. 19 demonstration in Kathmandu.
The stakes remain high. If the various political parties can't form an agreement before a vote, the majority Nepali Congress and CPN-UML parties are likely to drop secularism from the constitution.
"Failure to institutionalize secularism achieved from years of struggle for equal rights and freedom would leave minority groups without a voice or choice," said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, secretary at the National Christian Federation of Nepal.