On June 5, 2001, Nepal’s King Birendra and his family were assassinated by his son. The United News of India reported a tribute by the then head of India’s Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Ashok Singhal: ''His Excellency was the king not only for the 20 million Hindus of Nepal but also for the one billion Hindu community all over the world.'' The Nepalese monarchs were considered an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. After a short interregnum, a Maoist insurgency and a peace deal, the monarchy was abolished, democracy proclaimed, and Nepal became a secular state, awaiting a secular constitution. Some in Nepal, and many more in India, want Nepal back as the world’s only Hindu Kingdom. The earthquake which likely killed many more than the 7,250 thus far extracted from ruined houses, temples, churches and cultural monuments, has, however, triggered debate in neighboring India which shares an open border and deep cultural bonds.
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It is these cultural bonds — and the fact that millions of Nepalese work in India, including as soldiers in the Indian armed forces — that also underpinned Delhi’s strategic security considerations since Nepal acts as a buffer state against China, the region’s other major power. The Himalayas are “a sentinel”, Indian folksongs say. Many schoolchildren here would indeed still think that Mount Everest is in India. India, therefore, has a deep interest in Nepal, and the earthquake is a major concern. India’s relief effort has been spearheaded by the armed forces — military transport planes and helicopters were the first to land with doctors, life-saving medicines, drinking water, food and shelter. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has characteristically played up India’s role. Some have found it patronizing. The tragedy is human, but the discourse has become political. In India, both religious and political groups are active; most of all is the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the one group that is both religious and political and which gave birth to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now ruling the country. A Nepalese government provision that all relief money and material be routed through its official agencies has angered the RSS which has flooded cyberspace with information about its volunteers and their relief work efforts. Shyam Parande, who is coordinating relief work from Delhi, told the media: “Yes we are facing some problems. But we are in constant touch with Nepalese authorities and our government to sort things out.” His boss, joint RSS General-Secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, met the Nepalese Prime Minister. RSS members have been warning that “Christian vultures” and Western agencies are taking the lead, and using relief operations to proselytize to quake victims. Others are a step ahead. BJP politician and religious leader Shakshi Maharaj has repeatedly said the Himalayan tragedy is because Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s vice-president, visited a sacred Hindu shrine at Kedarnath, just inside India near the Nepal border. Gandhi, the son of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, eats beef and participated in the opening of the doors of the temple after its winter closure, “without undergoing ritual purification for his sin”, he said. This view has gone viral on social media and there are others with similar crazy points of view. My Facebook and Twitter accounts — and email in-boxes too — were deluged by people angered by what they said were statements and actions by Christian missionaries. One was about so-called “news” from the satirical Canadian website The Lapine
alleging that a million bibles had been airlifted to the quake shattered country. A major Indian news channel, whose editor was recently awarded one of the country’s highest civil honors, broadcast the fabrication as “exclusive news” for hours. Other faith practitioners have joined in. In Los Angeles, California, former policemen turned preacher Tony Miano says God is angry. The precautions against future quakes, he suggested, was for the people not to rebuild all the pagan structures that have fallen, but convert to Miano’s faith: Christianity. It is worth pointing out that this gentleman is best known for what his critics call his “homophobia”. And by way of inter-faith consonance, an Iranian cleric, Moulvi Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, goes on record to say that "Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes," to which Iran is particularly prone. Faith is strong in Asia south of the Himalayas. Faith also retains a cozy relationship with science, and no one mocks senior scientists when they visit a temple or crack a coconut before firing a rocket to launch a mission to Mars. The last time someone in India said something publicly about earthquakes and the wrath of God, he paid a very high price for his interpretation of the holy texts. This dates back to 2001 when the only Christian minister in the government of the south Indian state of Karnataka said that an earthquake in Gujarat, on Republic Day, was divine punishment for the sins of those ruling the state. More than 12,300 people were killed in the quake. The minister, a member of the Congress Party, was sacked, ending his political career. The inept handling of that earthquake by the state’s BJP chief minister saw him replaced by Narendra Modi, who til then had never held any government office. Modi remained in power in Gujarat till May 2014, when he won his way to Delhi as Prime Minister of India. John Dayal is a political columnist, spokesman of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights and a past President of the all India Catholic Union.