Updated: May 01, 2018 04:45 AM GMT
Prakash Khadka. (Photo supplied)
Nepal's government is still up in arms over claims by the European Union that Christians are not being fairly represented in parliament, while sensitive issues such as the eating of beef or the rights of Hindus and minority groups get much greater consideration.
On March 21, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) drew attention to the conclusions and recommendations in the final report on the House of Representatives and provincial assembly elections by the European Union's Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) to Nepal, which was released in February.
The EUEOM raised the point that Christians were not represented in the election, which operates on a proportional representation system, despite comprising 1.4 percent of the population.
This would seem to indicate that Nepal's electoral system is not fully inclusive, as has been claimed. In fact, the charter sets out no provision for religious inclusion apart from guaranteeing this for Muslims. Instead, inclusion is worked out on the basis of people's caste or ethnicity.
I would say the Christian population is not even acknowledged as a minority group in Nepal, where Christianity is viewed as a foreign entity — a so-called dollar-based religion. Many Nepalese believe it "belongs" to Caucasians in Western countries and should stay there.
However, the marginalization of Christians and Christianity can be seen as a direct criticism of the Khas-Arya, the dominant political group in Nepal, as the report also pointed out that the elections are subject to a quota system which applies not only to this group but also to people from communities and regions considered "backward."
The Khas-Arya have long dominated Nepali politics. As such they enjoy more decision-making power than other social groups. Furthermore, Article 42 of the constitution grants them the right to participate in state bodies based on the principle of inclusivity.
Yet lawmakers have failed to clarify why they have been granted such a "favorable" quota given that they already wield significant clout as the de facto ruling class. The principle of inclusivity is supposed to lead to equality rather than institutionalize inequality.
Article 18 covers the right to equality and includes a provision of affirmative action for poor and marginalized groups, including indigent members of the Khas Arya who have fallen on hard times.
As long as they remain in power, however, the quota system enhances the participation of this elite social group within the legislature, increasing their dominance rather than helping ethnic communities with significantly less influence.
The EUEOM sees this is a violation of international standards of equality as, under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, affirmative action measures are aimed at promoting equal treatment.
Clearly disagreeing with the contents of the February report, Nepal's nationalist Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli subsequently requested the EUEOM "correct" it with immediate effect.
He said the report runs contrary to the spirit, norms and provisions of Nepal's constitution, which, as the government likes to remind us, was written by elected representatives who rose to power in a poll that saw voter turnout hit a mighty 78 percent. Nepal's charter is constantly being billed by local authorities as among the best in the world based on this high turnout.
Sharma Oli said raising religious issues under the guise of observing the election was unwarranted and unacceptable. In his opinion, the elections were conducted in a fair manner while the constitution is sound. He urged people not to cast into doubt Nepal's position as a sovereign nation.
There was a big flare-up on social media when the Mangol National Organisation (Mangol Army), a relatively unknown group, released a pamphlet threatening to turn Nepal into a Christian state and vowing to demolish Hindu temples by 2025.
Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa fomented further unrest by relaying this ideology to a broader audience. While his intentions can only be guessed at, suffice to say I hope he takes his responsibility seriously as a minister who is supposed to represent people from all races and creeds on an equal basis.
Meanwhile, four Christian federations, including one Catholic organization, issued a joint press release on April 6 asserting the Mangol Army has no ties to any Christian group in Nepal.
In the same release, the federations took the prime minister to task for relating Nepali Christians to the EUEOM report. They also slammed the home minister for indicting the Christian population through his comments.
I remember feeling forlorn at this, thinking there was little hope I would ever see working unity among all the different denominations in my country. To coin a phrase, it suddenly struck me that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for Nepal to create spiritual unity among its various Christian groups in a bid to tackle common challenges.
What concerns me even more than the government's neglect of its people's basic human rights and inter-faith disharmony, however, is when I see this spill over into violence, especially in the form of anti-Christian attacks.
One of the latest examples of this occurred on April 7 when Shreeniwash Acharya, a Hindu priest, was shot in Biratnagar bazar near the Indo-Nepal border.
Luckily, he survived. However, while conducting their investigation police found that pamphlets had been distributed indicating the attack had been led by Christians. The pamphlets were later rubbished as spreading fake news.
Acharya was on the front lines of the movement against secularism as he called for a Hindu state when the constitution was being drafted. Shutting him down could have triggered alarming levels of social conflict but local bureaucrats were able to defuse the situation to ensure peace prevailed.
By now, most of the Christian leaders in the country should have a fairly good understanding of the limitations of the legislature and the political challenges that obstruct full religious freedom.
I often tell people that despite the new charter, this remains sadly lacking in Nepal. For many leaders of minority religious groups, it is a distant dream.
I am not trying to be anti-nationalist but our leaders, including the prime minister, should focus on lobbying foreign diplomats and taking other affirmative action if they not satisfied with the EUEOM report.
Instead of making cheap nationalist speeches in public, they should exercise their patriotic fervor in a more constructive manner.
Nepal should not need other countries to rush to its defense on human rights issues which it should be able to settle from within.
The fact we have to devote so much time to such incorporeal or abstract matters merely highlights how far behind we still are in terms of our independence, development and prosperity.
Prakash Khadka is a Catholic peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.
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