Nepal to remain a secular state

Nepal to remain a secular state

Secularism has scored a major victory in Nepal. An attempt by Hindu groups to revert the state to its former Hindu status was defeated on Monday when the country’s Constituent Assembly voted overwhelmingly against an amendment proposal declare it a Hindu nation. Nepal is in the last lap of writing a new constitution for itself. It has been a frustratingly long and tortuous process with many missed deadlines. Whether the state should be secular or not was among the issues that were being strongly contested. Even a week ago, it did seem that the forces in favour of a Hindu state were at an advantage. A drive to seek public opinion that was held in July revealed that most people were in favour of the constitution including the word ‘Hindu’ or ‘religious freedom’ rather than ‘secularism’. This came as a shot in the arm of those campaigning for a Hindu state. It did seem then that Nepal’s emergence as a modern secular state, which was one of the greatest gains of the Maoist insurgency, the mass movement of 2005-06 and the peace agreement of 2006, was in jeopardy. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and the CA voted against making Nepal a Hindu state.

Those favouring Nepal being declared a Hindu state point to the fact that Hindus constitute the overwhelming majority (80 per cent) of the population. The state must reflect the identity of the majority, they argue. However, Nepal has a significant number of followers of Buddhism, Islam, animism, various tribal religions etc. Declaring the state to be a Hindu one would exclude these populations, stoking insecurity among them.

When Nepal was a Hindu state, religious minorities suffered discrimination and even repression. It triggered several conflicts in the country. As Nepal writes itself a new constitution, it has an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past. Declaring it to be a Hindu state was one such mistake, which the CA has avoided. The way forward for Nepal is to not make it a majoritarian democracy but an inclusive one. A secular constitution that grants equal rights to all citizens, irrespective of their religion, will provide it with a strong and stable foundation. There are challenges ahead of course. Violent protests have erupted opposing the retention of the secular principle in the new constitution. Will future governments uphold the secular principle? While enshrining secularism in the Constitution is important, this is only the first step. The greater challenge is in ensuring that Nepal will be a secular country in practice.
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