Monday, 18 September 2006,
Hindu fears over secular Nepal
By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu
Young and old, some dressed in saffron, some wielding tridents, Hindu nationalists march in the streets of Kathmandu, letting out a cry of indignation.
"Bring back the Hindu kingdom," they shout.
It is a pattern being regularly repeated, mainly in the capital and the plains bordering India, by Hindus incensed by parliament's recent declaration that Nepal should be secular.
But at the moment, Nepal remains the world's only officially Hindu country.
At the rally Hindu priests extol the goddess Sita, born in Nepal according to legend, and vow to continue protests.
Arun Subedi, chairman of Shiv Sena Nepal
If Nepal is not a Hindu kingdom then there is no Nepal
Shiv Sena Nepal
Arun Subedi, chairman of the Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena Nepal - with the same name as a hardline Mumbai (Bombay)-based organisation but unconnected to it - says secularism may worsen Hindus' relations with minority religions.
"Nepal is a Hindu country," he says. "It is the playground of God and a very holy country.
"If Nepal is not a Hindu kingdom then there is no Nepal. We are entering into a holy war," he says, describing a Hindu scripture as his arms and ammunition.
According to official statistics, more than 80% of Nepalis are Hindu. Many have traditionally regarded their kings as incarnations of the Hindu God, Vishnu.
But minorities in this multi-ethnic country and most political parties have long demanded the move to secularism.
Since it was unified by King Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1768, Nepal has been ruled by a Hindu dynasty. Its kings have bound themselves into a litany of Hindu rituals and receive special reverence from many Hindus in neighbouring India, which is secular.
But in April this year massive demonstrations forced Prithvi's autocratic descendant, King Gyanendra, to abandon his direct rule. Unsurprisingly, the restored parliament declared the country secular.
Hindus in Kathmandu offer prayers
Hindus form 80% of the Nepalese population
One of Nepal's greatest monuments, the Swayambhunath temple overlooking Kathmandu, epitomises the country's traditions of religious tolerance and mixing, especially between Hinduism and Buddhism.
Swayambhunath is a Buddhist shrine - a great dome or stupa - from which the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha gaze from its gold-painted face. But adjoining the stupa and its prayer wheels, people swarm around buying offerings for the Hindu goddess, Harati, whose temple lies in the same compound.
Some worshippers move from one shrine to the other.
People advocating the Hindu state point to such places, saying the faiths get on very well as things are. Some commentators say the country's status has prevented the development of the kind of angry Hindu politics seen in India.
But others say precisely the opposite.
Bhikkhu Ananda, a Buddhist monk and lecturer in Buddhist studies, says the Hindu state grossly underplays the number of Buddhists in Nepal. He puts it at 50% rather than the official 11%.
It is still unclear whether militant Hindu sentiments will harden and bigger crowds will flock to their rallies
"In this Hindu country, we are not given our due place," he says, asserting that the state broadcaster gives his faith 10 minutes a week compared with three-and-a-half hours for Hinduism.
Other religious minorities, including the tiny Christian one, also welcome the change.
Pastor KB Rokaya heads a church which meets in a private flat because churches are not allowed to register with the authorities. He hopes that will now change and says that more than secularism, what is needed is full religious freedom.
"I think the minority religious people will now feel they are equal citizens, not second-class citizens," he says. "It will also mean we can practise our own religion and faith more openly without fear."
The most vocal advocates of secularism, however, are not grounded in religion.
For its size, Nepal is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Some were Hinduised relatively recently and some are discovering their pre-Hindu roots.
Krishna Bhattachan works for an umbrella organisation of 59 indigenous ethnic groups, most of which have never enjoyed much power in Nepal.
He says the Hindu state has held back democracy and development and wants secularism to be followed by removal of the monarchy and recognition for minority cultures and languages.
Ranged against this view are many ordinary Hindus who say they feel hurt, pointing out that many countries have Islam or Christianity as a state religion and saying they cherish Nepal's unique status.
Louder are the angry Hindus, who speak with veiled threats towards religious minorities.
Minorities are eager for more freedom of religion
"In secularism it will be very difficult for them," a youth attending a rally tells the BBC. "The churches will be destroyed, the mosques will be destroyed.
"The people who are very much [of a] religious mind, they will spontaneously blow up these churches and mosques. The fight between the religious communities... is not going to stop. It has been ignited."
Currently the protesters wanting to keep Nepal officially Hindu are only gathering a few dozen to their rallies. But there have been some scuffles, at least once with the influential Maoist rebels now inching closer to government.
It is still unclear whether militant Hindu sentiments will harden and bigger crowds will flock to their rallies.
BBC NEWS | South Asia | Hindu fears over secular Nepal