Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Sowing strife: Secularism

 This article appeared in Republica on September 8, 2015.


Ultimately, they chose to ignore popular feelings. By agreeing on retaining "secularism" in the new constitution despite a large number of people's suggestion to the contrary, the syndicate of the big three has paved way for religious strife. The backhand manner in which secularism was imposed had riled a lot of people but they tolerated it with the hope that this sensitive issue would be put to a referendum. But the syndicate, in an authoritarian fashion, sealed the fate of the country by continuing with this divisive issue.
Prime Minister-in-waiting KP Oli had assured the public that this offensive term would be dropped from the draft constitution but all hopes were dashed with the latest decision. The clarification over the definition of secularism reads as "protection of religion and culture being practiced since ancient times and religious and cultural freedom". This practice was already in place when Nepal was a Hindu state, so what was the point in introducing secularism?

Even if the major parties have tried to dilute the evil aspects of secularism by inserting placatory explanations, it should be resisted because it isn't a sincere term as is often made out. It is a non-religious, non-spiritual, atheist, or a worldly concept. Staunchly against religion, this concept was introduced during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe when the state severed its ties with the church. Dogmatic Christianity claimed that only it was the keeper of the truth, which God himself had revealed to his church. Only through acceptance of the church that represents Jesus Christ can the humanity born in sin be redeemed.

It is obvious that such claims did not appeal to rational people but they kept mum lest they face dire consequences. The church was more powerful than the state and draconian laws were framed to punish people who questioned the faith. Understandably, antagonism against such a harsh religion surfaced after the introduction of secularism. It may have been necessary in European context but how can such a concept ensure religious equality in a multi-religious country like Nepal when it is against religion itself?

Many religions have thrived in Nepal since ancient times. The dominant faith, Hinduism, never forced itself upon the minority in cahoots with the state. People's faith was based on ancient seers' insights and on reason, intuition and direct experience. Religion has percolated down to the smallest unit of the society without coercion. All rituals, from birth to death, are directed by one or the other faith. If western secularism requires exclusion of religion from state affairs, it can't be implemented in Nepal because the state will then have to formulate a new life style that replaces religion and rituals. After all, state is not a dead entity; it is made up of living people. Since people are guided by their religions, the state should also have a religion. A state can be independent of religion only when there is no religion in the society. Naturally, this is not the case in our country.

It is understandable that godless Maoists, backed by proselytizing Europeans, have pitched for secularism. They were successful in inserting a clause for "distance oneself from any other religion". It appears to have been introduced to protect atheists but why should atheists be protected when they have never been persecuted here, unlike in certain Muslim countries? Distancing people from their faith seems a step towards conversion to Christianity.

Unfortunately, secularism has been introduced in Nepal to promote conversion. The sprouting of churches everywhere in the country post-2006 corroborates this. Fringe Christian groups have been vociferously advocating for decriminalization of conversion which proves that their intention is to ride the wings of secularism to spread their faith. They have been successful in their mission so far.

That secularism is a divisive idea that drives wedges in the society and ruptures social fabric can be seen in our southern neighbor. This term did not exist in the original Indian Constitution when it was adopted in 1950. Hinduism, having survived the brutal repression under Muslim rule and mass proselytization during British colonial rule, could have been vindictive against minority religions in post-independence polity. But due to its tolerant nature it never dictated terms to the state. Mahatma Gandhi's relentless efforts at sarvadharma samabhava (religious equality) were also responsible for this.

However, secularism was inserted during the Emergency rule of Indira Gandhi to gain the Muslim vote bank, as she was sure to lose the Hindu vote post-Emergency. After the Emergency, Muslims and Christians voted for her en masse. According to Mary Wirth, "Since Independence, several non-secular decisions pandering to the minority had been taken. Muslim and Christian representatives had pushed for special civil laws and other benefits and got them." The 42nd Amendment to the constitution, at Indira Gandhi's behest, also changed the Preamble and the description of India from "sovereign democratic republic" to a "sovereign socialist secular republic". Wirth argues that after adding 'secular' in the constitution the government sought to benefit the dogmatic religions (for which secularism was coined in the first place).

Various parties then started playing the communal card to garner votes. They sowed the fear of a Hindu majority to whip up communal passion among minorities. Rather than introducing development schemes to uplift the minority, they found it beneficial to keep them poor, deprived and fearful of the majority so that they could be fooled time and again. Pseudo-secularism and selective secularism that hurts Hindu sentiments is being practiced in India by so-called progressive parties and intellectuals.

Sadly, the same vote-bank politics is being repeated in our country. Religion has slowly started encroaching upon politics here. A Muslim in Kapilvastu won the second Constituent Assembly elections as an independent candidate by canvassing Muslim votes when the party he was originally affiliated to snubbed him. Christian parties like Jana Jagaran Party and Nepal Pariwar Dal won seats in proportionate election system. Political parties will in the future certainly try to cash in on these potential vote banks and introduce programs to lure them at the expense of the majority. Even Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal became the fourth largest party in CA-II as it had fought elections on the plank of a Hindu state, proving that Hindus too would be politicized in the future. This religious pandering of parties will take a toll on development and stop the country from prospering.

Be that as it may, secularism has charted a course in Nepal and it would be naïve to believe the country will revert back to being a Hindu state, although the country won't suffer even if that happens. However, it would have been better if the constitution had been silent in religious matters. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, the powers that be should introduce measures to ensure that religious strife doesn't take place.

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