A label for Nepal

Changing religious labels in the middle of a civil war is a terrible idea

States always have trouble with their labels — India is officially secular, but gets tagged with the ‘Hindu-majority’ label; Bangladesh is an Islamic state, whose secular outlook is eroding; Pakistan is officially an Islamic state, but Gen Musharraf wants to add certain other labels to get rid of the fundamentalist label that it acquired.

What of Nepal? Officially at least, it is a Hindu state. The world’s only one at that. But Kanak Mani Dixit argues that this label too does not quite fit.

The fact is that civics education does not exist in Nepal, where history is as yet all royal hagiography. The young hooligans would not know that Nepal is not the ‘Hindu rashtra’ promoted lately by Hindutva propaganda, nor the ‘asli Hindustan’ as claimed by Prithvi Narayan, the unifier of Nepal and the twelfth ancestor of present King Gyanendra.

To be a ‘Hindu nation’, Nepal would have to be populated entirely by Hindus but that is far from the case. The very definition of who is a ‘Hindu’ among the many ethnic groupings is open to question, residing as they do in an accommodating penumbra that straddles animism, nature worship, diverse Hindu streams, and Himalayan Buddhism.

In such an amorphous coming together of identities, those who do not regard themselves as ‘Hindu’ – as defined by those who demand definition – would make up perhaps thirty percent of the population. Meanwhile, those who regard themselves as Hindus tend to follow a typically syncretistic faith that does not have the ritual rigidities identified with political Hindutva.

And yet, it is true, the 1990 Constitution promulgated after the collapse of the autocratic Panchayat regime, declared Nepal a Hindu state. Simply put, this was a mistake made through conservative compromise, when an attempt to identify the only the king as ‘Hindu’ was derailed. The reference in the document has to be erased through interpretation or revision. [The News /Jang]

Dixit’s argument is that Nepal is not the ‘Hindu rashtra’ (nation) as defined by the proponents of political Hindutva. He has a point there. His fear that the Hindu label will embolden the ambitions of King Gyanendra is also justified. But then, getting rid of a religious label out of fear of that religion’s fundamentalists is terrible idea. If anything, attempting to re-label the country will provide more political oxygen to exactly those fundamentalists who will now be gratuitously handed a new rallying cry.

Playing around with religious labels, however well-meaning in intent, is dangerous at the best of times. In a Nepal wracked by a bloody civil war, it can be be explosive.