By Maila Baje
The momentum the Hindu statehood agenda seemed to have gained against the backdrop of the Universal Peace Federation-sponsored Asia-Pacific Summit at the beginning of the month slackened with the defeat of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in key state elections.
Ostensibly buoyed by the public’s revulsion at the government’s overt support of a controversial Christian organization’s initiative, Nepali Congress general secretary Shashank Koirala urged the nation to address the issue of restoring Nepal’s Hindu identify through referendum.
Although his comment was not new, it prompted Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal president Kamal Thapa to propose joint action with the Nepali Congress. A fortnight later, on the eve of the Nepali Congress’ crucial mahasamiti conference, the BJP lost key state elections seen as a bellwether for next year’s national elections. Almost on cue, Koirala stepped in to clarify that he had never suggested that Nepal be declared a Hindu state again. In the changed atmosphere, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s much-hyped trip to Janakpur became just another religious visit.
Thapa, for his part, hasn’t quite budged from his announcement that the RPPN would launch a decisive campaign for the restoration of Hindu statehood. To be sure, he finds himself in the perfect place. In power, the RPPN was too inconsequential to make a difference. In opposition, it is too insignificant to heat up the streets. Thapa has acknowledged that the RPPN blew the chance Nepali voters gave the party in the 2013 constituent assembly elections. In that sense, its debacle in the parliamentary elections last year was deserved.
Still, keeping the Hindu statehood agenda alive helps Thapa keep his party alive. His advocacy of restoring the monarchy remains tepid, which gives Pashupati Shamsher Rana and his Rastriya Prajatantra Party faction solid points for political scrupulousness. Rana wants to redesignate Nepal as a Hindu state because an overwhelming part of the population professes the faith but retain the country’s republican character.
The Nepali Congress, however, has a more arduous job. Having helped to legitimize the Unified Marxist Leninists as well as the Maoists during the post-2006 years, the party was late in realizing that the communists no longer needed democratic crutches. Democratic socialism need not necessarily be incompatible with overt espousal of Hinduism, as the Christian Socialists in Europe attest to.
Still, religion puts the Nepali Congress in risky territory. When the party remained wedded to constitutional monarchy, its link with Hinduism was ancillary. For a party that had to resort to the creative ambiguity of a comma in the 1990 Constitution on religion and statehood, full-blown embrace of Hinduism would be, well, a giant leap of faith.
And we haven’t even started addressing the more elementary issues often recounted in this space. Can the mere fact that the majority of Nepalis happened to be born Hindus be extrapolated to mean that the state’s character should be designated as such? Sure, most Nepalis are Hindus. But didn’t they vote resoundingly three times for parties explicit in their secular affirmation and orientation? And don’t officially atheist organizations today hold the largest number of elected seats?
Then, there’s the inevitable question of the monarchy. Granted, not every Hindu is a monarchist. (Nor can every secularist be deemed a republican.) But when you start talking about the restoration of Hindu statehood, you have to consider the individual/institution needed to officiate such a state. True, our presidents have presided over Dasain and other religious observances with admirable gusto. (This year, the president and prime minister seemed to have been carried away by their zeal.) But the president is doing so under a secular dispensation. A Hindu state would have very little room for either institutional tentativeness or the vagaries of an individual’s temperament.
A Hindu republic by definition won’t have a king, who has traditionally solemnized Hindu statehood. We also would lack a bada gurujyu and mool purohit. We do have the mool bhatta at Pashupati, but, then, we already want someone more indigenous there, don’t we? Maybe Yogi Adityanath chose to be circumspect for reasons other than Indian state election results.