The Rise—and Fall?—of Hindu Nationalism in Nepal

By: Luke Wagner

July 20, 2017

Religious Freedom Research Project Summer 2017 Fellowship Reports

Nearly two years ago—on September 20, 2015—the state of Nepal promulgated its new constitution. Hindu nationalists promptly burned it in protest.

Their primary objection was the inclusion of the term “secular” in the article that defines the state, but their ultimate demand was—and remains to this day—the formal redefinition of the state as Hindu. In response to their detractors, they maintain that theirs is a movement to affirm and protect the Hindu identity of the majority of the population, and not one bent on curtailing religious freedom. In fact, advocates of a Hindu state are almost always careful to include the term “religious freedom” in their depiction of their desired polity.

They insist, however, that religious freedom stops short of the unfettered right to proselytize. They characterize proselytization not as a religious act (and, therefore, not a matter of religious freedom), but rather as either an act of provocation that threatens social stability or as a surreptitious political maneuver by foreign agents to undermine Nepal’s sovereignty, or both. However disingenuous or implausible such a characterization may seem to outsiders, the general contours of that perspective are shared across much of Nepal’s political spectrum. As opposed to India, where Muslims are the focus of Hindu nationalist ire, it is Christians in Nepal who are seen as the predominant threat.

As a result of their unwavering propagation of this view, even many advocates of a secular Nepal quietly agree that Christian proselytization is a problem. While religious freedom is embedded in the constitution in both the article that defines the state and in an article that guarantees citizens the freedom “to profess, practice, and preserve his/her religion according to his/her faith,” it prohibits the use of that freedom to “convert a person of one religion to another religion, or disturb the religion of other people.” This same restriction had been included in Nepal’s previous constitutions, and non-Christian advocates of secularism have shown little interest in challenging the provision. Exactly what it means to convert a person in the legal sense, however, remains an open question. Some interpret this as a ban on proselytization altogether, while others maintain that it applies only to so-called “forced” conversions. The legal ambiguity of the article means that its interpretation rests largely with whomever controls the organs of the state in any given time and place.

When the constitution was promulgated, Hindu nationalism in Nepal appeared to be an ascendant force. Despite its failure to secure a Hindu state, it had come a long way from its position over the previous nine years. On the heels of a decade-long civil war, Nepal’s parliament declared the former Hindu kingdom a secular state in 2006, incorporated this secular definition in the Interim Constitution of 2007, and abolished the monarchy altogether in 2008. Hindu nationalist parties fared poorly in the 2008 Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, and although they surprised many with their gains in the 2013 elections for a second CA, they remained marginal.

As deliberations in the CA wore on in 2014 and 2015, however, an oppositional Hindu nationalist movement took to the streets in sustained and increasingly widespread protest across the country. Ultimately, their agitation led to a compromise that significantly altered the character of the secular state. That is, a clause was added to explain that “secular” in the context of the constitution means the “protection of religion and culture being practiced since ancient times and religious and cultural freedom.” The term used for “ancient times” (sanatana), however, is drawn from the self-referential vocabulary of Hindu nationalists, and the constitution is thus widely interpreted as granting special status to Hinduism.

Over the next year and a half, there were signs that Hindu nationalism remained on the rise. Thus, when Nepal began the first phase of elections for local administrative positions in May, their expectations were high. With one phase of voting remaining, however, Hindu nationalists have largely been routed. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), the only party of national prominence that overtly promotes Hindu nationalism, has won the mayorship of only one city. Its success even there may be due as much to the popularity of its candidate as its platform.

How to interpret this outcome remains an open question. Opponents of Hindu nationalism characterize the vote as a rejection of the religious extremism that reared its head in the last few years, while others argue that voters simply had the more pragmatic concerns of economic development in mind when casting their ballots. From this perspective, even supporters of Hindu nationalism may have been wary of voting for a party like RPP, which focused on national-level identity politics at the expense of the brass tacks of local development. Others, however, point out that the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (UML), which is currently poised to emerge as the overall victor in the elections, simply offered an alternative vision of an aggressive nationalism—one that valorizes the cultural identity of ethnic groups hailing from Nepal’s mid-hills, Hindu and non-Hindu alike, at the expense of those from Nepal’s southern plains, and one that is adamantly anti-Indian. While the UML may not overtly articulate a vision of a Hindu polity, moreover, its version of Nepali nationalism can accommodate at least a degree of the anti-Christian sentiment that fuels Nepal’s Hindu nationalism. It was a government led by the UML, for example, that removed Christmas from the list of public holidays and that Christian groups accused of more widespread discrimination.

As the newly elected local bodies take control of local affairs, the practicalities of the politics of secularism and religious freedom will likely shift from the high symbolic politics of nationalism to more mundane, day-to-day affairs, and what direction things will go in remains to be seen. For now, though, Nepal’s Hindu nationalists have vowed to regroup in advance of national parliamentary elections—which are constitutionally mandated to be held by January 2018—and they make every indication that they expect their vision of a Hindu polity to resonate when the stakes are raised to the national level.

Opens in a new window