Nepal debates Hinduism's official status


The landlocked South Asian country of Nepal is going through a bumpy transition from being the world's only Hindu kingdom to a secular republic. 

In, Sijan Faj Baral, a Fulbright Fellow at Kent State University (U.S.), writes that support for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion has suddenly grown.  In April 2006, Nepal adopted an Interim Constitution after a fierce seven-week protest against the Hindu monarch by Nepal's Maoists and major political parties, the culmination of a decade-long civil war by the extreme leftists. 

But four years later, Nepal's right wing, which seems to have rapidly gained strength, wants Hinduism back as the official religion.  The Constituent Assembly, formed in May 2008 when the monarchy was formally eliminated, is to draft the new constitution before May 28 this year, when the Interim Constitution expires.

But the Assembly is unlikely to honor the deadline due to a lack of consensus.  On February 22, the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) staged a rally in Kathmandu demanding the restoration of Nepal as a Hindu nation on the premise that secularism was not brought in through a referendum.  Though a tiny party, the action crippled life in the capital - an indicator that it received huge support. 

On March 1, a popular Nepali godman, Kali Baba, began a nine-day Hindu ritual, threatening to commit suicide if Nepal was not restored as a Hindu nation.  Not only did he hit the headlines, he was also visited by deposed King Gyanendra.  On March 22,  right-wing Hindu group, Bhisma Ekata Parishad, seemingly formed in the recent monghts, held a general strike in western Nepal demanding the same thing. 

Apparently, it is people's disillusionment with politicians for causing uncertainties after the establishment of democracy that is raising hopes that Hinduism can be a solution.  But for the deposed king, his protégé RPP and powerful right-wing Hindu organization in India - which are well connected with their counterparts in Nepal - it is an opportunity to reinstate the religion that alone legitimizes a monarchy in the 21st Century. 

Roughly 80 percent of the 28.5 million people in Nepal are Hindu.  But the reinstatement of Hinduism is feared not only by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and indigenous communities, who together form around 20 percent of the populatino, but also by Nepal's lower caste Hindus. 

Over one-quarter of Hindus in Nepal are Dalits, formely "untouchables," and the country has more than 100 ethnic groups.  Having little representation in the Constituent Assembly, these communities are understandably nervous.  Besides neglecting and persecuting these minorities and restricting their freedom to proselytize, the monarchy enforced the hierarchical caste system during its rule.