Even though the concept of secularism is accepted in our politics, the Nepali society is deeply religious and Nepalis guard their religious rights as well as religious identities. Therefore the contexts of other countries like the American or European secularism may not be fit here in Nepal because of its diversity.
According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, secularism means the indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations. It is the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society. In Nepal, the word secularism is used to appease different religious minorities like Muslims, Kirats, Christians and some other oppressed groups and to abuse the Hindu majority by political parties to gain their votes. But while trying to understand the root meaning of secularism, the reality is different. In fact, Nepal has never been a secular state practically. The minority Muslims, Christians, Kirats and others are still not treated fairly despite the mention of secularism in Nepal’s constitution. Similarly the religious minorities are not protected and treated by its equitable application. It seems there is still a biased application of secularism in Nepal. With its abuse of lofty ideals and double face, Nepal remains with a big question. Nepal needs to come out of this closet, take the mask off, and say if it is really secular and fair to all religious groups or is still favoring the majority group. Although Nepal claims to be a secular state, it continues to favor the Hindu majority. This should end. All religious groups should be treated fairly.
Nepal is a multiethnic, multi-religious and multilingual country. And we see ourselves and are seen by others in a range of dynamic identities: age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, nationality etc. Identity can change over the historical periods across cultures and through a life cycle. Similarly there is a verse in Nepali national anthem “bahuljati bhasha dharma sanskriti chhan bishal”, which means multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-religious, with a diverse culture. It indicates that Nepal is a country where people live together with harmony where there is no need of mentioning the country as a so-called secular state. If the state avoids the religious practices of the minorities, how can multi-religious people practice secularism? Secularism keeps religion out of government, but it does not require people to practice their faith only at home. They should be permitted to have churches, mosques, and temples and be allowed to practice in public places too. One of the analogies I would like to mention is that if there is water, there will be a lot of fish and fishes. Likewise how can such multi-cultural and religious people practice avoiding the religious paradigm in society as mentioned in the definition?
The government should recognize the positive benefit of religious involvement without favoring any religion. The role of the government is not to avoid religious practices. Rather, it should play the role of a patron among the diversified groups and religions. Are cultural differences and distinctiveness adopted from different religions a blessing? Or are they a curse? It is a blessing to live in the diversity where people practice their own culture and religions. Ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, or nationalism should be avoided which promote the fallacy of any ethnic, cultural, gender or national group’s self-sufficiency. In addition, the government cannot be neutral in times of social issues or crisis. Too often the government remains silent about the destructive conditions occurring around the nation. There are still some roots and realities that the minorities and oppressed castes or religions are still living in a cycle of discrimination over years here in Nepal. Such a deep division within the nation has resulted in rejection, humiliation, poverty, suffering for the minorities in which there is not any action that secularism is playing the role of breaking down such big stereotypes. Similarly the leadership of Nepal has not accepted the cultural and religious diversity with open arms. They have been ignoring and bypassing the values of different cultural and religious practices. Secularism has not played the role of unity and peace in Nepal.
Even though Nepal is officially secular, complaints are still being filed against Christian minorities for their personal religious behavior and they are even being detained by police. All religious groups should be treated fairly. All religions must benefit society and people of different religious groups can get along in peace. Secularism has been defined such that the minorities are not allowed to disclose their faith in public places. Is it a secular country? Not all Christians are allowed to proclaim and practice their own activities in public places or even in churches like other majority groups. A Christian leader was caught some months ago in Dang, a Korean missionary was in Pokhara and there were many other leaders who were arrested by police because they were Christians and doing some Christian practices. Similarly, last year a young pastor in Pokhara was arrested because of his faith practices and prayers in church. Likewise the minorities’ festival holidays are limited only to the respective followers, not mentioned as a public holiday like Christmas, Udhauli and some other minorities. Is this the real meaning of secularism? No it is just a myth to lure the vote of minorities. Actually no state can legally favor or hate a particular religion but it does not seem so in the context of Nepal. People residing in a country must be allowed to follow and practice the religion of their choice.
On the other hand some opine that secularism is one of the most important achievements for our democratic country, because it facilitates benefits like religious freedom, in which people can follow and practice the religion of their choice. Similarly, the independence of the state from the religions can enable the state to make fair decisions and treat all the groups with equality. No religious pressure can occur while making decisions. People can express their opinions and beliefs. The concept of secularism in Nepal means fair and equal treatment of all religions and treating them all as one under the law and ethics. But it does not seem that the Nepal government has thoroughly separated itself from religion.
Another issue is that people to some extent seem culturally aware after Nepal was declared a secular state. People are familiar with other practices and rituals. A kind of global citizenship skill has been developed among Nepalis. One of the great issues in Nepal after the declaration of secularism is ethnocentrism which has been reduced. Moreover there is a global citizenship skill among the people like people celebrate Christmas, Eid, different other major festivals like Dashain, Tihar culturally even though they are practitioners of different religions. There are some studies indicating that after the declaration of secularism, the violence between Muslims and Hindu communities in Terai region has diminished. Similarly people like Christian minorities are open to share about their faith and practices with others. It seems good that minorities are opening up, demanding their own rights, diminishing the violence between communities but the insights and truth about declaring Nepal as a secular country are different. Now there is not a statement “You are not allowed to be friends” in the communities because of the religious awareness and tolerance. But the leaders have struggled to make a fair execution of the ideology of secularism. Certain problems still need to be addressed to make certain proper, peaceful action. Sometimes because of personal benefits, some leaders are not in favor of creating a secular state in practice.
In conclusion, it needs to be understood that any country or state cannot be truly secular with secularism mentioned just in the law. A state can or should be secular in law, so as to treat all religious groups fairly, but should NOT be secular culturally because society benefits from the flourishing and peaceful interaction of all respected religious groups. I personally do not expect to develop one religion like to be wholly Hindu or Christian or others but I want to mention that the country should be a place of peace and wholly tolerant with its religious practices. Nepal has become a secular state with secured constitutional guarantees for all Nepalis. Even though the concept of secularism is accepted in our politics, the Nepali society is deeply religious and Nepalis guard their religious rights as well as religious identities. Therefore the contexts of other countries like the American or European secularism may not be fit here in Nepal because of its diversity.
(The writer is an M Phil scholar at Nepal Open University.)