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Identity Conundrum.

Byline: Javeria Shakil

Many people if asked to name the world's only Hindu kingdom would say India. That is not correct. While India has the world's largest population of Hindus it is not a Hindu state per se. It is a secular nation with no official state religion. Till 2006 Nepal was the sole Hindu kingdom in the world. It had been ruled by kings since the mid-18th century. The last monarch of Nepal was King Gyanendra who relinquished his post in 2006 after a long civil war which left in its wake thousands dead and hundreds missing.

The movement to demolish the monarchy was started by the Communist Party of Nepal in 1996. Their demand was to replace the royal parliamentary system with a people's republic. The violent struggle that lasted for 10 years resulted in the deaths of over 12000 people. Realizing the growing tide of dislike against his rule King Gyanendra eventually quit in 2006 and Nepal's official status as a Hindu kingdom came to an end as the House of Representatives declared it a secular country. The formation of a Constituent Assembly was decided at the same time with the objective of writing a new constitution for the country.

From then till now the country has had two Constituent Assemblies mandated with the same job: give Nepal a new constitution democratic in nature and in line with the aspirations of the people. But the task remains unfinished. The long wait has given rise to unrest among the people who had high hopes from the revolution'. They were expecting immediate gratification grant of their wishes and solution of their problems within days. As it did not happen the people started questioning the purpose of a long violent war that disturbed the lives of many. Disappointed with the mainstream parties many are now looking at smaller regional parties most of which are quite radical in nature.

Taking advantage of the uncertainty that prevails in the country these groups are igniting dissent raising the demand to revert Nepal to its previous status of being a Hindu kingdom. One of the parties at the forefront of this campaign is the pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party. Recently it held a 10-day rath yatra from Jhapa in eastern Nepal to Kathmandu. The party also plans to hold processions in 30 districts across the country that will feature religious and cultural programs. The RPP wants a referendum on whether Nepal should be declared Hindu or secular in the country's new constitution. A party leader Kamal Thapa who served as home minister during King Gyanendra's rule openly says that his party supports Hinduism as the nation's identity." What is more alarming is that the popularity of the RPP has increased during the last few years.

Its votes almost tripled from 76864 in the first elections to 252579 in the second elections held in 2013 an increase from a meager 0.74 percent to 2.79 percent. The RPP currently holds 25 out of the 601 seats of the Constituent Assembly.

While the RPP is more or less a fringe party the mainstream parties do not present a hopeful picture either. As voices against the secular status of Nepal gain momentum the leading party the Nepali Congress Party which also rules the country has not taken a stern stance against such demands. In fact a group within the NCP led by Khum Bahadur Khadka a former minister and current member of the party's Central Working Committee has formed a Hindu army'. In a public rally he threatened that he would cut off the arms of all non-Hindus. Khadka also led a campaign that promoted "Nation Nationality and Sanatan Hindu State."

His actions and pronouncements can be ignored as being the howls of a lone wolf but it becomes more troublesome when another person making similar assertions is no other than the country's prime minister Many were shocked when Premiere Sushil Koirala said that he had no idea where secularism came from." Such statements lend credence to the notion that has existed about the NCP for a long time: that it never wanted to make Nepal a secular country. Some analysts openly blame the NCP for tacitly approving the demand for reverting Nepal to its Hindu roots.

There has been a sudden and formidable increase in the intensity and frequency of the demand after the rise of the BJP on India's political stage and especially after the formation of the Modi government. It is an open secret that India has always interfered in the domestic affairs of its small neighbors. Given the fact that Nepal shares borders with China as well India can't afford to remain indifferent to or even neutral in Nepal's internal affairs. Due to Nepal's strategically important location both India and China have been vying to gain influence there through massive investments especially in the hydropower sector. But it is also a fact that the Hindu rightwing parties in India feel a certain affinity with Nepal which used to be the world's only Hindu kingdom not too long ago. From time to time various BJP leaders have voiced their support for a Hindu monarchy in Nepal.

The current wave of the demand is largely due to the activities of Christian missionaries in Nepal especially in the northern and southern areas. Since 2011 over 0.25 million people have converted to Christianity. The figure seems minuscule when seen in isolation but in the context of Nepal's population of 31 million it is significant enough to ring alarm bells in the political and social circles. Christian groups and leaders in Nepal have also been demanding that the right to convert from one religion to another be guaranteed in the new constitution.

As this debate was raging in the country what proved the final straw was an article written by U.K.'s ambassador to Nepal Andrew Sparks for a Nepalese newspaper. Appealing to the members of the Constituent Assembly Sparks asked them to ensure that the right to change one's religion is protected under the new constitution." This further alarmed the Hindu rightwing parties who increased the momentum of their campaign against proselytizing and for the restoration of the Hindu monarchy.

While the monarchists have started their activities with renewed vigor there are signs that it may not be too easy to bring the Hindu monarchy system back. Some hope that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's refusal to meet former king Gyanendra is a sign that Nepal's most influential neighbor may not be interested that the country change its secular status. Modi's support for a republic' Nepal further strengthens this notion. So while it seems that the Nepalese Left is battling alone for the survival of the country as a secular state it has factors going in its favor. However if the Hindu majority continues to feel threatened the situation might take a different turn.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Feb 28, 2015
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