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Narendra Thapa

April 8th, 2024

The Demand for a Hindu Rastra in Nepal

1 comment | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Narendra Thapa

April 8th, 2024

The Demand for a Hindu Rastra in Nepal

1 comment | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Political parties in Hindu-majority Nepal are increasingly demanding the (re)establishment of Nepal as a Hindu state (rastra). Narendra Thapa looks at how there is a growing presence of Hindu identity politics in Nepal, moving away from its secular Constitution.

   

The forthcoming national elections in India are important not just for India but also for Nepal, whose political profile is undergoing important changes, potentially molding the trajectory of secular governance and cultural identity in the country.

Nepal is currently witnessing a surge in support for the idea of a Hindu Rastra (nation-state). It is championed by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and Durga Kumar Prasai, a controversial industrialist leading the ‘Rastra, Rastriyata, Dharma-Sanskriti, and Nagarik Bachau Andolan’ (lit., ‘Nation, Nationalism, Religio-Cultural Citizen’s Protection Movement’) along with a demand for the restoration of its monarchy, as also by the Nepal Janata Party (NJP), which aligns with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) both ideologically and in its pursuit of a Hindu Rastra. At the other end of this spectrum is the Nepali Congress, the single largest (and influential) political party, which has stood firmly in favour of federalism and secularism in Nepal; most Congress leaders remain sceptical of the agenda.  A group of Nepali Congress politicians recently started a campaign, coordinated by Legislator and Central Committee member Shankar Bhandari, to reinstate the Hindu state in the Mahasamiti meeting (the party’s top policy-making authority) but the Central Working Committee declined to include it in agenda (despite 22 central members submitting a memorandum in favour of it).

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The 200+ years old Hindu kingdom in Nepal came to an end on 18 May 2006, when Nepal’s House of Representatives declared the country a secular state and terminated the King’s executive powers. The Interim Constitution of 2007 reiterated Nepal’s secular character without stating which secular model should be adopted. On 28 May 2008, the Constituent Assembly officially declared Nepal a secular, federal, democratic republic, upheld and confirmed by Article 4 of Nepal’s new Constitution of 2015.

The term ‘secular’ implies religious freedom, with the government tasked to safeguard traditional religions and customs practiced since ancient times, possibly excluding newer ones. Many Hindus in Nepal — who saw the erstwhile King as an incarnation of Vishnu, the ‘Preserver’ in the Hindu pantheon — hold the belief that secularism is an imposed ‘Western’ concept that has not been debated properly, and consider it the primary reason for the recurring religious conflicts in places like Nepalgunj, Birgunj, Janakpur, Dharan, and Malangwa, along with a perceived threat of the spread of Christianity in the country. Right-wing organisations mentioned above are keen to weaponise this entrenched public dissatisfaction and suspicion for their political gain.

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Nepal is grappling with widespread frustration with the perceived corruption and power-hungry nature of established political parties. The dominance of long-standing leaders is being challenged by a surge of young politicians, evident in recent elections. Social media campaigns like ‘No, not, again’ urged voters to reject aging leaders, leading to the defeat of well-established figures. Independent candidates, personified by engineer Balen Shah’s mayoral win in Kathmandu, has fueled youth enthusiasm. New parties like the Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP; which became the fourth largest party with 21 out of 275 seats in the House of Representatives), the Nagrik Unmukti Party (NUP) and the Janamat Party (JP) have gained traction. Even parties like the pro-Hindu RPP have seen a resurgence in popularity after the 2017 elections, becoming the fifth largest party with 14 seats. These developments signal a growing desire for change among Nepali voters.

The US State Department’s most recent Report on International Religious Freedom (May 2023) claims that there is a growing movement in Nepal to regain its identity as a Hindu nation, an effort financed by the BJP in India. They quote Nepali civil society activists who believe that politicians in Nepal, especially those in the right-wing RPP, are feeling pressured by influences from the BJP and other Hindu groups in India to advocate for the restoration of a Hindu state in Nepal. In light of the anticipated victory for the BJP in the upcoming general elections, right-wing factions within Nepal seek to align themselves with the BJP, aiming to garner moral support and secure the continuation of purported financial assistance provided by the BJP.

The BJP in India is seen to have fulfilled several of its longstanding commitments aimed at gratifying a majority of Hindu voters ahead of the election (like the the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir; the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya; and the enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019). Their next major agenda derives from the Hindutva notion of ‘Akhand Bharat’ which romanticises a mythical India harking back to a time when modern-day South Asia and Tibet were a part of India, and constituted a single nation.

Interestingly, in May 2023, when the newly inaugurated Parliament building in New Delhi revealed a mural titled ‘Akhand Bharat’, it showed all of modern-day Nepal as being part of ‘undivided’ India — directly attacking the sovereignty of Nepal. This triggered a sharp reaction from several Nepali politicians, and Kathmandu mayor Balen Shah even installed a map of the pre-1816 (Treaty of Sagauli) ‘Greater Nepal’ in his office. Responding to the diplomatic furore, including the Government of Nepal’s official query to the Government of India, India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar clarified that the map represented the ancient Indian Mauryan empire under Emperor Ashoka (304–232 BC).

All political parties in Nepal are persuaded that the BJP government will remain in power at least until 2029. This has prompted them to align their actions with the echoes of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. Dominant political parties in Nepal, along with right-wing factions, are reconsidering their stance on secularism: they are prioritising Hindu-centric agendas to appeal to the country’s predominantly Hindu population of over 80 per cent in anticipation of their own elections in 2027.

Interestingly, this trend is not confined just to right-wing factions in Nepal; even communist leaders have been seen engaging in such activities. In June 2023, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ visited Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain in India to offer prayers, and former Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli donating 104 kgs of gold to the Pashupatinath Temple in February 2021, a move widely interpreted as an attempt to appease the Hindu community in Nepal. The gold was utilised to create a sacred ornament known as ‘Jalahari’ for the deity.

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In conclusion then, the BJP’s Hindutva agenda in India is impacting the political landscape in Nepal. Leaders across ideological divides are aligning themselves with Hindu-centric narratives, even as the country grapples to secure its secular identity.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy.

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Author, Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, 2024.

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Narendra Thapa

Narendra Thapa is studying for a Masters degree in International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi.

Posted In: Nepal

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