KATHMANDU - Nepal's transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic is
not going smoothly, and not just over the fast-approaching May 28 deadline for
the nation's new constitution.
Nepal's three major parties are at loggerheads in the special assembly formed
to draft the constitution over the structure of a proposed federal system. The
opposition Maoists insist that federal states be created on an ethnic basis,
while the ruling Nepali Congress party and its coalition partner believe the
states should be formed on a geographic basis.
The Constituent Assembly was formed after a 2008 election when members voted
overwhelmingly to abolish the monarchy and
restructure the country into autonomous states. The powers of the last king,
Gyanendra, had been steadily curtailed since a disastrous period of his rule
ended in April 2006 amid a popular revolt.
In the Constituent Assembly the opposition Maoists, who form the largest block
with 40% of the seats, favor an executive presidency, while the Nepali Congress
and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist are floating a parliamentary
At the same time, public opposition to the idea of federalism is growing, as
seen in the successful anti-federalism campaign being carried out by the
National People's Front (Rashtriya Janamorcha), a small left-leaning party.
"Federalism is a recipe for Nepal to disintegrate, like the former Yugoslavia,"
said Chitra Bahadur KC, the party leader. In his view, Nepal's marginalized
peoples would be better served through greater decentralization. A successful
general strike his party organized in January is forcing the assembly to listen
to his concerns.
Another small party, the royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal
(RPP-Nepal), is calling for a national referendum on federalism, as well as on
secularism and a restoration of the monarchy. It last week launched a general
strike that brought Kathmandu Valley, which encompasses the capital and two
other districts, to a standstill.
RPP-Nepal has only four members in the national assembly, but its protest
campaign has attracted a wide following. Even the powerful Maoists were forced
to cancel an important meeting due to the chaos and the RPP-Nepal's large
rallies managed to block the entrance to Simha Durbar, the seat of central
The party also wants a referendum to address Nepal's status as the world's only
remaining Hindu state, which was abolished in 2008 when Nepal became a
republic. More than 80% of the population are from the Hindu faith, also known
as Sanaatan Dharma (the eternal law).
Hinduism, the third-largest religion after Christianity and Islam, is known for
its tolerance towards other faiths. Nepal, with a sizeable Muslim population,
does not possess the type of religious rivalries seen in India.
This, however, is undergoing a subtle change. There are growing feelings that
too much tolerance could impact on Nepal's Hindu way of life, especially if
there is a lack of reciprocity from other faiths. The concern has grown since
the proselytizing activities of Western groups that had entered Nepal in the
garb of non-governmental organizations were exposed.
The Hindu backlash against Nepal becoming a secular state has grown since 2006
when the monarchy first fell and the state was established, but the leaders of
some prominent political parties believe the recent popular movements may also
be a power play by right-wing elements. And they are also jittery about a
possible revival of the monarchy.
Kamal Thapa, who heads RPP-Nepal, denies that his party is working to restore
the monarchy's absolute rule. "All our party believes in is the restoration of
a ceremonial institution that provides a symbol of unity for a country that is
known for its ethnic diversity," Thapa told Asia Times Online.
Thapa's ideas appeal to many, as the 2006 declaration that made Nepal a secular
nation was made without consulting the people. The May 18 declaration was made
in a parliament that had been restored through royal proclamation, and the
person who made it, Girija Prasad Koirala, was sworn in as prime minister by
That declaration was illegitimate and should have been challenged there and
then, according to Bishwanath Upadhayaya, a former chief justice and the head
of the panel that drafted the 1990 constitution. If the changes were the
outcome of a mass movement or a revolution, it should have been documented as
such, he maintains.
Instead, sweeping changes were abruptly announced by Koirala on the grounds of
bringing the Maoist insurgency (1996-2006) to an end and bringing the rebels
into mainstream politics at all costs.
Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (popularly known as Prachanda) has now become
one of two important figures who concede that the secularization of Nepal was a
mistake. The other person is none other than the incumbent President Ram Baran
Yadav made this clear to a controversial Indian holy man, Chandraswami, when he
was on a pilgrimage to Nepal. Former prime minister Koirala purportedly evaded
the question. Unlike rulers in Delhi, media reports indicate that India's
Hindus want the religious identity of neighboring Nepal to remain unchanged.
For them, too, this is an emotional issue.
If Nepal's secularization was a mistake, this could be rectified when Nepal
receives its new constitution. There is no need for a simultaneous restoration
of the monarchy, which ceased being the custodian of the nation's Hindus after
the notorious palace massacre of 2001. Nepal could now learn to stand as a
Hindu republic, not a kingdom.