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    South Asia
     Aug 28, 2012

Hindus in Nepal shun homophobia
By Vishal Arora

When a Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality three years ago, fury at the ruling was such that Hindu and Muslim groups typically at each throat's united in opposition. However, recent plans by the government of neighboring Nepal to recognize sexual minorities haven't seen a single complaint from the country's religious organizations.

The Home Ministry of Nepal's decision in May to provide citizenship to gays under the "others" category to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) 

community is just the latest in a series of successes Nepal's movement has seen in recent years.

In an interview with Asia Times Online, petitioner and the country's openly gay lawmaker Sunil Babu Pant said that it started with a December 2007 judgment by the Supreme Court directing the government to introduce laws providing equal rights to the LGBTI community and amend all discriminatory laws against them.

After the court's decision, most human-rights groups and political parties openly spoke in favor of sexual minorities, and religious groups, often the loudest opponents of gay rights elsewhere, promptly accepted it, said Pant, sipping tea at a garden restaurant.

The judgment came days before a historic parliamentary bill which declared Nepal a federal republic and thereby abolished the Hindu monarchy. But Hinduism remains integral to the lives of the people and culture of Nepal. The thousands of temples, built during the period of monarchy, still characterize the country's landscape.

It's one of the few countries where even hardcore Maoists associate themselves with religion, though just its cultural aspects. Maoist leader Puspa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, wore a red tilak (vermilion) covering his broad forehead, even as dozens of marigold garlands enveloped his chest and shoulders right up to his ears, when he was sworn in as the first democratic prime minister of Nepal in August 2008. He is credited with leading a bloody civil war, which when joined by mainstream political parties in 2006 overthrew the Hindu dynasty.

Despite being a deeply religious country, Nepal has "already mainstreamed" sexual minorities, Pant said. The transgender still find it difficult to get jobs, but "social acceptance is increasing by the day".

Pant believes that 10% of Nepal's population is gay. "Like any other society," he said, referring to Alfred Kinsey's 1948 book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. The Blue Diamond Society, an LGBTI rights groups Pant founded, claims it has served over 200,000 people in 36 districts in a little over 10 years.

Based on the court directive, a seven-member committee is finalizing a same-sex marriage bill to be presented to parliament for approval. The country's three major parties - the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the left-of-center Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) - have missed four deadlines to build a consensus over a new constitution to cement the country's transition, but they have all supported the LGBTI community in their manifestos.

A parliamentary committee tasked to propose fundamental rights in the new constitution has included protections for sexual minorities.

The government-run Nepal TV has given Pant a prime-time slot for a new weekly show called "Pahichaan" or "Identity", which features Nepali celebrities who join the gay activist to promote human-rights for the LGBTI community.

Why are Hindu leaders in Nepal not protesting? Pant smiled at the question, and responded by saying that some of India's Hindus might have learnt "the art of getting into politics" from the United States. Some religious groups, he charged, are "into everything except religion itself ... But in Nepal, religious institutions have remained pretty pure ... and are more focused on the religious aspect."

Nepal's Hindu institutions have remained confined to religious aspects perhaps because there was little political space under the monarchy, Pant said. Besides, "religion, ideally, is not against basic human rights. The interpretation usually is very wrong. Even in India, the UK and the US, not all religious people oppose gay marriage."

In Nepal, he said, most Hindu leaders know that "Hindu deities are so diverse and have been gays, lesbians and transgender themselves." He referred to temples that have statues of the fire god drinking the sperm of god Shiva. He pointed out that many Hindus believe that a marriage lasts for seven lives and although there is no guarantee whether a spouse will be born male or female in the next birth, the relationship continues.

There are many transgender gods especially in tantric Hinduism, Pant said. "The influence of tantrism has broadened the mindset of religious sects here," he said. Tantrism, which came with the Vajrayana sect of Buddhism from the neighboring Indian state of Bihar and became syncretized with local practices in Nepal, doesn't have a single coherent doctrine and is more world-embracing than world-denying.

Some Hindu leaders have "suggested" that same-sex marriage should be named differently, as conventional marriage involves rituals meant for male and female, Pant said. They would like to call it gandarbha marriage (love marriage). "Apart from this, there is no other concern Hindus have."

The minority Christian and Muslim communities in Nepal do not approve of homosexuality, Pant said, but they are struggling to establish their own rights and find it counterproductive to oppose gay marriage in a Hindu-majority society. However, he added, he had good relations with leaders of the minorities, too.

The gay community's success in Nepal perhaps cannot be emulated elsewhere in the world because this South Asian nation has a unique religious and social context. But this young democracy's experience at least teaches one lesson, especially to advocates and opponents of gay rights in the West. For, some religious groups in the West have gone to the extent of attacking the human dignity of LGBTI people. Likewise, some gay advocates aggressively reject basic religious tenets as well as faith-based foundations of nations.

Nepal shows that such radical reactions are not intrinsic to the conflict. Finding a solution, no matter how long it might take, through dialogue and without hatred is perhaps a better option than seeking to destroy each other, which is a lose-lose proposition.

Vishal Arora is a New Delhi-based journalist. He researches and writes on politics, culture, religion, foreign affairs and human rights, primarily but not exclusively in South and Southeast Asia. His articles have appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, USA Today, World Politics Review, Foreign Policy in Focus, the Religion News Service, and many other outlets. He can be contacted at vishalarora_in@hotmail.com and some of his articles can be read here. Follow him on Twitter: vishalarora_in

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