On August 20, two locals from Dharan, a town in eastern Nepal, live-streamed a feast where they were seen eating beef. The feast was to celebrate their release from police custody. They had earlier been arrested for slaughtering a bull.
The video went viral on social media, sparking a debate on what religious freedom means. The city was already simmering with religious tensions; only a month earlier, there had been protests by Hindus after a church was built close to a Hindu temple in the city.
Various Hindu outfits called on people to gather in Dharan on August 26 to protest against the cow slaughter. The mayor and the central government called for restraint. The District Administration Office imposed a prohibitory order on the day, blocking the major entry routes to the city. Over 1,500 security officials were deployed in Dharan and neighboring towns, and thousands were stopped from entering Dharan. There were smaller protests at entry points but no large-scale demonstrations or violence.
Nepal has long been a Hindu-majority state. More than 80 percent of the population was, and is, Hindu, and another 10 percent are Buddhists. But the simmering religious tension in Nepal is a relatively new phenomenon.
How Nepal Became a Secular State
Nepal’s national identity was largely defined by the upper-caste people from the hilly region who dominated the hallways of power in Kathmandu and local centers. They defined Nepal as a Hindu state and the monarch as an avatar of Lord Bishnu, a Hindu god.
King Mahendra (r. 1955-1972) promoted the idea of “ek raja, ek desh, ek bhasa, ek bhesh” (one king, one state, one language, one dress). It helped unify the elite communities but further marginalized the ethnic communities, especially those from the southern plains of Nepal. They were primarily disenfranchised, and their national loyalty was questioned.
Leaders from ethnic communities led the calls for Nepal to be made a secular state during the 1990 political revolution, which overthrew the executive monarchy to establish Nepal as a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. However, such voices were marginal and did not gain mainstream traction.
Ethnic and caste discrimination was among the central planks for recruiting insurgents during the decade-long Maoist insurgency in Nepal from 1996-2006. The insurgency concluded with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Maoists and the seven mainstream political parties in 2006, which paved the way toward Nepal’s secularism. The agreement stated that “both sides shall respect social, cultural, religious sensitivity, religious sites, and the religious faith [of] individuals based on norms and values of secularism.” It also left the monarchy’s future to a simple majority of the Constituent Assembly’s first meeting.
On that basis, Nepal’s interim constitution declared Nepal a “secular state,” which was formalized by the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly in 2008.
However, as years passed, the voters and some political leaders began to rekindle the idea of a Hindu state.
Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), a conservative party with restoring Nepal’s status as a Hindu state and constitutional monarchy as its key platform, won less than 2.5 percent votes (in the proportional voting system) in the first Constituent Assembly elections in 2008. However, the two factions of the RPP won almost 10 percent of the votes in the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013. Their election campaign was crystallized by their slogan, “ek vote dai lai, ek vote gai lai” – one vote for “big brother” (meaning a major party), and one vote for “cow” (the RPP). They came fourth in the elections in 2013 but were not a decisive political force. Nevertheless, they were instrumental in redefining secularism in a Hindu-friendly way.
Article 4 of the 2015 Constitution of Nepal defines “secular” to mean “religious, cultural freedoms, including protection of religion and culture handed down from time immemorial.” It balances religious freedom and the protection of “sanatan dharma,” primarily based on Hinduism and Hindu traditions, though many indigenous religions exist. However, the constitution forbids “religious conversion or any act to conduct that may jeopardize other’s religion.”
The primary contest in Nepal has long been ethnic rather than religious, though the differentiation between the two is not black and white. Many ethnic groups have been marginalized, and “lower-caste” people have been discriminated against. The Maoists took advantage of these social dynamics to recruit insurgents from among the marginalized community. The Madhesi movements of 2007-08 and 2015 in the southern plains of Nepal bordering India, and several ethnic groups’ protests for identity, representation, and citizenship resulted in Nepal adopting a representative system through reservation at all levels of government. While several issues remain (citizenship, for instance) the change was in the right direction.
However, the yearning for a Hindu nation still bubbled under the surface and occasionally erupted. Sensing the sentiment, leaders were careful in their wording. Former Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli publicly favored “religious freedom,” not secularism. However, he and most other mainstream parties voted to make Nepal a “secular” nation when they adopted the constitution in 2015. It triggered violent protests by Hindus in the streets.
Additionally, there is a widespread perception among the general public and grassroots political cadres that secularism was a Western agenda imposed on Nepal. Former Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae reconfirmed that secularism in Nepal was an idea from Western countries that supported it. During the diplomatic corps meetings, Rae said, the U.S. ambassador prioritized freedom of religion and secularism in Nepal’s new constitution.
Nepal legally adopted secularism, but the Nepali public did not own it. The decision-makers were also ambivalent about the idea at best, despite their vote in favor. That provided space for opportunistic political leaders to appeal to Hindu nationalism.
The Politics of Hindu Nationalism
During his last tenure, when his back was against the wall, Oli whipped up Hindu nationalist sentiment. He became the first communist prime minister to worship at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, among the holiest Hindu sites, and donated $2.5 million of government funds to the temple. He also claimed that Lord Ram was born in Madi in Nepal, not Ayodhya in India. Oli installed idols of Ram in Madi after a worship ceremony he held at the prime minister’s official residence.
Even within political parties such as the Nepali Congress, which has stood fast on secularism, dissenting voices are loud. In 2018, almost half of the 1,500 party representatives launched a signature campaign favoring a Hindu state. Despite NC Chief Sher Bahadur Deuba’s firm public commitment to secularism, he visited Varanasi in India, a key Hindu religious site, during his last visit to the country.
Similarly, current Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists donned a more “spiritual” avatar during his India visit. He conducted an elaborate worship at a temple in Ujjain. His primary motive was to assure India that, as the Indian Express put it, “he was no less Hindu than the former King Gyanendra.” Dahal later implied that the worship was more political than personal.
And then there is the RPP, the former king, and other groups demanding a return to the Hindu state. The RPP’s demand for a Hindu state (and constitutional monarchy) has been consistent, but their rallies are growing larger and being held more frequently. Former King Gyanendra Shah also joined a public campaign earlier in February.
Other interest groups have thrown their hat in the ring. Former Nepal Army General Rookmangud Katawal launched a Hindu Rastra Swabhiman Jagaran Abhiyan campaign (which loosely translates to “Campaign for Dignity and Awareness for a Hindu State”) to “restore Hindu identity” in 2021. Around the same time, another 20 Hindu religious organizations formed a united front in Devghat, a Hindu religious site, to take to the streets to restore Nepal’s status as a Hindu state.
Similarly, the Nepal Janata Party is modeled on India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), down to the party logo, with the Hindu state as its ultimate goal. The NJP is making noise in Nepal, though its presence is marginal.
The India Factor
Besides the domestic factors, the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP and the increased influence of its ideological brethren, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), across the border in India provided added impetus to Hindu nationalism in Nepal. The BJP and its leaders have unambiguously stated their preference for Nepal as a Hindu state. Back in 2010, Rajnath Singh, the current Indian defense minister and former party chief of BJP, warned that “the BJP would not appreciate a situation where Nepal loses its true identity,” and that he would be happy when Nepal became a Hindu state again.
Similarly, the fire-brand chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, Yogi Adityanath, wrote a letter to the Nepali prime minister in 2015, asking him to declare Nepal a Hindu nation. BJP spokesperson Bizay Sonkar Shashtri, on a visit to Nepal in 2021, said the country “is, was and will always remain a Hindu nation.” These sample statements imply that the BJP has not accepted Nepal as a secular state and is still hopeful that Nepal will revert to being a Hindu state.
S.D. Muni, an expert on Indo-Nepal relations, claims that Hindu nationalism has become the Indian government’s main agenda in Nepal since Modi’s ascent to power, primarily because of the RSS’s influence. He further asserts that Nepal’s leaders are being “forced and groomed through incentive and pressure tactics” to back the Hindu state.
Rae, the former Indian ambassador, has confirmed that India raised the matter of the Hindu state in one-on-one meetings between the leaders of the two countries, and that RSS affiliates in Nepal were advocating for the Hindu state.
Some political leaders in Nepal claim that RSS enjoys increased influence in India’s Nepal policy, including in the functioning of the Indian embassy in Nepal. A recent report by the U.S. Department of State posited that right-wing religious groups associated with the BJP have provided funds to influential politicians of all parties in Nepal to speak in favor of the Hindu nation.
Therefore, Hindu nationalists in Nepal and India, as well as some opportunists in Nepal, have found a common cause.
However, there are some fundamental differences in Hindu nationalism in India and Nepal. In India, the Muslim minority is the natural “other” to the Hindu nationalists. Therefore, religious hatred is directed at the Muslim community. In Nepal, it is the Christians and the Christian missionaries who are the target of the Hindu nationalists.
International NGOs from some Western countries, as well as South Korea, have been active in proselytization activities, and Nepal has the world’s fastest-growing Christian population. Churches have mushroomed in the urban centers. It has caused unease among the predominantly Hindu population. The trend furthers the perception that Western countries are hell-bent on the proselytization of Nepal’s poor and marginalized communities.
Additionally, Nepal’s nationalism is predominantly anti-Indian, despite the BJP and RSS’ influence on the Hindutva movement in Nepal. Nepalis seek an independent identity from India. In this context, Oli’s whipping up of Hindu sentiments was as much about burnishing his credentials as a nationalist leader who could stand up to India as it was about Hindu nationalism.
Finally, actors seeking a Hindu state have their differences. For the RPP and other monarchists, Hindutva and monarchy are two sides of the same coin. However, the leaders of the mainstream parties are wary that the former monarch is seeking to return to power in the garb of religious nationalism. Thus, they would like to untangle the link between Hindutva and the monarchy.
In this sense, Hindu nationalism in Nepal transcends ideological, political, and foreign policy debates. There are patterns of dichotomies at all levels. Some political leaders publicly support secularism but harken a desire for a Hindu state in private. Mainstream political parties and royalists spar over the Hindutva-monarchy nexus. There is a contest for influence between the BJP and RSS of India, who would want Nepal to be a Hindu state, and Western powers, who prefer a secular state with fewer limitations on proselytization.
The movement’s direction could shape the future of Nepal’s politics and political leaders for decades.