By UCA News
By Ben Joseph
(UCA News) — Nepal was billed as the world’s only Hindu nation until 2008 when it adopted a new constitution enshrining secularism, after a popular uprising. The Himalayan nation’s cultural history and its close ties with neighbor India, the world’s most populous Hindu nation, seem to be giving its secularism a certain religious hue.
With more than 101 ethnic groups, conversing in more than 91 different languages, secularism stood for inclusiveness in Nepal because it has nearly 20 percent non-Hindus among its 29 million inhabitants.
The pusillanimity of the country’s leaders and its elites has ensured that economic progress always remains a Himalayan task for the landlocked nation despite its geographical, cultural, and linguistic affinities and the unique open border regime with Asia’s two economic giants — China to the north and India to the south.
Nepal, however, has seen 32 governments since its stint with democracy started in 1990 and 10 governments in the 15 years since the monarchy was abolished in favor of commoners.
The current government, headed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known widely by his nom de guerre “Prachanda,” hardly represents a people’s mandate to run the nation.
In elections last November, Dahal’s Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre became the third largest party, securing just 32 seats, or an 11 percent vote share, in the 275-member parliament. However, he managed to cobble together an alliance with the Nepali Congress, which emerged as the largest party.
India shares a 1,850-km long border with Nepal along with five states — Sikkim, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand — and their special ties are based on the India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship inked way back in 1950.
To give tough competition to China, which has been jostling for influence in Nepal, India has selected the safest route to reach the Himalayan nation and found water suits the bill.
Though there are hardly a few long rivers in Nepal, its culture is closely connected to water and rivers. All rituals from birth to death are somehow centered on rivers.
Currently, Nepal generates 2,700 MW of electricity, mainly from hydropower, according to the state-run Nepal Electricity Authority. But it is less than 7 percent of its total hydro potential. India is eying this pie to edge out China.
Dahal was in India for four days till June 3. Most of the pacts he inked during his maiden official visit were concerned with infrastructure and hydropower projects as designed under the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant in India’s favor.
Dahal inked pacts on the Butawal-Gorakhput 400 KV trans-border transmission line, Fukot-Karnali 480 MW hydropower project; 669 MW lower Arun Hydropower Project and Nepal-India Transit Treaty and memorandum of understandings (MoUs) on petroleum infrastructure and an integrated check post. Nepal is expected to export up to 10,000 MW of electricity to India in the next 10 years through a 25-year deal.
Terming hydropower projects as “one of the most important elements of our economic partnership,” Dahal thanked India for helping export power from Nepal to Bangladesh through India.
To conclude the deals fast, Dahal took his Foreign Minister N P Saud, Energy Minister Shakti Basnet, Industry Minister Ramesh Rijal, and Finance Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat along with him.
To the pleasure of India, Dahal had already passed a citizenship bill that New Delhi had favored the day he flew to India on May 31.
Dahal started to court India’s pro-Hindu ruling party last year when he was accorded a red-carpet welcome by its president J. P. Nadda in New Delhi. Since then, India’s ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has put all its eggs in Dahal’s basket.
This year, the 68-year-old three-time premier made it a point to reciprocate and preferred to wear his saffron Hindu credentials on his sleeve.
While touring BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh state, which goes to the polls later this year, the former Marxist rebel was spotted wearing a saffron-colored shawl.
When asked about it, Dahal, who used to publicly deride India as a ‘bideshi prabhu’ (foreign lord) during his Prachanda days, clarified, “No one should do anything that belittles the religious faith of the people. …I went to Indore to learn about waste management and information technology.”
While in India, Dahal and his entourage, comprising an 80-member delegation, took time out to be in the company of Hindu seers and ascetics — known by the sobriquet “saffron brigade.”
Later, clad in saffron dhotis, Dahal and six cabinet ministers participated in Hindu rituals and were found bowing to a young Hindu guru who occupied a seat much higher than them, wrote the Kathmandu Post on June 5.
The Indian establishment has more than one reason to see Dahal as its man. The presence of Indian intelligence agencies in Nepal is strong. Media reports said Dahal owes his third term, to a certain extent, to India.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s parent organization, has increased its activities through its sister concerns like the Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, while its shakhas (religious schools) have started to thrive in Nepal, media reports said.
After Dahal became prime minister on Dec 26, last year, Nepal displayed an undue hurry in January to be part of the Ram Mandir (temple) project in Ayodhya by delivering devshila (sacred rocks) from the Kali Gandaki river for statue-building. The Ram temple is being built following an order by India’s top court after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1996.
Having an ever-willing Dahal at its beck and call will help India’s ruling party to increase its poll prospects in the Ganga heartland during 2024 elections, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be seeking a third consecutive term.
Dahal, who is accused of sabotaging “transitional justice,” a part of the peace process that requires accountability for heinous crimes like murder, abduction and rape, is now on shaky ground after the steady decline of his party.
So, Dahal wants a change in the secular fabric of Nepal even if it is fraught with the risk of a protracted civil war like in India.
Maybe Dahal and other leaders do not want a secular stable Nepal which could precipitate their fall.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.