The country is expecting the long-awaited new constitution, and the Assembly is busily engaged in producing the final draft. Just as during the last Constituent Assembly, religion, ethnicity and the forms of federalism have emerged as major contentious issues and stumbling blocks. While the demand for the restoration of Nepal’s Hindu status is gaining ground, the idea of secularism remains a most contentious and sensitive issue that must not lightly be rejected. Experience and history demonstrate that the politics of caste and religion are not easy to handle. Is it not time for a proper discourse on secularism within the Assembly, within the political parties and across society as a whole?
Secularism implies a strict separation of state from religion. Under this philosophy, people of all religions and beliefs as well as those of none are treated equally. Secularism is not about marginalizing religious people: nor does it set an anti-religious agenda. In fact, it involves merely the removal of god from State activity, leaving individuals to decide their own relationship with their own god. Many questions must be asked today. Are people sufficiently aware of what is meant by “secular state” in our context? Have we taught the general public about it and its consequences? Are we being too emotional and sentimental in our constitution drafting? Are we mentally, physically and socially ready to accept drastic changes that could result overnight? I wish to add a few points about secularism for all of us to think about before we start to finalise the constitution.
Firstly, every society is guided by its social norms, values, traditions, customs and most importantly its religion. Ours is no different. These social values have become so important that they dictate our way of life. For us social rituals, ceremonies and festivals have traditionally been conducted according to the Hindu religion. Our laws have been guided by the Hindu philosophy, which has been rooted in our country for thousands of years. Surely the Hindu religion with its glorious past, its civilization and culture, is a rich inheritance for all of us?
Having said that, though, I strongly believe that secularism offers a fair democratic solution to the diverse social problems of the twenty first century. Declaring Nepal to be a secular state is the need of the day, but there are a few serious questions for all of us to think about. How are we going to formulate policies and laws in a changed scenario? Have we given sufficient thought to the role of beliefs, values and faith in our public life? Do we need to banish all Hindu symbolism, rooted as it is in our history, in order to become truly secular? Is it possible to banish religion entirely from our public sphere? Most importantly, according to the 2011 national census, 81.3 per cent of people are Hindu in Nepal. How shall we convince Hindu hardliners who are demanding a Hindu state that secularism seeks to ensure and protect the freedom of religious belief and practice among all citizens?
Secondly, around one hundred countries – developed and under-developed – in the world have incorporated secularism in their constitution. For instance, Article 4 of Fiji’s constitution explicitly guarantees religious liberty stating that religious belief is personal and that religion and the State are separate. The United States also has no official religion at federal or state level, but the Bible is used for oaths in court, or by the President for his oath of office. Have we given enough attention to international constitutional practice on secularism and its implications and consequences? Have we conducted sufficient research on the issue before we decide to insert the concept of secularism into our constitution?
Finally, has there been enough debate and have we created enough public awareness on this sensitive subject? Secularism means many things; it is about treating all people equally; it is about creating a common culture within diversity; it is about accepting diversity and toleration in society. It is about pluralism and certainly not about encouraging atheism in society. It is not about the rejection of the existence of any god. It is about state neutrality and protecting all gods and religious beliefs and faith groups. Religion is a most sensitive issue that emotionally affects people in all walks of life. Have our politicians taken the issue seriously enough?
I strongly believe that, for Nepal, moderate inclusive secularism is capable of achieving a positive result. The constitution needs to state in clear and simple language that Nepal is a secular state. Ambiguous and controversial statements such as ‘all individuals will have their religious freedoms’ must be avoided, as should controversial provisions similar to those enshrined in the constitutions of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Religion and faith must be left to the individual as a matter of personal choice. Religion must become a private business truly between an individual and his god.
We must use rational reasoning when we deal with religious beliefs. We must conduct more homework before we insert anything of this nature into the final draft of our new constitution. We must consult, cooperate and convince all stakeholders and faith groups, including those who are demanding a Hindu state. Is it not the time to listen to the voiceless, the marginalized and the minorities? If we ignore and neglect their demands, the consequences could be awful. We may be digging our own grave by planting the seeds of permanent conflict among the different ethnicities, religions and beliefs. In that case, no god, no ideology, no leader and no law may be able to prevent future catastrophe.