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Amish Raj Mulmi: Nepali Hindutva

29 August 2011

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Himal Southasian, July 2011

On 18 March, the Supreme Court of Nepal removed a ban on the burial of non-Hindus in the Shlesmantak forest. A patch of woods located just across the revered Pashupatinath temple, the Shlesmantak holds a curious place in Hindu mythology. Shiva’s manifestation as Pashupati, the Lord of the Animals, is said to have frequented this area, while his consort, Parvati, undertook penance among these trees to win Shiva’s affections.

Shlesmantak has been used for Hindu burials when the traditional cremation is not favoured or allowed, such as for just-born infants or yogis and mendicants. Yet for all its connections with Hindu mythology, Shlesmantak has long been used as burial grounds by disparate groups. While Nepal’s ethnic Kirant community does not practise Hinduism, it does believe in the sacredness of Pashupatinath, and has buried its dead in the forest since antiquity. In recent times, however, the number of Christian converts within the Kirant community has increased; in turn, their dead have continued to be buried within the Shlesmantak forest but in accordance with Christian ritual – establishing permanent gravestones, for instance, unlike the Kirant tradition.

These practices did not go unnoticed by the Hindu majority in Nepal. Taking particular note was the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), an autonomous body set up in 1987 to ‘manage and develop’ the Pashupati area. In 1998, the Trust began to remove the gravestones, on the rationale that they were non-Hindu and occupying limited space in Shlesmantak. Protests by the Christian Kirant community followed, and an arbitrary provision of allowing burials for three months longer turned into 12 years – until December last year.

At that time, PADT put into effect a ban on all non-Hindu burials in the Shlesmantak forest. Consequently, relatives of 40-year-old Jash Ram Rai, a Kirant, took up public protests both in and outside the Pashupati grounds. These demonstrations turned violent and 13 protestors were eventually arrested, including two lawmakers of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The case was then taken up by the Supreme Court, which in March decided that the ban needed to be lifted. However, a counter-petition filed by Hindu activist Bharat Jangam against the court’s order has stayed the ban, resulting in further protests by both the Kirant and Christian communities, demanding the right to bury their dead in Shlesmantak. In April, a five-member government committee was formed to seek an alternative solution to Christian burial rights, and the committee’s chief, Rishikesh Niraula, was quoted as saying the committee would submit a report in 45 days. Although the committee has not yet tabled a report, the government reached a settlement on 1 May after it agreed to form a high-level panel that would ‘manage burial grounds … for Christians at the earliest,’ according to Niraula.

As Pashupatinath is considered the patron-deity of all Nepali Hindus, it almost seems inevitable that the controversy over burial rights in the Shlesmantak forest would eventually turn into a larger debate on the cultural affiliations of the new Nepali state. While the Maoists earned the ire of the larger Hindu community by attempting to fire the Indian priests in 2009, the burial ground debate has once again highlighted the dissatisfaction felt by a section of the Nepali population on the declaration of a secular Nepal. The series of events surrounding the PADT decision has once again underscored the dichotomy – and, consequentially, the disconnect – between the new secular state and the old pillars of Hindu culture that permeate Nepali society.

Rashtra dreams

Since Nepal was legally declared a secular state in May 2006, four major groups, each with a different reason for opposing the country’s new identity, have emerged. These groups are not organised into cohesive bodies with set political goals. They do, however, share a common Hindu identity, and the contention of each is part of the current public debate over secularism. The first group argues that Nepal does not need an official tag of ‘secular’, as its religious minorities were not persecuted earlier, including when the state earlier carried the ‘Hindu’ identity. Second are those who see secularism as an agenda pushed by the UCPN (Maoist). This group believes that vociferous assertions by various ethnic groups – who form the foundation of the Maoists’ support base, and saw the erstwhile Hindu state as a historical wrong – have undermined their own identities.

The third group threatened by the secular state is made of those for whom secularism represents an imported Western ideal forced upon Nepal through the machinations of various I/NGOs and donor agencies. This group believes Western secular ‘democracies’ are actually Christian in nature, and that their financial support to agencies involved in proselytising in Nepal has changed the country’s demographics. They quote the rapidly growing Christian population as an argument against a secular state, where missionary organisations would have more manoeuvring room than in a Hindu state. As attested to by the Nepali census, there were only 458 Christians recorded in Nepal in 1961, while this number jumped to 101,976 in the 2001 census – and is expected to grow significantly in the current 2011 Census.

The fourth group to rally against a secular Nepal is represented by the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal), a party with four seats in the Constituent Assembly. Calling for a return to the 1990 constitution, which ensured a constitutional monarchy in a Hindu state, this group has been restricted to the fringe of post-2006 politics. Today, the RPP (N) represents the rightwing, conservative faction of Nepali politics.

With these four arguments incorporating the voices of a relatively wide cross-section of Nepali society, any organisation looking to form a united front against secularism would have to address the separate grievances of each entity. As a consequence, only a group able to rally and organise the various elements threatened by secularism can present a forceful opposition to the future of a secular Nepal.

Among the many political ideologies that have emerged in modern Southasia, perhaps no other has been as potent or carried more potential for revolution than Hindutva, as epitomised by the ideology promoted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). From its inception in 1925, the RSS has portrayed itself as the last bastion of the ancient Aryan traditions prevalent in the Subcontinent. Accused of promoting a strain of xenophobic nationalism, the RSS has been charged with assassinating Mohandas Gandhi, engineering the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and instigating the 2002 Gujarat riots.

French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot argues that the RSS, despite its emphasis on discipline and a paramilitary structure, adopted a ‘more quietist modus operandi situating the movement’s work into a virtually messianic long-term: its objective was to transform Hindu society into a Hindu rashtra and its favourite methodology to achieve that aim relied on the shakha technique.’ From its earliest days, the RSS has sought to incorporate several sections of society into its fold, all the while promoting a brand of nationalism whose ultimate goal is the creation of a Hindu rashtra, the governing ideals of which would be derived from the Vedas.

In recent years, however, the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) have kept their Hindu nationalism relatively under wraps, scaling back their rhetoric significantly. There are three possible explanations for this: as a response to the BJP’s defeat in the last two general elections; as a result of India’s recent economic growth, and the relative disenchantment with Hindu politics among the middle class; and as a means to deflect recent negative attention. Several former RSS members are currently under indictment for terrorist attacks, and the term ‘Saffron terror’ has come into use, signifying public understanding of the phenomenon. Further, an RSS splinter group called the Abhinav Bharat, whose members include current RSS officeholders, has been blamed for several bomb blasts targeting Muslim communities and shrines, or in reaction to signs of increased friendship between India and Pakistan (for instance, the 2007 Samjhauta Express bombing).


The RSS’s links with Nepal were first cultivated during the 1960s, after King Mahendra overthrew an elected government and established the autocratic Panchayat system. At the time, Mahendra saw the RSS as a friendly force, which he could use to counter Jawaharlal Nehru’s opposition to him. He thus sought to cultivate Hindu forces as his supporters in India, according to Nepali political analyst and Himal contributing editor Prashant Jha. For the RSS, Mahendra’s overtures were an opening to create in Nepal the Hindu state model it had always desired in India. But the RSS brand of militant Hindu nationalism found few takers in Nepal, where Hinduism was already identified with the ruling Shah dynasty. The promotion of Hindu nationalism was a tool with which the royal palace could gain legitimacy – a process seen in Prithvi Narayan Shah’s declaration of Nepal as an ‘asli Hindustan’, a pure land of the Hindus. This was guided by ‘his interest to gain legitimacy in newly-conquered lands’, as Nepali political scientist Krishna Hachhethu has written, while it also indicated the ‘state’s roadmap of national integration under the Shah regime’.

While the 104-year long Rana regime enforced a civil code in 1854 that was based on the Hindu Vedic code – this code stuck to the caste system and classified citizens into three categories according to their ranks in the Hindu varna system – it was King Mahendra who first used the religion as a counterforce to secular opposition from within and without. Mahendra’s successor Birendra did not have a problem with the ‘Hindu kingdom’ signifier. After Birendra’s killing in 2000, the new king Gyanendra, sought to capitalise on the Hindu identity after he assumed the throne in 2001, meeting Indian religious leaders along with those of the RSS and its affiliates. However, these attempts did not result in the RSS’s brand of nationalism becoming entrenched in Nepali society. One of the reasons for this was the presence of the Nepali Maoists, who eventually came to identify themselves with everything against the royal state – and, as a corollary, against Hinduism. With the emergence of identity politics as promoted by the Maoists, two new fronts opened up in Nepal, one based on ethnicity and another based on religion. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), and to a lesser extent the RPP (Nepal), are examples of the latter.

While the PADT is in no way affiliated with the HSS, the burial ground controversy has certainly given the organisation some traction. The HSS, which derives its inspiration from the RSS, was founded in Nepal in 1992 by ‘a few Nepali students who had come into contact with RSS leaders while studying in India,’ according to its prachar pramukh, or head of communications, Rakesh Mishra from Sarlahi, in the southern Tarai plains. Mishra contends his organisation only has ‘philosophical and ideological linkages’ with the RSS, despite the current RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, addressing HSS members in Kathmandu in February.

In the eyes of the HSS, the declaration of a secular Nepal in the Interim Constitution, which was adopted in 2007, was possible only with the implicit support of Western Christian missionary organisations. Mishra argues that secularism was not on the agenda of the 2006 People’s Movement, the people’s uprising that led to the abolition of the monarchy. He also says that there was no need for Nepal to be a secular state, as religious minorities had never experienced any persecution. Conversely, a secular state, he suggests, becomes a foreign imposition, part of a ‘Western Christian empire’ that seeks to convert the world into practising Christianity. ‘We supported the 2006 Jana Andolan against King Gyanendra,’ Mishra says. ‘But we disagreed on the 18th point of the 23-point agreement between the [Nepali] Congress and the Maoists, which stated that Nepal should be declared a secular state.’ He continued: ‘Hinduism is not a religion, it is a lifestyle – it is how we live our daily lives.’

To correct this ‘anomaly’, the HSS demands a return to a Hindu state, calling for an end to cow slaughter and a law ensuring that only Hindus can be appointed to the country’s highest posts. Further, while the group posits itself as a non-violent movement, its members emphasise that they have a right to self-defence. Govinda Sah, a graduate student of development communication and an HSS member, asks, ‘What would you do if someone constantly prods you?’ The ‘right to self-defence’, he says, is necessary due to instances in which Christian missionaries are said to have asked the converted to destroy Hindu temples in their areas. ‘We can’t just sit back and watch,’ Sah says. ‘If the state cannot implement its law, if the state’s mechanisms fail, we have to act.’

The assertion that the HSS ‘has to act’ to protect Hindu interests is a reminder of the paramilitary characteristics of the RSS. Like its parent organisation, the HSS believes in disciplining its cadre through physical exercise and a commitment to a Hindu Nepali state. It conducts exercises twice a day, in the mornings and evenings, during which HSS leaders lead children as young as nine in the chanting of slogans such as ‘Sangathan ma shakti cha / hindu dharma ko jai / nepal aama ko jai’ (There is strength in organisation / Long live Hinduism / Long live the Nepali motherland). Mishra was unambiguous when asked about what the HSS intends to do. ‘We train people to become better citizens,’ he says. ‘We develop his character, and once he becomes an adult and goes into various sectors, such as politics and journalism, he tries to implement Hindutva.’

Today, Mishra reports, the organisation has offices in 35 districts, mostly in the Tarai, and networks in 53 districts. It is soon to open a permanent office in Kathmandu. Mishra is unwilling to divulge its sources of finance, however, except to say that ‘individual members donate whatever they can.’

Political religiosity
Among the misplaced beliefs held by many Nepali opinion-makers today is the conviction that the monarchy is the only force that is attempting to rally Hindu nationalists in a bid to return to power. Though elements such as the RPP (Nepal) would like to see the country return to a constitutional monarchy, the idea that the monarchy is always associated with Hinduism is incorrect. This can be seen in the HSS’s opposition to the institution as a whole. The HSS purports to believe in a federal republican system of governance, as ‘the king, though a Hindu, did nothing for the Hindus’. This is in line with the displeasure Indian Hindu nationalists have expressed towards Gyanendra, holding him responsible for the downfall of the Hindu state due to his autocratic methods, which ultimately eroded their own credibility in Nepal.

There are factors that could lead to an assertion of Hindu identity inside Nepal, even without the support of the RSS or other external forces. For many Nepalis, the monarchy, around which many Hindu rituals revolved, was an extension of their Hindu identity. The popular uprising against Gyanendra signified ambivalence towards the institution of monarchy, but this did not necessarily extend as a similar feeling towards the erstwhile Hindu state. The 2006 Jana Andolan and the Maoists, whose organisation was crucial to the success of the movement, also made many Hindus insecure through incidents such as what took place in 2009, when the Maoist government of the time sought to replace the traditionally Indian priests at Pashupati with Nepali priests. The declaration of a secular state made the many Hindus jittery; once the Hindu ‘identity’, despite being far from homogeneous in the Nepal context, was perceived as being under threat, Hinduism suddenly became a political identity, one that was challenged by growing ethnic assertions. The demand for a federal state along ethnic lines furthered this insecurity.

In such an environment, incidents such as the Shlesmantak controversy and the furore over the Pashupati priests will further polarise the Hindu majority, parts of which will increasingly see the secular state as against their interests. ‘Religion will be used as a galvanising force against extreme communism as in Afghanistan, though that will not happen immediately,’ says sociologist Sudhindra Sharma. ‘But more incidents like Shlesmantak will make the Hindu community feel they are under threat.’

Part of the suspicion heaped on the newly secular state is due to a lack of adequate debate on the issue before the declaration was made. In Nepal, neither the term nor the nature of the relationship between the state and religion has been defined adequately. Does secularism, for instance, mean that the state will withdraw itself from matters of religion completely, or that it will intervene to ensure equal rights for all religions and members of different ethnicities? In such a confused environment, secularism has come to mean that each ethnic group gets its own public holiday – a token symbol – while the president, as head of state, has taken over the socio-religious duties of the king. Such issues have led some commentators to question how secular Nepal actually is. ‘Is it right for the president to attend Hindu events?’ Prashant Jha has written. ‘What if we have a Muslim or a Janajati president (who happens not to be a Hindu)?’

Such confusion has created a space for the entry of an aggressive Hindu mindset, which believes that organising around religion is the only way to protect its interests. This is not yet a movement, but could well evolve into one amidst the chaos that describes the constitution-writing and peace process. In this context, the HSS can offer its organisational capabilities to the disgruntled. Learning from the RSS will not be as much of a challenge as mobilising a population that has always practised passive Hinduism. To inspire a Hindu revival, the HSS will have to exploit the polarisation between ethnic demands and conservative elements within Nepali society, and between Maoists and other parties. For, as mentioned earlier, the Maoists have come to be the foremost proponents of a secular state, and the attack on the Pashupati priests polarised a certain section of the population into believing the Maoists are anti-Hindu. ‘If the HSS is able to promote itself as against the Maoist ideology of secularism and federalism, there is a possibility that it can create alliances with other similar-thinking groups,’ says Nepali political analyst Aditya Adhikari.

The HSS, then, has to make its militant Hindu nationalism palatable to groups that have felt alienated by the ‘New Nepal’. It will have to reinvent itself radically and use religion as a tool for political mobilisation, as its parent organisation did during the 1980s in India. It will also have to bring into its fold those ethnic groups marginalised by the current ethnic movement, and create an all-encompassing identity that incorporates their demands. The HSS will have to create political alliances, open more fronts, and make its movement a pan-Nepali movement in order to usher in the saffron wave that was seen in India.

For now, the HSS remains an incipient organisation, while Hindu nationalism in Nepal is also at a nascent stage. Nevertheless, the HSS’s organisational structure – moulded exactly according to that of the RSS – rests on the sole belief that mass mobilisation can only occur once its cadres have permeated state structures or occupy a prominent voice in the current polity. In India, Hindutva became a potent political force nearly six decades after the RSS was set up. Whether it will take as long for the ideology to take root in Nepal is debatable. Hindu nationalism has found its followers in disparate segments in Nepal, with the presence of several groups in the mid-Tarai. The challenge before the HSS, then, is to establish itself as the most dominant force among these groups, and then to create an alliance that rests on the demands of Hindutva. Incidents such as Shlesmantak will only make it easier for the HSS to do just that.

Amish Raj Mulmi is a freelance writer in Kathmandu.


The above article from Himal is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.