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Towards a Secular Nepal

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal, speaks to Babu Gogineni

by Babu Gogineni, 2 December 2008

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Just a few hours after Prachanda, Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), was sworn in as the first Prime Minister of the new Secular Federal Republic of Nepal, a happy Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, the Party’s second-in-command, and now Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal, one of the most powerful men in Nepal today, spoke to Babu Gogineni, International Director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

The discussions, which centred around the question of Nepal as a Secular State, the Role of Religion in Nepalese society, and the new Government’s plans for the emancipation of the Dalits in Nepal, took place in Dr. Bhattarai’s home in Koteshwar area of Kathmandu City. With a picture of Lenin and a statuette of the Buddha in the otherwise sparsely furnished room, Dr. Bhattarai, a Civil Engineer by training, and a product of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, reaffirmed the new Nepalese Government’s total commitment to Secularism and vowed to introduce a program of scientific education to modernize Nepalese society within the limitations imposed by a Coalition government.

In Dr. Bhattarai’s own words:

Maoists, Feudalism, Cultural Revolution

Our movement has transformed Nepalese society in an unbelievable manner. For thousands of years, feudalism dominated Nepalese society in the political, economic and cultural fields. But in a span of 10 years we have been able to change that. Dalits, women, the poor and indigenous peoples are finding a voice in society after we entered the field – without us that would not have been possible. I think the representation we have provided for them is the best in the world.

Compared to India, feudalism is not that entrenched here in Nepal. Feudal values are not that deep rooted in Nepalese society – that is the reason why in 10 years we have been able to bring so much change, while in India after more than 60 years there are still only marginal results.

In Nepal, at the political and economic level we have dismantled the feudal structure to a large extent, but the challenge is still there. But at the cultural level it takes time and it will be a protracted struggle as we have to battle religion, obscurantism and superstition. That is why we talk of the need for a cultural revolution.

Now that we have state power in our hand, we can bring more change. This government is a revolutionary government, not an ordinary government.

With the new Constitution being drafted, we will try to introduce provisions that can bring more radical changes and introduce scientific and progressive ideas in Nepalese society. The challenge is enormous.

Secularism The monarchy, which was the mainstay of feudalism and religious obscurantism, has been abolished. But even after the monarchy is gone, the caste system is still there, and Brahminism is still there. The Kumari practice (where pre-pubescent girls as young as four are worshipped as goddesses, mainly to bless the monarchy, and revert back to a ‘normal’ childhood upon reaching puberty –Ed.) is still there.

Merely calling ourselves secular in a pious way is not enough. What happens in India in the name of secularism is certainly a misinterpretation of secularism. In India they consider Secularism as equal protection to all religions. We are Materialists and Marxists and in a secular state we should be promoting scientific and atheistic values; not merely de-linking religion and state. Today there are more religious channels and programs than any other on television; programs glorifying the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha (Hindu religious epics –Ed.) are amongst the most popular. Polluting the minds of the young is not what we need. Religion should find no place in school text books and public programs, we must discourage such kinds of beliefs and values, and then slowly religions will die out.

As Marxists we believe in materialism and atheism, but we focus on political and economic change – cultural changes will follow political changes. Among our cadres we certainly discourage religion, but we should do more to discourage backward religious practices in society, and we will make provisions in our Constitution. Keeping in mind the sensitivities and emotions attached to religion, we should still do a lot more in society to combat backward religious practices.

We also have to introduce constitutional measures. We have a very strong presence in the Constituent Assembly, and our people are aware and progressive minded. With support from international friends like you (IHEU) we will make Nepal a truly secular society.

The Monarchy: The future of the King will depend on him. He has no role right now and no privileges. If he lives like a peaceful citizen, then we can treat him as a friend. If he creates trouble we have to see. He could provoke Hindu sentiment, of course, as you say. If he does that, we will punish him.

On Indian Maoists joining the mainstream: Revolution has to follow the path of its own concrete conditions. If in India or elsewhere revolutionaries are there, it is up to them to choose the path. In the case of Nepal we led the armed revolution for a while; then after defeating the feudalistic monarchy, we chose the alternative path; and that is based on the concrete conditions of Nepal. We advise our revolutionary friends in India and elsewhere that they should also analyse the concrete conditions of their own country and choose their path. It may not be very appropriate for us in Nepal to give them advice, but the main goal should be liberation of mankind.

If a state uses violence, then people have a right to resist that. It is up to the people to choose which method of resistance is appropriate for them. If you can do it in a peaceful manner, I think Marxist-Communists would choose that peaceful path - given that choice. If you are forced to take up armed struggle, then you have to do that. This has been the history of revolution everywhere.

Progress of the Revolution in Nepal: Even after the political revolution is over, the economic and cultural revolution will continue. We would like to introduce progressive measures making use of the state power. We want to introduce change through legal and peaceful means.

One measure is in the economic field: we would like to bring in land reform. Many of the peasants are poor and landless, and a few landlords are holding big chunks of land either because of the feudalistic or the religious system.

We would like to do away with discrimination of women, Dalits and others, and provide autonomy for oppressed nationalities.

If that is allowed through peaceful means, through legal means, through constitutional means, well and good. We will give preference to that. If the reactionary classes, landlords and the religious fundamentalists resist, then the people will have to lead their issues against that. That depends on the situation. But our goal is to liberate mankind from all discrimination. This should be our ultimate goal, but the path of that change we cannot predict right now.

The Caste System: We have to definitely address the Caste System. We must announce categorically and take legal measures so that no organisation shall be formed on caste lines. It is not just Dalits. You know in Bihar and all those states backward castes are grouping together, and that will only perpetuate the caste system.

Issue of Dalits: We have categorically stated in our manifesto and in the Coalition’s Common Minimum Programme for this government, that the whole country will be declared free from untouchable practices. We will enact laws and make constitutional measures for that and prosecute persons who practice untouchability. In the first address that our Prime Minister will make that will be one of the issues.

Our grassroots presence will help in implementation of these measures. We may have very pious measures, but to put them into practice we need people. In our case our party has been leading the people’s movement, and there has been an overwhelming participation of Dalits in the people’s movement. All the seven Dalits who have been elected through direct elections come from our party. The other parties have been forced to nominate Dalits because of proportional representation. So we will continue the people’s movement for Dalits.

We will fully support your (IHEU’s) attempts to create a Global Alliance against untouchability.

Relations with India: India! There are many India’s. Our relations with progressive forces are there; then there are obscurantist Hindu fundamentalists - we may have some contradictions with them. But we would like to promote good relations (with India).

On Nepal harbouring terrorists: They are there, but not only Muslim fundamentalists who were there earlier in Nepal, but also Hindu fundamentalists - in the Terai region. Muslim fundamentalists may be highlighted in India because of the contradictions with Pakistan, but Hindu fundamentalists are also there in Nepal. There will be no space for religious fundamentalists in Nepal, whether Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or Christian.

Capital: The priority will be to harvest water resources and also to produce electricity. We have not utilised the resources we have, and whatever little capital we had, we have squandered it away. We can invite foreign capital - we are open to that. But that depends on Government policy.

Babu Gogineni is International Director, IHEU