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Should Nepal be a Hindu State? - Article by Bhushan Aryal

A large number of people in Kathmandu voted for Rastriya Prajatantra Party- Nepal (RPP-N) in the Constituent Assembly elections last year mostly because of its advocacy for the restoration of Hindu kingdom. While monarchy does not seem to be a hope even for shriveled diehard monarchists in the new constitution, many people find it difficult to accept the new constitution without Hinduism as the state religion. Not just RPP (Nepal), many voices across the spectrums of political parties and society at large have made it a mission that Nepal should officially be a Hindu country. Even many of my western educated ‘secular’ friends are ambivalent about this issue. The religion for them is a deep emotion, something that they carry as a part of their identity and subject-hood. They cannot simply dissociate Nepali geographical landscape from its Hindu cultural meaning, iconography, and festivals. Saying ‘no’ to Hindu state appears to be equivalent to saying ‘no’ to their religion, a hard choice for any religiously brought-up people.

But, despite this, should Nepal be a Hindu state? Though we may not have realized the full implication of our actions in the past, many of us have already said ‘no’ to the state religion. Participating in the revolution asking for the people’s right to draft their own constitution connotes the rejection of a theocracy. Certainly, all revolutions are not of the same kind. The revolution of our kind—something that was not centered on a hero or was not just a mark of frustration— that gave us the opportunity to elect our representatives for drafting the supreme law of the land is qualitatively different. Appreciating that quality and embracing its full import is what we need today.

In a sense, it is ironic that the millions of fervent people who took to the street asking for the right to draft their own constitution cannot easily relinquish the idea of a religious state. It is ironic because a religious state and the people drafting their own constitution are philosophically just opposite ideas. In a theocratic polity, people do not have to write their constitutions. God gives them the law through his representative. For instance, even though we had constitutions—of course, given by the kings—in the past, practically the king could use his providentially sanctioned power to annul their provisions anytime.  But the people drafting their own constitution means rejecting any claim to authority garnered through an appeal to an extra-human providential sources. It simply means saying that we are the source of authority and that we can chart our course. It is not just about writing a document, but symbolically assuming the full responsibility as the source of authority as well.

It takes a huge shift of imagination to move from a theocracy to the system of this authority and responsibility. It is all about adopting republicanism. As historian J.G. A. Pocockexplores in his book The Machiavellian Moment, republicanism as a political thought has a long history and one of its major characteristics has been its opposition to any kind of tyranny and theocracy. In a sense, tyrannies and theocracies are comfortable systems because they don’t ask for hard, meaningful participation from general populace; accepting the given fulfills the general responsibility. But republicanism, as Pocock demonstrates, denotes a mental leap in which people understand themselves as the unique beings with the liberty of crafting their own government. Liberty, indeed, is the defining tenet of republicanism.  In republican discourse, liberty is not about the individual rights from the state; it’s more about that understanding that people have the natural capacity—in fact, moral responsibility—to participate in the government and bring about public happiness through personal virtue and sacrifice. Simply put, republicanism and theocracy cannot go together.

It is this burden that may be stopping us from giving up the prop that held us so long. Dor Bahadur Bista argued that fatalism—a mindset that ascribes responsibility to some otherworldly entity—has been the cause of Nepal’s under-development. Certainly, we can disagree with Bista’s thesis and also discuss about what it means to be developed. It is possible that we may not achieve progress and prosperity even after adopting republicanism. But, at least, assuming the responsibility even for the ruin would be a morally courageous act. 

So, the question is not easy one. The choice just makes things upside down. In a theocracy the god creates you. In a republican setting, you create the god if you need one.

Aryal is researching constitutional rhetoric and republicanism at West Virginia University.


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