Monday, February 22, 2010

Hindu Selves In A Saucy State

When the reinstated legislature declared Nepal a secular state in May 2006, the Indian ambassador was said to have gone into urgent consultations with the increasingly sidelined king. How could the play depart so drastically from the script? Both men, operating on a need-to-know basis from the driving forces on their respective sides, apparently had little to discuss.
Those who knew how an assembly that lacked the political gumption to go after the monarchy could so snootily secularize the nation kept quiet. It was not politically correct to defend Hinduism lest it imply support for the discredited monarchy. The Maoists, the storyline went, had to be brought into the mainstream at all costs. (The rebels, for their part, had long recognized that international funding was most copious for restructuring the religious character of the state.)
Nearly four years after that simulated peace, it has become fashionable to break the silence. A republican Nepal might be better able to anchor its unique identity as a Hindu state, after all. President Ram Baran Yadav and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal have purportedly conceded that the secularization of the state was a mistake. Granted, they made the admission during private meetings with Hindu men of robes. But that goaded Deputy Prime Minister Sujata Koirala toward pushing the envelope. She wants a referendum on whether Nepal should return to state Hinduism.
Religion, to borrow W.R. Inge’s words, is what an individual may do in his or her solitude. But in its cosmic form, as G.K. Chesterton wondered, can religion acquire a private identity? Wouldn’t such a quest be akin to a search for, say, a private sun or moon? Let’s say our nation, after all that has happened, is genuinely groping for that collective Freudian wish world, built through our own biological and psychological necessities. How do we square that with our status as a country of minorities, where each group is still very much intent on proving how the state has shafted it the worst? (With Chhetris already on the warpath, how long before kumai and purbiya bahuns slug it out over who is more aggrieved than whom?)
Then there are the political fault lines. Of the three major parties, two are officially atheist. The third continues to be led by a dynasty that has not shied away from disdaining religious mores as a way of burnishing its democratic core.
When Nepal projected itself as a predominantly Hindu nation, many Buddhist complained they were being counted in too egregiously. Christians had a sympathetic international environment to sound their complaints of repression. Yet how could they account for the fact that two future kings and queens had been their wards? Muslims had a hard time fighting off the terrorist slur from across the southern border long before racial profiling had become chic for civil libertarians in the west. Hinduism on this side was a hindrance. Animists and agnostics alike saw their space infringed. So when the last monarch wore his religion on his forehead, the kingdom was projected as a putative theocracy.
Today when the country is falling apart, everyone is out to cover their behinds. It is tempting therefore to see Hinduism as a glue. With the massive surge in Nepali citizenship from across the southern border, Hindus may turn out to be far more numerous than anytime before. But a popular mandate of anything less than a Saddam-Hussein-threshold 97.3 percent would be hard-pressed to address the minority sentiments and hold the country together. What then? A referendum on a return to Panchayat or – better still – Rana rule?