Theology at the heart of Nepal’s constitutional crisis
by- 26th May 2010
Nepal stands on the brink of political chaos. The two-year term of its constituent assembly expires Friday 28 May, and with it the interim constitution.
A permanent constitution is far from finalised, and with a legislative and constitutional vacuum looming, the government and the Maoists, who hold the largest number of seats in the assembly, are locked in a political standoff over what happens next.
The very identity of the nation is at stake. Some difficult decisions need to be made on what kind of nation Nepal is to be, and religion is at the heart of this storm.
The Hindu monarchy was abolished in 2006, and Nepal was declared a secular state in an interim constitution.
The promulgation of a new constitution, originally intended for this week, would formalise and finalise this transition from mono-religious kingdom to pluralist democracy.
The term ‘secular’ has specific connotations in south Asia, meaning pluralism and official neutrality among religions; it is not the French model of laïcité, excluding religion from the public square.
However, amidst the wider political turmoil at this late stage, strong dissent has emerged to Nepal’s new identity: voices are clamouring for the restoration of a Hindu state, among them a high-profile holy-man named Kali Baba, who recently threatened to burn himself alive over the issue.
Nepal’s current interim constitution suggests ambivalence between the two positions. On the one hand, the preamble declares Nepal as a ‘secular, inclusive and fully democratic State’. On the other hand, it fails to protect the right to freedom of religion anything like fully. Article 23(1) provides that:
Every person shall have the right to profess, practise and preserve his or her own religion as handed down to him or her from ancient times paying due regard to social and cultural traditions.
Provided that no person shall be entitled to convert another person from one religion to another, and no person shall act or behave in a manner which may infringe upon the religion of others.
From a legal perspective, this has several deficiencies. Chief among them is that it fails to comply with normative interpretations of the right to religious freedom by outlawing conversion, and providing only for the preservation of a religious status quo.
South Asia’s long-standing sensitivities around religion and identity often crystallise in controversy over conversion.
Here is a region where many religious communities exist side-by-side, often peacefully, but also often threatened by exclusivist strains which seek to preserve the historical dominance of certain religions in certain places by denigrating a religious ‘other’.
A uniquely complex religious history involving Hinduism (in its diverse forms), Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Islam and Christianity in narratives of conquest, colonialism, nationalism, protest, peaceful proselytisation and acculturation, has given rise to close entanglements between religion, identity and nation.
Hindu nationalism emerged in India in the early twentieth century, proclaiming India a Hindu nation, condemning the influence of Islam and Christianity as ‘foreign’ religions, and instigating violence and discrimination against them.
Pakistan, which then included modern-day Bangladesh, was created in 1947 and established as an Islamic republic, and non-Muslims have suffered violence, discrimination and exclusion from public office ever since.
In Sri Lanka, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists have portrayed anything outside that ethno-religious grouping as a threat to the nation, and have been heavily involved in violent attacks against these ‘others’.
In these circumstances, religious conversion takes on a particular hue: it becomes dangerous, subversive, a matter of community allegiance rather than private creed.
This is key to understanding the paradigm of conversion which informs the Nepali interim constitution. The same paradigm exists in the anti-conversion laws active in five states in India, and proposed in Sri Lanka, which ban conversions carried out by force, fraud, inducement or unethical means.
The assumption is that a person is converted through the agency of someone else. That is, a new convert does not choose their new religion, but is converted to a new religion by another person.
This model sees religion primarily as a matter of community identity, converts as vulnerable prey, and evangelism or religious charity as fundamentally predatory activities.
Christians in south Asia are often targeted in religious majoritarian violence, justified by reference to their alleged conversionary threat.
However, two quite different paradigms dominate mainstream Christian thinking about conversion. One is that conversion comes about through direct divine agency. The other is that agency for conversion rests with the new convert: after being persuaded of the merits of a new religious faith, they choose to adopt that faith.
Christian agencies, especially foreign ones, need to be highly sensitive to the deeply-felt concerns about conversion that predominate in south Asia as a result of the different paradigm, and they need to avoid inflaming resentment.
It is dangerous even to talk casually about mass conversions, citing unverified statistics, reporting persecution of Christians without checking the context, portraying south Asian Christianity as a new phenomenon, exaggerating ‘their’ stories to encourage the western church.
All of this can provoke genuine anger and sometimes violent reprisals against small Christian communities, and lend stimulus to banning conversions, and violently attacking churches.
However, if agency for conversion belongs to an experience of God, or to the new convert, then the Nepali constitutional proposal, and anti-conversion laws in force in India and proposed in Sri Lanka, simply do not make sense. Such laws only lead to increased misunderstanding between religious communities.
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has expressed ‘deep concern’ over anti-conversion laws, blaming them for vilifying religious minorities.
I have seen and heard for myself the brutality to which such vilification has led, having met many Christian victims of egregious violence in India, including in Orissa.
As for Nepal, if it is possible to see beyond the current deadlock, a more peaceful future would surely lie ahead by embracing pluralism and protecting religious freedom, not by restricting it.
David Griffiths works on south Asia at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organisation which specialises in religious freedom. He studied at Oxford University and the School of Oriental and African Studies.
CSW has recently released briefings on religious freedom in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.