Religion is usually a core concern in many people’s lives. People following different faiths may live together peacefully. Sometimes, however, followers of one religion may dominate followers of other religions, and sometimes followers of different faiths may engage in violent conflict. Nepal has also seen an increase in religious violence in recent decades.
The dynamics of coexistence among different religious followers has changed over the years. The Hindu religion saw an ascendance with the formation of Nepal. Prithvi Narayan Shah declared his newly enlarged kingdom asali Hindustan (pure Hinduland). The 1854 Civil Code further entrenched the Hindu religion in society. The code penalised lower castes with harsher punishment for the same crime. It is evident from the available historical accounts that from 1768 until the middle of the 20th century, Muslims along with their Christians counterparts were treated as virtual outcastes (both socially and politically) by the newly formed state. This period witnessed repression by the state against non-Hindus and lower castes. Even though Hindu reformist movements and followers of non-Hindu religions offered resistance, no major violent religious resistance has been recorded.
Nepal opened the door to Christian missionaries in the 1950s. They started their work in the name of modernisation and development, and invested money in different sectors like modern education, health service, communication and transportation. Conversion, however, was still illegal in Nepal; and several arrests were made for acts of proselytism until 1990 because the state had been declared Hindu by the 1962 Constitution and the laws of the land banned proselytism.
Even though the democratic Constitution of 1990 maintained a religious character as a Hindu state, minority religious groups started breathing freedom to profess and live according to their faith and culture under it as it awarded political rights and civil liberties. Still, the formal declaration of the state as Hindu by the constitution imposed particular restrictions on religious minorities, including the ability to proselytise and convert. Muslims, Christians and various minority groups felt that their culture, religion and language were being knowingly curbed by the majority monolithic Hindu-elite-backed state that spoke the Nepali language and wore the hill attire.
The minorities wanted Nepal to become a secular state in order to make the country more inclusive. The interim government that was formed after the 2006 People’s Movement overthrew the king’s direct rule declared Nepal a secular state. Non-Hindu citizens have got the feeling that they have also been given respect by the state after Nepal was declared a secular state. The announcement was welcomed by ethnic and religious minorities like Christians and Muslims.
However, some Hindu leaders and activists have protested against the government decision to declare Nepal a secular state. Demonstrations and rallies have been reported in places like Kathmandu and Birgunj. The rallies waved tridents and saffron flags and shouted slogans against pro-democracy parties. They claimed that the interim government’s decision betrayed the expectation of 80 percent of the Hindu people. Some fundamentalist Hindus have reacted violently against the state decision.
A secular policy makes a country formally neutral in matters of religion. It neither supports nor opposes any particular religious belief or practice. A secular state also treats all its citizens equally regardless of religion, and does not give preferential treatment to citizens from a particular religion. In secular Nepal, conversion from any religion is no longer illegal. It has led to an increase in conversion from Hinduism to other religions. This has generated fear among the Hindus that their religion is under attack.
Overt religious conflicts
Historically, Nepal has not seen a great deal of overt violent conflicts among various religious communities; but still, there have been a few instances of communal conflicts, especially between Hindus and Muslims. A communal clash occurred in 1958-59 in Bhawarpur village in the central Tarai district of Mohottari; and in 1971 gai kanda (cow incident) riots took place in the central Tarai district of Rautahat and Bara. These violent incidents occurred during the autocratic regime. The next religious violence during an authoritarian regime was the arson against the Muslim community in the Kathmandu Valley in 2004 after some Nepali workers were killed by Islamic terrorists in Iraq.
During the democratic years of the 1990s, Nepalgunj witnessed several communal conflicts. Hindu-Muslim riots occurred in October 1992, November 1994, December 1994, October 1995 and May 1997. Hindu-Muslim riots occurred again on Sept. 21, 2007 in Tulsipur, Dang. Several Muslim shops were looted, and their homes vandalised. This was a ripple effect of the hill-Madhesi communal violence of Sept. 16, 2007 in Kapilvastu where 14 people were killed, dozens injured and around 300 houses set on fire after the murder of a Muslim civil defense group leader.
The 2006 political transformation brought another group into the violent conflict dynamics. Since 2006, there have been several Hindu-Christian conflicts in secular Nepal. Earlier, Hindu-Muslim violence was based on allegations of desecration, insult towards temple and mosque, pollution, impurity and so forth. The new Hindu-Christian violence has occurred over the issue of religious conversion.
The nature of violent conflict has also changed. Earlier, conflicts involved communal riots and arson; but the new inter-religious violence has seen use of bombs, guns and bullets. Some examples of recent religious violence include the bomb blast at the Catholic Church in Lalitpur on May 23, 2009 and the murder of a Christian priest in eastern Nepal in July 2008. A mosque in Morang district was also attacked on March 31, 2008. Some organisations are involved in the recent violent activities. A little known Hindu fundamentalist group called the Nepal Defence Army (NDA) owned up responsibility for these incidents. The NDA has warned churches several times to stop their alleged conversion activities. It has also asked all the Christian people of Nepal to leave the country. Nepali Christians are taking the threats seriously, and have asked the authorities to treat this matter with the appropriate degree of concern.
This discussion shows that incidents of violent religious conflicts are rising in Nepal, and the form of violence has also changed. A new level of inter-religious competition was brought about by the opening up of the polity and the secularisation of the state. The state during the transition period does not appear to have the capacity to check and control violent activities of different groups. Inter-religious conflict is likely to remain a potential challenge to social harmony in the future.
(The author teaches anthropology/sociology at Padma Kanya Campus, Kathmandu)
Posted on: 2010-08-02 08:16