Sec­u­lar­ism is a ne­ces­sity in Nepal


Nepal is cur­rently in a very cru­cial phase of its history. The gov­ern­ment of Nepal has com­pleted the col­lec­tion of opin­ions from the peo­ple and civil so­ci­ety on var­i­ous is­sues of the draft con­sti­tu­tion.

Some of the thorny is­sues on which peo­ple were asked to pro­vide their opin­ion in­clude forms of gov­ern­ment — tra­di­tional par­lia­men­tary sys­tem ver­sus the di­rectly elected prime min­is­te­rial or pres­i­den­tial forms of gov­ern­ment, fed­er­al­ism and sec­u­lar ver­sus a Hindu state­hood among many other is­sues.

The forms of gov­ern­ment, whether it is the tra­di­tional par­lia­men­tary or the di­rectly elected prime min­is­te­rial or pres­i­den­tial type, does not ac­tu­ally make that much of a dif­fer­ence ex­cept for the fact that in the di­rectly elected sys­tem, a charis­matic leader or an in­di­vid­ual from civil so­ci­ety even with­out hav­ing a strong party sup­port in­fra­struc­ture has a chance of be­ing elected.

With re­gards to fed­er­al­ism, of course, the na­ture and the num­ber of the states is a crit­i­cally im­por­tant is­sue in the con­text of Nepal given its rel­a­tively small ge­og­ra­phy, geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion and the multi-eth­nic com­po­si­tion of the Nepali so­ci­ety.

This is­sue re­quires a deep dive into the sub­stance of fed­er­al­ism. Of all these is­sues, this ar­ti­cle aims to pro­vide some per­spec­tives on the im­por­tance of sec­u­lar­ism, the con­cept of the sep­a­ra­tion of state and re­li­gion which has an im­por­tant bear­ing upon other is­sues in­clud­ing fed­er­al­ism and the re­al­iza­tion of in­clu­sive democ­racy.

Re­li­gion and Democ­racy

The term “sec­u­lar­ism” was first coined by the Bri­tish writer Ge­orge Ja­cob Holyoake in 1851.

He used this term to de­scribe his view for pro­mot­ing a so­cial or­der in­de­pen­dent of re­li­gion, with­out crit­i­ciz­ing re­li­gious be­liefs.

Some ad­vo­cates of theo­cratic state­hood in the past have mis­con­strued the un­der­ly­ing mean­ing of this term to in­di­cate some­thing that is against re­li­gion.

Sec­u­lar­ism, how­ever, is not an ar­gu­ment against re­li­gion and it does not deny the fact that peo­ple can draw guid­ance from re­li­gion or re­li­gious be­liefs.

In essence, sec­u­lar­ism is the belief that the state should not be con­nected to any re­li­gion and that the state should not be in­volved in the or­ga­ni­za­tion of so­ci­ety through any re­li­gion.

Sec­u­lar­ism as­serts that the state must be free from re­li­gious rules and teach­ings and be neu­tral on mat­ters of re­li­gious be­liefs and should not im­pose any re­li­gious belief and prac­tice upon its peo­ple. A sec­u­lar state is a con­cept whereby a state de­clares to be of­fi­cially neu­tral to all re­li­gions and claims to treat all its cit­i­zens equally re­gard­less of their re­li­gious be­liefs, deny­ing any pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to a citizen from any par­tic­u­lar re­li­gion.

Sec­u­lar­ism aims to end the re­li­gious priv­i­lege of a par­tic­u­lar re­li­gion and to fully sep­a­rate the state from re­li­gion which is a nec­es­sary means to that end.

The con­cept of sec­u­lar­ism and a sec­u­lar state­hood is vi­tal for democ­racy, per­sonal lib­erty and even re­li­gious free­dom. Sec­u­lar­ism pre­scribes state neutrality in all re­li­gious mat­ters and de­fends the right to free­dom of ex­pres­sion of all belief sys­tems. They are pos­i­tive goods which must be de­fended as foun­da­tions of in­clu­sive democ­racy.

Sec­u­lar­ism and sec­u­lar­iza­tion of so­ci­ety en­hance the broad dis­tri­bu­tion of power and op­pose the con­cen­tra­tion of power in the hands of a few.

This is why au­thor­i­tar­ian re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions, au­thor­i­tar­ian re­li­gious lead­ers and po­lit­i­cal demagouges, who cap­i­tal­ize on the re­li­gious sen­ti­ments of cred­u­lous peo­ple for their po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency, are op­posed to sec­u­lar­ism.

It seems al­most in­con­ceiv­able to ar­gue for an in­clu­sive democ­racy with­out hav­ing a sec­u­lar state­hood.

Many scholars ar­gue that sec­u­lar­ism is a move­ment to­ward mod­ern­iza­tion and is the ba­sis for the foun­da­tion of in­clu­sive democ­racy.

A sec­u­lar state with in­clu­sive democ­racy, over time, will re­sult in the evo­lu­tion of a so­ci­ety with re­li­gious tol­er­ance, plu­ral­ism, le­gal and so­cial frame­work to re­al­ize ev­ery mem­ber’s po­ten­tial and the use of science and ra­tio­nal think­ing to solve hu­man prob­lems.

Shouldn’t Nepal as­pire to be a na­tion where peo­ple of di­verse re­li­gious belief sys­tems, eth­nic­i­ties and cul­tures can live in har­mony and co­op­er­a­tion?

What Nepal needs, more than any­thing else, is a tol­er­ant and plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety with a pro­gres­sive con­sti­tu­tional frame­work that pro­motes, em­pow­ers and en­sures the re­al­iza­tion of such a so­ci­ety. If we can­not en­vis­age a con­sti­tu­tion that em­bod­ies this vi­sion at this im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal junc­ture, fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will curse the drafters of the up­com­ing con­sti­tu­tion.

Di­verse Na­tion

One of the sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ments of the 2006 Jana An­dolan II (peo­ple’s move­ment) was repub­li­can democ­racy with a sec­u­lar char­ac­ter of the state.

The con­cept of sep­a­rat­ing the state from re­li­gion is not new. Europe had un­der­gone a po­lit­i­cal strug­gle to sep­a­rate the state from re­li­gious in­flu­ences a cen­tury ago.

France be­came the first Euro­pean na­tion to de­clare it­self a sec­u­lar state more than 100 years ago.

The state must re­main neu­tral and treat all re­li­gions on an equal foot­ing.

This is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in Nepal where cul­tural and re­li­gious har­mony among dif­fer­ent re­li­gious and cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties is im­per­a­tive to main­tain the in­tegrity and the pros­per­ity of the na­tion. The con­cept of state neutrality, tol­er­ance and the equal treat­ment to all re­li­gions not only helps to cre­ate so­cial har­mony and tol­er­ance among dif­fer­ent cul­tural and re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties but also helps the cause of nur­tur­ing a cul­ture of ra­tio­nal think­ing based on sci­en­tific rea­son­ing es­pe­cially in the young gen­er­a­tion who are, in­deed, the fu­ture cus­to­di­ans of the na­tion.

Nepali so­ci­ety is a mul­ti­cul­tural, multi-re­li­gious and multi-eth­nic so­ci­ety.

Though Hin­dus con­sti­tute the largest block of the pop­u­la­tion, Bud­hists, Chris­tians and Mus­lims are also in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers.

A large num­ber of peo­ple be­long­ing to dif­fer­ent eth­nic na­tion­al­i­ties are be­lieved to be na­ture wor­ship­pers.

Given the amaz­ing so­cio­cul­tural, re­li­gious, eth­nic and lin­guis­tic di­ver­sity that ex­ist along with eco­log­i­cal di­ver­sity rarely found else­where in the world, sec­u­lar state­hood be­comes not only de­sir­able but also a ne­ces­sity in a coun­try like Nepal. Such di­ver­sity has its own virtue.

So the up­com­ing con­sti­tu­tion of the coun­try must ad­dress the needs, re­quire­ments and as­pi­ra­tions of these di­verse com­mu­ni­ties with pro­vi­sions that can en­sure their place in the law of the land.

In a na­tion of such di­ver­si­ties, it would not only be pre­pos­ter­ous to im­pose Hindu state­hood but also an an­tithe­sis to in­clu­sive democ­racy.

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