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.
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.