Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Secularism: A magic bullet or Pandora's box?

Once identified as citizens of the only Hindu state in the world, we now are citizens of a secular country. There seem to exist a mixed feeling among the Nepalis regarding this abrupt change. While Hindu fundamentalists affiliated with Shiv Sena Nepal are finding it hard to bite the bullet and gearing up for a show-down, minorities across the country have greeted it with a cheer.

The word 'secularism' all of a sudden has become a hallowed and sacred word in Nepal's पॉलिटिकल parlance. It has become the most popular product for aggressive political marketing in Nepal. However, amidst the euphoria of newly gained freedom the possible ramifications of going secular from a Hindu state have not been well debated.

The mainstream media might have overlooked the need for a debate assuming secularism to be the magic bullet for the empowerment of minorities in Nepal. Nobody knows how it is going to turn out in the future. The ramification of newly gained secularism will be known down the road in years to come. It is hard to predict whether going secular is a good thing for Nepal or not at this point in time. But for now, the creation of a pluralistic democratic state is an ideal that the Nepal as a sovereign nation is striving for.

The very concept of secularism arose from an urgent need to put an end the tyranny and interference of the Church in the state affairs. It was based on the Christian theological concept that the material world is separate from the spiritual world and correspondingly the state should have sole jurisdiction over one and the Church over the other. In the case of Nepal we have never had religious control, i.e., legislations, such as in Saudi Arabia and Iran or as in Europe for the last 1,500 years.

For a society to become secular in a true sense, it is extremely important to take both religion and secularism seriously. The minute we reject the former as superstition and the latter as mask for communalism and expediency, we are heading towards a religiously divided and politically unstable nation.

Secularism is urgently needed where there is an unwarranted interference of Church on the state and where religious leaders dictate legislative agenda. In the case of Nepal there was no interference of temple on the State. In Nepal, all religious groups lived in nearly a perfect harmony. Like Ayatollah in Iran, Nepal did not have a Hindu religious leader who dictated on the lives of general public and interfered into the legislative process proclaiming himself as a messenger of god.

There are numerous examples where religion and the secular society seem to collide. Secularism in India has failed to stem the rising tide of intolerance in recent years. While Hindu volunteers demolished the controversial Babri mosque and a huge crowd of more than hundred thousand frenzied Hindu fanatics chanted slogans and danced, the Congress party which considers itself a secular party and which was in power then did nothing, but watched helplessly the constitutional rights of minorities being crushed mercilessly. A religious site of Muslims that are a minority in India was reduced to debris by the Hindu fanatics. The ugly face of political fraud in the name of secularism have become evident in numerous occasions in India: ranging from Bhagalpur massacre to Babri Masjid demolition. Indian secularism was unable to stop the murderous carnage in Gujarat.

Approximately 140 million Muslims in India are still languishing at the bottom of the heap after nearly six decades of India's existence as a secular state. The economic and social plight of the minorities (specifically Muslims) in India continues unabated. Thus, secularism, if not practiced in a real sense, guarantees neither religious right of minorities nor secures their economic advancement. In the context of Nepal, where minorities and the Hindu majority had been living in perfect harmony for centuries now, the mad rush towards secularism is neither warranted nor the need of the hour. There are more pressing social and economic issues that need an immediate attention.

The declaration of secular state may prove to be bane than boon for Nepali minorities. It may serve as a much needed inertia for the religious Hindu fanatics and may give birth to less tolerant Hindu outfit such as Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal in India. If that happens, it will make religious minorities vulnerable than ever. If secularism is for political gains rather than preserving religious harmony, securing peace, and economic prosperity of minorities, SPAM (seven party alliance plus Maoists) has played a big fraud on the nation in general and on minorities in particular. Providing a variety of silly sops to minorities is not enough to empower them.

Secularism means tolerance for all, by all. It is not just by one religious group whether it is majority or minority. Thus, secularism is an extremely beautiful idea "if practiced". If not, it is a double-edged sword that will continue to hang over the head of the minorities. The atrocities committed by majority Hindus will always be overlooked by the political parties because they may not want to displease the majority vote bank. It does not take long for a radical right wing Hindu outfit to grow and spread its tentacles in the name of religion like it did in India and physically and financially harm minorities. If that happens, communal and religious strife may become more prevalent than it used to be when Nepal was a sole Hindu state in the world.

The minorities will be worse off than they were in a Hindu state. Some of us may not accept that we live in a very controlled society. However, the bitter truth is that we inhabit in an extremely controlled society, strings of which are in alien hands and it is they who decide our political, socio-economic and to some extent religious actions. Thus importing a model that worked in foreign shores to please certain individual or the nation without examining the religious landscape of our own society may turn out to be counter productive over the long run.

Just declaring a state secular does not mean anything when it comes to securing religious and human rights, and economic advancement of minorities. One of the most reliable routes to peace and harmony is for us to share our sacred experiences without getting snarled in religious divisions. Secularism will only succeed in Nepal if Nepalese people understood secularism to mean inter-religious understanding and an equality of citizenship rights.

For a society to become secular in a true sense, it is extremely important to take both religion and secularism seriously. The minute we reject the former as superstition and the latter as mask for communalism and expediency, we are heading towards a religiously divided and politically unstable nation.

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