Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nepal : Staggering out of the Incense Curtain

Some pieces of news make for extremely sad reading. Like for instance the one about Nepalese Prime Minister, an atheistic Prime Minister of a state that was once the world’s only official Hindu State and is now slowly evolving in leaps and jerks into a secular state. Koirala, described by the Indian Express as a senile, aging leader who refused to perform religious rituals at his parents’ deaths now wants to sit on the throne on which the kings sat and have the priests recite the “Saraswati Mantra”.

When the priests who ceremonially perform the rites, the head priest and the deputy head priest did not turn up, they were suspended. The irony of the situation was that these worthies did not turn up because in one of the gyrations of Nepal becoming a secular state from a Hindu one, the priests had already been suspended and had not been receiving their salaries. Unfazed by the irony though, the bureaucrats surrounding Koirala suspended the priests all over again lest the Prime Minister be angry.

B.P.Koirala could be ageing and senile but he is only mirroring the identity crisis that his country has and is going through eroding centuries of stability. In the days of the king- despot or not, things were clear. The King was regarded, by the common people at least, if by no one else as the living incarnation of Vishnu and maintained that appearance by residing in the Narayanhiti palace named after the deity and presiding over all key religious rituals of state. The astute King Birendra managed the balancing act between statesman and spiritual head well but his successor obviously hasn’t dome so well and egged on by the Maoists, the country has proceeded to throw away the baby as well as the bath water and is now throwing away not only the monarchy but the identity of the state itself without adequately under girding itself.

Of course a secular state itself is not a bad thing. Ideally, a secular state with separation of religion and government is preferable in most circumstances; a theocratic state can be either obscurantist or fundamentalist and both of these are menaces best avoided; theocracy in government has only one purpose – to manacle and shackle its people. And so while the resolve to start upon the journey to create a secular state is a good one, without adequate preparation, Nepal’s situation will not be very different from that of it Prime Minister- confused and unprepared to face reality and hiding behind centuries of tradition.

In a nation’s history, the journey is as important as the destination and the process has to be incubated and allowed to evolve. India’s own 60 year old journey is a good example Through Nehru’s rationalism, then soft Hindutva , hard Hindutva, debates on Raj Dharma and all that, we have arrived at an Indian road to secularism… and no the process is still not finished ….. political evolution of a State is forever a work in progress.

Its is to be hoped that the Maoists in Nepal will not be in so much of a hurry to abolish religion. May be they should do away with the seedier aspects of religion but leave alone the only roots that people cling to that give them solace. The sight of an ageing Prime Minister calling for religious Pundits despite his avowed atheistic beliefs is an indication that behind the senile exterior of the Head of government, lies a Nation’s yearning.

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