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Last official Hindu state goes secular

Kathmandu  (UCAN): Nepal, which until 2007 was the only official Hindu state in the world, has voted to adopt permanently its temporary secular identity in its new constitution after years of contentious debate.

The 601-member Constituent Assembly has been voting on individual articles of a draft of a new constitution, which was promulgated on September 20. 

On September 14, a two-thirds majority voted against a proposed amendment—put forward by the hardline Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal—that would have declared Nepal to be a Hindu state. 

The move came as a relief for minority groups, including Christians, although some faith groups are concerned that language criminalising religious conversion and proselytising could be used to target minorities in the future.

Church officials praised the decision. Father Silas Bogati, the vicar general of the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal, said, “Secularism is not only an issue of religion, but stands for freedom and equality within all the religions.”

Father Bogati said that the decision implies that the state does not promote any one religion over another and allows its citizens to choose their own identity and faith.

While Hindus represent around 80 per cent of the population, in recent years, secularism has become a key issue.

In 2006, the long entrenched monarchy was toppled and in the wash up the country was declared a secular republic.

Samim Ansari, the coordinator of the National Muslim Struggle Alliance, said that minorities have long fought for equal treatment.

“One of our key demands was to declare Nepal a secular state in the new constitution and allow its citizens to freely choose any religious belief and practice without any objection,” Ansari explained.

He then stressed, “Secularism is a timely and relevant demand. It is the right of every citizen to enjoy guaranteed freedom of religion.”

Madhav Bhattarai, the president of the Nepal chapter of the Hindu rights organisation Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, said the decision will hurt the sentiments of the country’s Hindu majority.

“Nepal has lost the opportunity to become the only Hindu state in the world… the decision has lost our identity,” he said.

The debate over Nepal’s new constitution turned violent in recent weeks.

Following the September 14 vote, two bombs exploded at two different churches in Jhapa district in eastern Nepal, The Kathmandu Post reported.

There were no casualties mentioned, but the churches suffered damage. Police said investigations were underway into the blasts.

Despite the vote for secularism, some representatives of religious minorities say they aren’t completely satisfied.

“The secularism agreed by the top political parties kills the whole essence of the term secularism we have wanted,” Narayan Kaji Shrestha, the vice chairperson of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which has the third largest representation in parliament, commented. 


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