Nepal has entered a very crucial phase of its history with the proclamation of a progressive constitution with a secular character. Some of the thorny issues on which people have expressed their concerns include forms of the government such as traditional parliamentary system vs the directly elected prime ministerial or presidential forms of government, federalism (forms and the structure of the federalism) and the secular vs a Hindu statehood and many other issues. It is not possible to discuss all these issues within the scope of this short article. The forms of the government whether it is traditional parliamentary type or directly elected prime ministerial or presidential type may not make that much of a difference in the long run except the fact that in the directly elected system, a charismatic leader or charismatic individual from the civil society even without having a strong party support infrastructure can have the chances of being elected. This also ensures the political stability which is badly needed in Nepal. Directly elected executive priminister or president may certainly prove to be better in a very politically unstable Nepal. Of course, the nature and the number of the federal statehood is critically important issue in the context of Nepal given its relatively small geography, geo-political situation and the multi-ethnic composition of the Nepali society. This issue requires a deep dive with a realistic and rational views rather than emotionally loaded views into the substance of the 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 important bearing upon other issues including federalism and the realization of inclusive 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 separate and independent of religion without criticizing religious beliefs, nevertheless, some advocates of the theocratic statehood in the past have misconstrued the underlying meaning of this term to mean something that stands against established religion. What is important to understand is that secularism is not an argument against religion and does not deny the fact that people can draw guidance from religion or religious beliefs. In essence, secularism is the belief that the state and the political institutions should not be connected to any religion and the state should not be involved in the organization of society through religion.
Secularism is the principle of the separation of government institutions, elected bodies and the civil servants who represent the state from religious institutions and religious influences in carrying out the duties of the state. Secularism asserts that the state must be free from religious rule and teachings and be neutral on matters of religious belief and should not impose any religious belief and practices upon its people. Secularism is succinctly manifested in the view that public activities and decisions, especially the political ones, must not be influenced by religious beliefs and/or practices. A secular state is the concept whereby a state or country declares to be officially neutral in matters of religion and claims to treat all its citizens equally regardless of religion, denying any preferential treatment for a citizen from a particular religion. Secular states do not have a state religion, although the absence of a state religion does not necessarily mean that a state is fully secular. Secularism aims to end a particular religious privilege and to fully separate the state from religion which is a necessary means to that end.
Secularism and inclusive democracy
Secularism is not opposed to any established religion or any belief system, on the contrary, it seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious beliefs, seeks to maximize freedom of religious and other expression and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. The religious fundamentalists who decry the growth of secularism do not even bother to understand why secularism defends their very rights and freedom of religious beliefs.
The concept of secularism and a secular statehood is vital for democracy, personal liberty and even religious freedom. Secularism prescribes state neutrality in religious matters and defends the rights for the 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. Therefore, authoritarian religious institutions, authoritarian religious leaders and political demagogues, who capitalize on the religious sentiments of the credulous people for their political expediency, are opposed to secularism. Many scholars argue that secularism is a movement toward modernization and is the basis for the foundation of inclusive democracy. Only a secular state is capable of protecting people’ religious and cultural rights not a theocratic state with a declared state religion. From this perspective, it can be argued that secularism is fundamentally important in protecting and ensuring people’ religious and cultural rights which constitutes the integral aspect of human rights.
It seems almost inconceivable to argue for an inclusive democracy without having a secular statehood. 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. Should not Nepal aspire to be a nation of such society, a society 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 can not envisage a constitution that embodies such vision at this important historical juncture, the history will curse the makers of the present constitution.
Aspiration of the people’s democratic movement of 2062
One of the significant achievements of the people’s democratic movement of BS 2062 is the republican democracy with secular character of the statehood (separation of the state from religion). The concept of the separation of state and religion is not a new one. Europe had undergone the political struggle to separate statehood from the religious influence a century ago. France became the first European nation to declare itself a secular state more than one hundred years ago. The state must remain neutral and treat all religions in equal footing. This is particularly important in a multicultural and multi-religious society like 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 the state neutrality, tolerance and the equality of the treatment of 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 with scientific attitude especially in the minds of young generation who are, indeed, the future custodian of the nation.
Characteristics of Nepali Society
Nepali society is a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic pluralistic society. Though Hindus constitute the largest block of the population, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims are also significant and their numbers is growing. Large number of people belonging to different ethnic nationalities are believed to be Nature worshippers (Kirat religion). Given the amazing socio-cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity that exist along ecological diversity rarely found elsewhere in the world, secular statehood becomes not only desirable but also a necessity. The diversity has its own virtue. The constitutions of a 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. The constitution must have certain special provisions to protect and empower the marginalized communities. In such diverse communities of nation, it is not only preposterous to impose a Hinduism as a state religion but is also an antithesis to the inclusive democracy.
Dr. Gopi Upreti
(Dr. Gopi Upreti is the founder president of the Humanist Association of Nepal (HUMAN) and a member of International Humanist Movement. He is a retired professor of Tribhuvan University. Contact email: email@example.com