Nepal’s Hindutva Moment

For over a decade, Nepal has declared itself a secular republic. Now militant Hindu nationalists are trying to undermine this by escalating local tensions into sectarian battles.

Supporters of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party clash with security personnel during a protest demanding the restoration of the monarchy and a Hindu state in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 9, 2024. (Sunil Pradhan / Anadolu via Getty Images)

A little over a decade after Nepal declared itself a secular republic, religious identity threatens to emerge as a new axis of polarization in the politics of the former Hindu kingdom. A string of incidents that transpired over the past year have rudely awakened many in Nepal — including its complacent public sphere — of the inroads made by activist networks of militant Hindu nationalists, particularly in towns close to Nepal’s long border with India.

In August of last year, clips of a group publicly feasting on beef in Dharan, a city in eastern Nepal, gathered much national outrage, as eating bovine meat is largely taboo in the country and oxen slaughter remains illegal. This rabble-rousing tactic of activists, who were opposed to this law, triggered swift street mobilization by several Hindu groups in protest, who linked this incident to an already existing controversy in the city involving the setting up of a church opposite a Hindu temple. However, the potentially violent confrontation was foiled after the local administration temporarily restrained the protesters’ movement. Dharan remained on edge for weeks, with its diverse political and social landscape suddenly recast as a religious battlefield.

Malangawa, a town close to the Indian border and about 150 miles west of Dharan, was also forced to shut down several times in September last year to avoid violent standoff between its majority Hindus and minority Muslims. Preexisting differences between the two over the passage of Hindu ritual processions through the town’s Muslim neighborhoods allowed the Hindu Samrat Sena, a small Hindu nationalist outfit, to violently protest and ramp up “communal” tensions — a South Asianism for interreligious or interethnic strife — in the town.

A month later, local administration in Nepalgunj, another city near the border, imposed a curfew to dissipate escalating tensions between Hindus and Muslims after violent protests, triggered by a social media post, took over the streets. Taking notice of these developments, security agencies briefed the government on orchestrated campaigns to stoke further interreligious violence. In November of last year, the government indeed instrumentalized these developments to impose a ban on TikTok; among the reasons provided was its use for “the disruption of social harmony.”

Such efforts to escalate local tensions into sectarian battles — pitting the supposedly beleaguered Hindu majority against its many enemies — have become frequent in Nepal, particularly in towns dotting the Madhesh region, the country’s southern strip above India. For a growing number of politically ambitious groups and individuals, the explosion of Hindu supremacist politics in the southern neighborhood has offered a working model for popular mobilization. Some of this is seen in efforts to capture conservative resentment against the secular and republican turns Nepal took in the late 2000s, following the end of the decade-long Maoist insurgency. The country’s small but vocal networks of Hindu nationalists, however, have been eyeing a much larger pool of potential support.

Over the past decade, a series of constitutional crises, internecine coalitions, and corruption scandals have left a severe dent in the popularity of the country’s major political parties. Among the several forces jostling to fill this vacuum are Hindu nationalists, who hope to capitalize on growing resentment against the political mainstream. With some welcome support from like-minded institutions across the border in India, they seek to give a distinctly sectarian shape to the collective discontents of a Hindu-majority electorate. Recent disturbances may, therefore, mark the early success of the project.

The Many Meanings of Secularism

A curious aspect of some of the rhetoric on Nepal’s religious questions — from both the supporters and opponents of the cow-slaughter ban, for example — is how the same constitutional provision has been deployed to make opposite claims. Nepal’s constitution includes a paradoxical definition of “secularism,” which it defines both as the protection of religious tradition carried from time immemorial and the entitlement to religious and cultural freedoms. For many of Nepal’s Hindu conservatives, the former definition is an unambiguous endorsement of such norms as the traditional Indic proscription against beef. Those against the ban argue that among the constitution’s chief achievement is an acknowledgement of indigenous or minority culture and practices, which for them should include oxen slaughter and consumption.

The confusion can be traced to the contentious making of the 2015 constitution, written by an elected assembly after seven years of deliberations at the close of the Maoist insurgency. Initially demanded by the Maoist rebels when the insurgency began in the early 1990s, the constituent assembly became the centerpiece of the negotiated settlement between them and Nepal’s traditional parliamentary parties, chiefly the liberal Nepali Congress, and the leftist United Marxist Leninist Party. Nepal’s monarchy was a natural casualty of this convergence, given that then king Gyanendra Shah had prosecuted a war against the Maoist insurgents and persecuted Nepal’s democratic parties by imposing an autocratic regime.

Having wrenched away the reins of government from the king on the back of a popular movement in 2006, the two forces also dominated the legislatures that within a few years declared Nepal a secular state and dissolved the monarchy, which for over two centuries symbolized the relationship between the Hindu religion and state power. These decisions were reaffirmed in 2015, when Nepal’s newly promulgated constitution, drafted by a body dominated by the same mix of former Maoist rebels and parliamentary forces, defined the country as a secular republican state.

Yet this rhetoric of a clean break between a Hindu past and a secular present masked many social and political tensions, and radically different understandings of this transition. For the Maoists, often accused of having lost all radical edge, secularism was among the few symbols they could show their constituents as signs of their success, given their absorption into existing parliamentary tradition and the market economy.

To progressive sections of Nepal’s major parties, secularism signified a welcome formalization of a long-standing, if imperfect, tradition of religious tolerance. Among the conservative ranks of the same parties, secularism was a necessary evil, an unfortunate compromise with the insurgents and their left-wing supporters that could not be forestalled. Finally, for the numerically weaker and discredited Hindu nationalist parties, which had once supported the royal regime, it provided a useful agenda for projecting themselves as permanent and principled opposition in the new political dispensation.

Among the general population, responses to the swift end of the state’s Hindu identity have generally mirrored these diverse political divisions. But even those bemoaning this change — unhappy that the question was not put to a referendum — carry prior political loyalties that cut across the party lines. A Hindu political consolidation has also been discouraged by the fact that the constitutional principle of secularism has seen minimal deployment in practice. The ban against cow slaughter remains in the books, as does the Nepali state’s traditional patronage for certain Hindu institutions and rituals. As a result, opposition to the secular turn has so far not inspired a mass mobilization of any serious scale.

Since 2015, however, owing to a number of domestic and external factors, murmurs of dissatisfaction have started to gather political strength. It is in this context — of unresolved contradiction between the symbolic achievement of secularism and its unclear material implications — that recent attempts at sectarian mobilization are being played out in Nepal.

Domestic Difficulties

So what changed? A big part of the answer lies in how Nepal’s politics have evolved over the past decade. To a large degree, it was the political capital of the postwar peace process, including the promise of a new constitutional order, that moderated many of the skeptics when the postrevolution legislature first declared Nepal secular in 2007. Given the recent memory of an autocratic king, Hinduism as a state religion faced additional problems due to its close association with the monarchy. Since 2015, however, as the constitution of the new federal secular republic came into effect, Nepal has faced persistent political troubles. Six governments have changed places since then, with the prime ministerial seat rotating between three leaders who have on average spent sixteen months in power.

This period has been dotted by constitutional crises and parliamentary suspensions, dragging the president and the chief justice into its ambit. The country’s experiments with federalism are under a similar pall of suspicion, as provincial governments mimic the center’s unsteady coalition politics. At the same time, investigative journalists have exposed abuses of authority at the highest levels, and a former home minister has been implicated in an extortion racket that promised some Nepalis resettlement in the United States under the guise of being Bhutanese refugees.

Unsurprisingly, the electorate is beginning to show signs of disaffection. One immediate result has been electoral. Unable to find real alternatives within Nepal’s three major political parties, who have all formed coalitions with one another, Nepalis elected several independent and conservative candidates in recent polls. But the rallying around these populist, antiestablishment types shows that a more ideological transformation is underway.

More Nepalis are increasingly identifying all ills of political, social, and economic life with the new political order that followed the end of the Maoist insurgency and the democratic movement of 2006. This is particularly true of Nepal’s young voters, many of whom have no real political memory of the years of civil conflict and the royal regime, and who are keenly observant of the global trend toward charismatic nationalism. In effect, every fresh instance of political distress is now likely to be read as a failure of the secular republican system.

If Nepal’s dominant parties have clearly failed in practical politics, they have been even less successful in the realm of ideas. As the authors of the constitution, they have offered no clarity on its ambiguously worded provisions on secularism. On the larger questions about how a secular state negotiates a religious society — the legitimate debates about the relationship between religion, ritual, identity, and public life — they have refused any engagement, except to blandly state that secularism is an important gain of the new republic.

At the same time, they have been unable to resist the temptations of what in India is often referred to as “soft Hindutva.” This involves making concessions to, or adopting rhetoric appealing to, the majoritarian politics of Hindu nationalism. In 2020, for instance, Nepal’s then prime minister, K. P. Sharma Oli, claimed that Lord Rama, one of the most important Hindu deities, was born in Nepal, and the country’s archaeological department hinted at possible excavations of the area suggested by him. Claims about the birthplace of Lord Rama, or Ram Janmabhoomi, have been at the root of Hindu nationalist politics in northern India, which recently culminated in the inauguration of the temple in Ayodhya by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.

Similarly, Nepali Congress has been vigorously reengineering its relations in India, replacing its Congress-centric connections with the more powerful network of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the current prime minister, was criticized by many for donning a saffron robe and sacred thread, Hindu ritual attire, as he offered prayers in a Hindu temple during his diplomatic trip to India in 2023. While he defended his antics as cultural diplomacy, this radical transformation of the former supreme commander of Maoist guerrilla rebels was not lost on many. Most recently, the new Ram temple was welcomed by Nepal’s foreign minister, N. P. Saud. Few operating in Nepal’s political sphere, it seems, can easily ignore the pull of the Hindutva winds blowing from the south.

Beyond the Borders

International aspects of this sectarian development are hard to miss. On the supply side, under the Bharatiya Janata Party government, Indian state and nonstate actors have made several overtures in Nepal to cultivate pro-Hindutva constituencies among important political and social circles. The growing pitch of Hindu nationalist voices in Nepal closely tracks with the political success of Hindutva in India since 2014, a timeline that nearly coincides with the institutionalization of Nepal’s new constitutional order.

To be sure, criticism of the secular turn in Nepal preceded the rise of Narendra Modi in India. The main political face of this was the royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), a small conservative party which has over the past decade tried its best to expand anti-secular and pro-monarchy constituencies across the country, with only limited success. Notably, this bloc’s emphasis on recovering Hindu monarchy is somewhat distinct from the modern fascistic ideology of Hindu supremacy and Islamophobia that characterizes Hindutva politics in India. By contrast, recent mobilizations in Nepal against Muslims and cow slaughter were led by networks of recently formed militant outfits whose slogans and propaganda are difficult to tell apart from that of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the paramilitary group serving as the chief organizational front of Hindu nationalism in India.

This is only one among many signs of the Indian footprint in Nepal’s new Hindu nationalism. Senior leaders of India’s ruling party have on multiple occasions made clear their preference for a Hindu Nepal. While the Indian government has taken no public stance on the matter, many observers argue that the 2015 Indian blockade against Nepal, which began days after the constitution was promulgated, was a sign of the BJP government’s disapproval of its secular character. One recent report by the US Department of State cited civil society leaders who noted that “influence from India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and other Hindu groups in India continued to pressure politicians in Nepal, particularly the RPP, to support reversion to a Hindu state.” Some observers have also read the increased sectarian activity in the borderlands in relation to the BJP and its ideological constituents’ political campaigns in the lead-up to India’s recently concluded parliamentary elections. But given that the party faced its most serious electoral setbacks in two of the states bordering Nepal — Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — it remains to be seen if this implies any change in past trends.

The other remarkable aspect of this evolving Hindutva transnationalism is the role of nonstate actors. The most visible examples are the various branches or affiliates of the RSS that have opened up in the towns of the Madhesh plains, as well as in cities across the country. According to one insider, in 2015, Nepal had the largest number of RSS shakhas (branches) outside of India. In recent years, they have been particularly active in organizing and training school students. This development has been supplemented by formation of new, informal outfits that have adopted the militant style of Hindutva supremacist groups in India.

The concentration of such groups in the politically marginalized southern plains has led some analysts to compare their rise to the spurt in pro-autonomy, even secessionist, political militancy in the same region in the late 2000s. Between the end of the Maoist insurgency in 2006 and the passage of the new constitution in 2015, Madhesh became the center of vibrant — sometimes violent — political movements in favor of federalism, affirmative action, political inclusion, and equal access to citizenship. A number of political parties emerged from these movements. But the recent decline in their electoral fortunes has paralleled the uptick in sectarian mobilization in areas of their past influence. This might not be a coincidence. Having seen the failures of the politics of regional and ethnic identity, some young Madhesis seem to have found the Hindutva model of the neighboring Indian states much more appealing.

Composed largely of young men, these groups also share their Indian counterparts’ interest in creating hierarchies of citizenship, with Muslims and Christians as suspect members of the national community. Identification of these common enemies is particularly important for cross-border Hindutva activists who hope to transcend the anti-Indian strain that remains a powerful element of Nepali cultural nationalism. Recent tensions regarding beef eating, confrontations with the Muslim community, and anti-Christian mobilizations — marking a distinctly new phase in Nepal’s Hindu nationalism — must be seen in this regional context.

There is another curious international dimension to these developments: changing popular perceptions about the West. Often mediated through foreign aid and the nonprofit economy, relations with capitals in Europe and North America have become increasingly associated with activities of Christian missionaries who dabble in religious conversions alongside humanitarian activity across Nepal. Over the past two decades, missionary-led conversions by many Nepalis from the economic underclass — largely belonging to the indigenous communities and the formerly untouchable Dalit caste — have frequently made news in both domestic and international media. At a little over half a million, Christians make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population. But these developments, aided by a concerted stoking of demographic anxieties by sectarian activists, have induced a clear ideological hardening among many against the country’s secular transition.

Nepal’s laws guarantee the right to religion, but they prohibit religious proselytization, a distinction that is unclear even on paper. As a result, the prohibition is largely ignored in practice, even if some missionaries have in the past faced prosecution. The former reinforces the Hindu nationalists’ worries about cultural intervention by the West, while the latter generates more criticism from Western governments and human rights groups about Nepal’s confused stance on religious freedom.

For many advocates of a return to the Hindu state, therefore, the passage to secularism was not an autonomous domestic decision but a move engineered by the Christian West, as part of its geopolitical calculations in a strategically useful site in Asia. This view of Nepali secularism as a Western imposition, enabled by a pliant political elite, is an important part of a populist reinterpretation of geopolitics in Nepal. This impression is further strengthened by the occasional critical observations on the state of religious freedoms in Nepal by Western governments or human rights groups headquartered in the West. The US Department of State’s routine report on religious freedoms, for example, made news in Nepal for not just noting the challenges faced by its religious minorities, but for also implying there are Hindu nationalist pressures from India on political actors in Nepal.

In the Balance

There are reasons to be sanguine about the future of secular politics in Nepal. For one, votaries of Hindu nationalism in Nepal have not yet found a political force that truly meets their desires. Individuals and groups interested in polarization around the religion question have the ability to temporarily disrupt public life and broadcast their agenda. But divided across geographical, social, and ethnic lines, they have shown little indication of convergence around a strategy.

Instead, we find the cause for a Hindu Nepali nation most frequently being taken up by political entrepreneurs hoping to take advantage of a public disenchantment with the political mainstream and its rhetoric of ethnoreligious inclusion and secularism. Another important fact is that Nepal’s permanent state institutions — the bureaucracy and security forces in particular — have shown tact in handling recent incidents of religiously colored violence with relative impartiality.

Yet the longer evolution of sectarian politics, once it enters the bloodstream of everyday life, is not easy to predict. This is partly a function of shifting forms of politicization of Nepali society. Not only is the new electorate finding its voice beyond the parties of the mainstream; they are also much less reliant on — if not hostile toward — the traditional infrastructure of political engagement, like the media, civil society, trade unions, academia, and public intellectuals. The digital-first nature of sectarian mobilization makes some of these older stopgaps even less effective.

Given the loss of past certainties about political management, the success or failure of Hindu nationalism in Nepal to some extent depends on the revival of conversations about the place of religion in public life. What does it mean to maintain a religiously inspired law as tradition in a secular republic? How might the freedom of religious practice coexist alongside a ban on religious persuasion? These questions remain unaddressed, and the big three parties have so far followed a strategy of either silence or gradual appeasement of the majoritarian impulses.

The fate of Nepali Hindutva equally rests on how its activists resolve a certain ideological discord. By tying their pro-Hindu state position to a pro-monarchy one, political entrepreneurs of Nepal’s traditional Hindu right have so far limited the potential appeal of their agenda. This is particularly so because even that traditional defender of the faith, the former king, has shown no interest in resuming his past role. Meanwhile, less enamored of the institution of monarchy than past generations, Nepal’s young Hindutva militants appear more comfortable imagining a Hindu republic. Ultimately, the answer to Nepal’s secularism question will depend on how far the Hindu nationalists succeed in drawing the national majority into the folds of its newfound faith.