India’s Hindu right does not like what it sees taking place in Nepal. Angry that the country is headed towards becoming a secular, democratic republic, it can see its traditional influence in Nepali politics waning. A terminal blow has now been dealt to the two pillars central to what the Hindutva-wallahs have cherished about Nepal: a Hindu rashtra with a Hindu monarchy. But Hindutva leaders from both India and Nepal have not given up. They have been brainstorming – at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters in Nagpur, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office in New Delhi, the Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur, and at the residence of royalist politicians in Kathmandu – as well as with King Gyanendra at the Narayanhiti Palace. However, the Indian and Nepali Hindu right recognises the limits of its capacity, and does not have a clear rescue plan as yet.
Nepal always was an unusual ‘Hindu kingdom’ – not merely because it was the only one in the world, but also because it was not a typical theocracy. It did not insist on a unitary identity for the entire population, though close to 80 percent of the population was identified as Hindus in the national census (a figure that has been contested by ethnic groups); it did not deprive minority groups of political and civic rights, such as freedom of expression and voting; and the state was not governed by dharmashastras, or a Hindu code, but by a democratic constitution. At the same time, however, for many these were little more than disconcerting clauses. The very fact that Nepal was regarded by the establishment (and constitutionally) as a Hindu state alienated a large section of the populace, especially the country’s many ethnic groups. There was a ban on conversion and cow slaughter; the state promoted the use of Sanskrit; and the head of the state, the king, could only be a born Hindu, with claims to being Vishnu incarnate.
There was no inevitability about Nepal being constitutionally declared as Hindu, or about a close nexus evolving between the Nepali monarch and the Indian Hindu right. It was only after King Mahendra overthrew a short-lived elected government in 1960, and imposed a dictatorial system, that links first deepened between the royalty and the RSS. This turned out to be a mutually beneficial relationship. At a time when the king was not on particularly good terms with Jawaharlal Nehru’s government, it helped Mahendra to cultivate the Hindu forces as his supporters in India. For the RSS, Nepal, as an active Hindu monarchy, was the playing-out of its fantasies of a Hindu rashtra, unpolluted by foreign (read: Christian or Muslim) invasion. Indeed, Mahendra’s Panchayat monarchy came as a significant morale booster for the saffron soldiers, at a time when secularism was beginning to take deep roots in India.
The Hindu rashtra phenomenon thus defined the relationship between Nepal’s royalty and the Hindutva forces over the past five decades. The RSS helped to prop up the Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh (VHM) in Nepal. In theory, the VHM was a global federation of all Hindu organisations; in practice it was completely dependent on its Indian affiliate, the VHP. Today, VHM functionaries are active royalists, best represented by General Bharat Kesar Simha, present head of the VHM and honorary ADC to the king. Simha was the most outspoken supporter of Gyanendra’s autocratic rule after the latter’s military-backed coup in February 2005. Mahant Awaidhnath, of the Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur, and his successor, Yogi Adityanath (see pic), a BJP member of the Lok Sabha, are also senior VHM functionaries and ardent supporters of Gyanendra.
The Narayanhiti-Gorakhnath relationship reportedly goes back to the middle of the 18th century, when the founder of the temple, Gorakhnath Maharaj, is said to have blessed Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of the modern state of Nepal, when he began his expansionist drive. At present, Mahant Awaidhnath is ill, and Yogi Adityanath has assumed his religious and political responsibilities. Adityanath, founder of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a radical youth wing, is among the most rabid Hindu fanatics in India, and is seen as extremist even by other Hindutva organisations. He exerts tremendous influence in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Indian districts that border Nepal’s central Tarai. Adityanath claims that the Nepali Maoists have plans to expand into India, and made this a central plank in his election campaign in the recent UP assembly polls. Adityanath has warned that removing the king and declaring Nepal secular will lead to the country’s disintegration.
During the mid-1990s, King Birendra attended a mass rally in Haridwar, sharing the dais with the head of the RSS at the time, Rajendra Singh, as well as senior VHP leader Ashok Singhal. Earlier, the VHM had declared the king the vishwa hindu samrat, emperor of all of the world’s Hindus. Similar treatment was accorded to Gyanendra in 2004. This relationship, between the Hindu organisations and Hindu king, had suddenly gained significance following Gyanendra’s takeover of state control in October 2002, when there was also a BJP-led government in Delhi. The Indian Hindu right used its fraternal links with the BJP to influence the Indian government not to exert pressure for democracy in Nepal. After the coup of February 2005, the Hindu right again came out in vociferous support of the Nepali monarch. After all, how could you have a true Hindu rashtra if the Hindu king did not wield true power?
The details point to a more substantial trend. For one, there is a deep relationship between the Hindu right in both India and Nepal; indeed, they are often indistinguishable. The Hindu fundamentalists have long served as a constituency of support for the Kathmandu king at the Delhi durbar. In turn, they have drawn their influence in Nepali politics from proximity to the king, not from organisational capacity or mass support on the ground. For this reason, it is important not to overestimate the strength of Hindu fundamentalists in Nepal. At the same time, they do possess enough of an ability and network to act as spoilers and create disturbances. On 1 September 2004, after 12 Nepalis in Iraq were abducted and killed by insurgents, Kathmandu witnessed riots for the first time. Muslims were attacked, and their homes and masjids vandalised. A credible investigation was never held, and it is still not clear who was behind the attacks. But it is suspected that Hindutva elements, with the silent acquiescence of a royalist administration, played a crucial part.
The last few years have not been good for either the king or the Hindu fundamentalists in Nepal. Ethnic groups have asserted themselves, made it clear they are not Hindus, and demanded state secularism. The Maoists supported these demands and called for a republic. In the course of the peace process between the democratic parties and the Maoists, energised by the People’s Movement of April 2006, this appeared as a national agenda. In May 2006, the reinstated parliament proclaimed Nepal a secular state. The institution of a republic seemed not far off, which meant the absence of a king.
This humiliation of Nepal’s kingship and its threatened abolition is seen as a grave setback to the fundamentalist Hindu groups. In fact, many Hindutva-oriented leaders in India blame Gyanendra himself for getting the monarchy stuck in such a quagmire. Many RSS leaders, in off-the-record conversations, are contemptuous of Gyanendra, and believe that his incompetence, coupled with dubious advisers, allowed the political parties and Maoists to emerge successful. They admit to having made a mistake by putting all their eggs in Gyanendra’s royal basket, and realise that association with a discredited king has eroded their own credibility in Nepal. But while remaining distrustful of Gyanendra himself, Hindutva-wallahs continue to support the institution of Hindu monarchy in Nepal.
Meanwhile, the declaration of secularism has bred public resentment. Some surveys reveal that a majority of respondents disagreed with the proclamation, due to the substance of the decision and the procedure adopted. The parties did not engage in broad-based consultation, there was no political debate, and there was little communication about what the Nepali translation dharma nirpekshata actually meant. Together, these led people to believe that the notion of secularism was synonymous with being anti-religious.
The Hindu right in Nepal and India is aware of this resentment. But the political climate, coupled with the right’s limited organisational strength and absence of effective leadership, disallow the Hindutva groups from capitalising on this sentiment. However, this does not preclude the possibility of them emerging as a potent force in the future. For one, they have the resources; all they are waiting for is a Nepali leader, with a mass base of supporters, who is viscerally anti-Maoist and publicly committed to the agenda of a Hindu state.
The Hindu rightists thought their moment had come earlier this year, when the Madhesi movement emerged in the Tarai plains. The movement targeted both the Kathmandu state and the Maoists, with whom most Madhesi groups share an antagonistic relationship. Upendra Yadav, leader of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, met Yogi Adityanath in Gorakhpur, as well as senior RSS leaders in Delhi. Even so, the Madhesi movement was neither driven by the Hindu right nor did it influence the Madhesis to any great extent. No Madhesi group is willing to say that it is for a Hindu rashtra or monarchy, and RSS leaders realise that they can derive only limited benefit from a fractured and directionless Madhes agitation.
Nepal is fortunate in having a weak and demoralised Hindu right. But that should not make the country’s politicians and civil society complacent, for the neighbouring Indian experience shows the resilience of Hindutva groups. As Nepal moves towards becoming a genuinely secular state, it would do well to be cautious, and engage more directly with the larger population on issues related to religion and politics.