Urgency & Importance of Constitutional Clarity on Freedom from and of Religion and Separation of State and Religion in Nepal

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 8 September 2010

 by Rabindra Bhattarai

Nepal is currently passing through a historical course of democracy and building of nation. Nepali people are empowered to formulate a new constitution. The new constitution is expected to be the basis of the commonality for enhancing endeavors for the prosperity of all citizens and expression of common spirit of entire people of Nepal.
Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007 declared Nepal as a secular state. This has given rise of the public debates and opinions regarding the scope of religion in political affairs. Some political parties are playing politics taking benefit of religious discrepancies ever existed by the religious tilt of the state functioning. Peoples’ opinions are divided. Some argue that what the present government is treating is fairly a secular spirit. Others say that only the words in the constitution are changed but the practice is continued as previous.

Similarly, some are even expecting Nepal as Hindu State through forthcoming constitution. Some people have suggested that the issue of the relation of state and religion is not to be decided by the Constituent Assembly but to be put aside and referendum is to be held to decide the matter. More, generously the atheist, secularists and humanists are arguing that the provision on secularization of state in the Interim Constitution is positive in itself but the practice has been derailed from its letters and spirit. Thus, the climate of the popular opinions is cloudy enough.  

We are in a juncture of Dissolution of the traditional structures of state machinery as we have firmly believed that these tradition structures were designed to serve the undemocratic feudal forces who exploited a lot to the people at large. Similarly, we strongly have felt that such structures would not be effective to run a democratic state system.  Therefore, we need to think with our cool minds that why are we formulating new constitution? What contents are inevitable for it and which issues are to be left for the statutory legislations? How should we decide that what is to be included and what to be left? These are the pertinent questions to which we should be clear enough?

In answering above questions, first of all we should keep in our minds that what is Constitution and how can we make it more representative of various aspects. There are four major areas that the constitution gives coverage specifically, those are:
– Guarantee of the fundamental principles and feature of governance and their regulation;
– Guarantee of core rights of the citizens, their inviolability and remedies if violated and their respect, protection and fulfillment;
– Political and public relation between the citizens and state, and
– Division of the powers and duties between the branches of t government and other state agencies

The question of secularity of state and freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion comes under all of these areas. Therefore, the constitution is to be very clear that what issues of the secularism and interests of theists and atheist populations are required to be expressly mentioned in it and what are to be left to other legislative measures.

In the history of world and civilizations, religion seems to be the most sensitive and debated issue in terms of power sharing and politics. The human histories around the various continents have shown that the divisions of the religions have resulted gross and unrepeatable losses of human kind and attacked over the sense of humanity. Religions, in many instances became the shield of superstitions, arrogance, cruelties and fundamentalisms. Reasons, scientific mindedness and free thinking are opposed in many religions.

If we view the causes of our backwardness and underdevelopment, we easily find that our value and belief system is the major one. The problems that we are facing in terms of injustices to the down-trodden and deprived communities as well as women and children are the manifestation of unscientific, closed and irrational value system and their predominance in our minds and practices. Therefore, if we really want a fresh start of a just Nepali society, we have to be very clear on the matters that may hamper our scientific mindedness, rational and reasoned thinking and acting patterns.

The Interim Constitution, theoretically, had defined Nepal as secular state; however, the high level state actors derailed its spirit in actions through their roles and responsibilities. Even today, a vast resource of state is used to serve the Hindu institutions. On the other hand, the political parties such as Communist Party of Nepal United Moist are persuading a motion of providing protection for Muslims as reservation of minorities.

If we view Indian perspective of secularization, similar derailments are found. Today, the Indian humanists, atheists and secularists are still deprived of their right to have identity without religion or religious faiths. Therefore, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) is struggling for real secularization and even persuaded a draft of a bill for separation of religion from politics, government system, education and judiciary.

Nepal is much influenced by the Indian legal system and there is threat of the repeating same mistake in making new Constitution with the notion of secularism as “equal protection of all religion”. Real meaning of secularism is separation of religion from government system and public service operations including judicial system and education system. A secular state requires ensuring equal protection to those people or sect of the society who have no religious faith but have an atheist, secular or only a humanist spirit or faith. Therefore, the Constituent Assembly is to be aware on protecting the right of those who do not have any religious faith.

Society of Humanism (SOCH) Nepal, a representative of secular sect of Nepali population has submitted recommendations to the concerned subject committees of the Constituent Assembly for the effect of provision of real secularization of state. The recommendations seem to be very clear on the issue of equal protection of both the theists and atheist people. If “Everyone has right to choice to accept or reject any religion or religious belief” is guaranteed as fundamental entitlement, then it would be able to protect both. Similarly, the emphasis on the secular education placed by SOCH Nepal’s recommendation would be a pillar for fostering a culture of scientific rational education that enhances senses of tolerance, co-existence and fraternity based on the principles of mutual respect of human rights.
If the public decorum is recognized and maintained as to the recommendation of SOCH Nepal, Forthcoming Constitution would be able to provide an example of secular state to its neighbors and international community.  To this end, after such constitutional arrangement, Nepal requires to bring legislative changes addressing following issues that have been raised by SOCH Nepal.

  • The secular working style to be employed by the public officials while their duty;
  • Freedom of personal religious performances of such officials and limitations thereto;
  • Regulatory mechanism of the various religious public performances and policy of taxation on the collective properties of religious groups or creeds and terms and conditions of exercising religious freedom;
  • Common Nepali cultural days and limitation of public holidays in the name of religions;
  • Personalization of religion of public service officials and conversion of the public religious holidays to annual leave that they may take it as their religious requirements;
  • Democratization and regularization of religious trusts including Rajguthi and Private Guthies; and
  • Separation of places and monuments of historical and archaeological importance from their relation to a particular relation.

For modern democracy, secularism is a basic feature of government system, irrespective of historical legacies. US President is being criticized for taking an oath in Christian mode, though governance in US is considered fair a bit.

If Nepal would have secular constitutional provisions as suggested by SOCH Nepal and if statutory provisions are brought in place, we Nepali people would enter to a real scientific world on our public life. With respect of right to freedom from religion, the author of this peace of writing would like to place a question to the all 601 members of the Constituent Assembly that Would you protect my right to hold opinion, faith or belief that I do not belong to any religious creed or communities and I do not believe in the powers that may not be realized by my normal human sense? I do believe in humanity, human intelligence, morality and endeavors.  May I live in New Nepal equal to any religion believer getting equal protection and equal public benefits if I subscribe my humanist life-stands as my sole basis of life? Are you in position to understand and to protect my faith?  I will be reading your answers in the provisions of forthcoming Constitution.

Writer is the Chairperson for Society for Humanism (SOCH) Nepal, IHEYO member

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