05/16/2006, 00.00
NEPAL

From Hindu kingdom to secular state

by Prakash Dubey

The premier has accepted to consider the request of several local ethnic groups to declare the country as a secular state. A local activist said: "Only a secular Nepal can put an end to the explicit and implicit discriminations suffered by minorities".

Kathmandu (AsiaNews) – The ad interim Nepalese premier, Girja Prasad Koirala, has accepted to consider a request by ethnic groups to give Nepal a secular status. The Constitution, which provides for freedom of worship, describes Nepal as a "Hindu Kingdom" although it does not lay down a State religion.

The prime minister's statement came yesterday as hundreds of members of the Indigenous Nationalities Joint Struggle Committee (INJSC) protested outside his residence. This group, which includes several religions and ethnicities, presented Koirala with a memorandum that calls for the transformation of the Kingdom into a secular state.

Prithvi Subba Gurung, one of the INJSC leaders, told AsiaNews that guarantees for change, handed down by the premier, "have aroused great optimism among ethnic Nepalese nationalities". He said: "We firmly believe that only a secular Nepalese state could end numerous implicit and explicit discriminations that ethnic groups have been vulnerable to, by guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities irrespective of one's faith."

Pushar Tamang, a Buddhist, said Nepal is a mosaic of ethnicities. In 2001, 61 were registered, speaking a total of 120 languages between them, with different religions, and they make up 50% of the population. Just about half of Nepalese citizens speak the Nepalese language as their mother tongue and nearly 20% don't speak it at all. Right from the beginning, from the time of the foundation of the unitary state of Nepal in 1769, the monarchy of Kathmandu, deriving from high Hindu castes, has always sought to impose not only its language, but its cultural and religious matrix on the rest of the country. The most widespread slogan is: "One nation, one dress, one language!"

Tamang said the concept of "total democracy" that sparked the protests against the king "would be reduced to a farce if Nepal is not declared a secular state". He added that only "monarchy leaders" wanted to hang on to the title of Nepal as a Hindu kingdom, because they "hoped for backing from nationalist Hindus from India in case of a crisis".

Yesterday, the alliance of seven opposition parties that is leading the ad interim government fixed 18 May as the date for the presentation of and voting for a resolution to limit the powers of the crown: among other things, the king will forfeit his control over the army and his immunity.

In February 2005, King Gyanendra sacked his prime minister and seized absolute powers over the nation. He justified his move by citing government incapacity to fight corruption and the Maoist revolt. After months of violent street protests, in April, the monarch agreed to form a new parliament.

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