The declaration of secularism has not brought radical legal changes: ‘anti-secular laws’ such as those criminalising cow slaughter and proselytising have not been repealed. Neither have gods left the political sphere. Much of the symbolic and ritual apparatus of the monarchy has passed unchanged to the secular republic. Rituals that featured the king’s public presence continue to be financed as state affairs, and the president of secular Nepal has appropriated the king’s ritual role at important Hindu festivals.
Far from being a mere continuation of the status quo, however, this reconfiguration of royal rituals into state rituals is one way in which the young secular republic is legitimised, which is precisely the reason some still seek to reverse this trend. While secularism itself has not undermined the traditional elite’s hold on power, the fact that Hinduism is no longer formally guaranteed a hegemonic position has opened up the possibility that Nepalis of different religious backgrounds could represent the state in the future. Certainly, further challenges for Nepali secularism will emerge as minorities begin to achieve greater representation in the courts, the legal profession, the political parties, and the governmental apparatus.
So far, secularism in Nepal has not meant the strict separation of state and religion and appears to be inspired by the Indian model, according to which the state upholds all the religious traditions of its people equally. It neither makes religion a private affair nor society secular. Instead, through secularism, religious minorities seek recognition on an equal footing with the majority, and religious and ethnic groups engaged in identity-making processes have tended to enhance their religious traditions, making sure that they invite the president or prime minister to their new year’s festivals, for example. The multiplication of religious festivals in the national calendar and in public space is thus seen as both a secular development and an important symbolic recognition of religious and ethnic minorities.
Secularism has changed the nature of the relationship between Hinduism and minority religions – from a paradigm of distant control under a tolerant hegemony to a situation of competition and negotiation among equals. Secularism has been an essential step in the larger project to create a new, inclusive and republican Nepal, but it has also led to a public debate on the relationship between religion and the state that has at times become fractious. Religion continues to be a crucial modality for constructing individual and collective identities, including at the national level, which explains the lasting sensitivity around the idea of secularism. Barring a few isolated incidents, though, secularism has not given rise to religious conflict. Despite the fact that the principle is highly divisive, it is still evolving, and actual secularist practices and accommodations can be built and worked out over time, without recourse to identity politics.