After seven years of political deadlock and three missed deadlines, Nepal is expected to pass its long awaited constitution at the end of August. The passage of a new constitution could create stability in Nepal and represent a positive step toward democracy for the Nepalese people. But Nepal’s constitutional reforms are not without challenges.
In recent weeks, protesters have taken to the streets to contest the decision to divide Nepal into six provinces. Opponents of the decision allege that the division seeks to gerrymander the districts to disadvantage ethnic minority groups. At least two protesters were killed and many more wounded as police attempted to quell the violence. The protests have further delayed the reform process, but redrawing state lines is not the only point of contention.
Drafters of the constitution have also proposed that Nepal depart from its status as a secular state to become a Hindu state. Prior to the overthrow of the monarchy in 2006, Nepal was the only Hindu state in the world. Nepal’s population is over 80 percent Hindu, and supporters of the departure from secularism claim that Nepal’s status as a secular state fails to reflect the will of the people.
Should Nepal become an explicitly Hindu state, it would need to take extra precautions to ensure that religious freedom is guaranteed for people of all faiths. Current iterations of the constitution fail to do so.
The draft constitution maintains provisions from the 2007 interim constitution that prohibit proselytizing and limit religious freedom. Article 31, Clause 3 of the constitution’s current draft is particularly contentious because it suggests that any “act to convert another person from one religion to another or any act or behavior to undermine or jeopardize the religion of each other is not allowed and such act shall be punishable by law.” This contradicts Article 31, Clause 1, which says that “every person shall have the right to profess, practice and protect his or her own religion according to conviction and the freedom to separate oneself from any religion.”
The two articles are contradictory because the first clause affirms an individual’s right to practice his faith according to his convictions, while the third clause’s ambiguous definition of the term “act” suggests that any attempt to convert (forced or otherwise) is prohibited. For certain faiths, such as Christianity and Islam, proselytizing is a key part of the faith. Not to be able to proselytize would be to violate their ability to adhere to their religious convictions.
If Nepal maintains constitutional language that could be misused to limit individuals’ religious freedom and becomes a Hindu state in name and practice, the new constitution significantly threatens the religious freedom of minority religious groups in Nepal. Religious minorities make up roughly 20 percent of Nepal’s population, with Buddhists being 11 percent, Muslims over 4 percent, and Christians less than 2 percent.
State-level anti-conversion laws in India threaten religious minorities and have even led to violence and persecution. It would be deeply troubling if Nepal implemented a similar law.
The U.S. has an interest in a stable Nepal, and the passage of a freedom-respecting constitution would signal Nepal’s full return to democracy. Nepal is strategically located between India and China, and its status as a rights-respecting country could make it an important ally for the U.S. in South Asia.