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This piece is part of Off the Record, the weekly newsletter written by Pranaya Rana. Click here to subscribe to the newsletter.
Late last week, on Saturday, it looked like eastern Nepal was headed down a dark and dangerous path. Hindus from across the country had planned to march into Dharan in a show of force against citizens of the city who had earlier filmed themselves eating beef. There was widespread fear that the rally could result in a clash between the two opposing groups, as tensions have been high for quite some time now. Upset with the majoritarian politics of their provincial government, Janajatis publicly ate beef and filmed it for all to see on social media. In truth, it was not the most brilliant move but they knew what they were doing. Their stunt was certain to rile people up and bring their cause attention, both of which happened. But it also angered a lot of Hindus who consider eating beef a sin. Their beef (pun very much intended) with the Janajatis was that a public show had been made of eating their sacred animal just to provoke them.
Fortunately, nothing untoward happened. Despite the frankly bizarre antics of Dharan Mayor Harka Sampang, the district authorities were quick to institute a prohibition on all public rallies. Local political parties and activists preached reconciliation and the planned rally was called off. The clash that had been expected was fortunately avoided. Things remain tense but the outward threat of violence seems to have thankfully dissipated.
This episode bears repeating even simply the fact that such communal clashes remain rare in Nepal. Despite all its ills, Nepal remains a largely tolerant society where people of various backgrounds live in general harmony with each other. Even when values tend to collide, the rule of thumb seems to be to live and let live. This is surprising to many, especially those folk from south of the border who bristle at the fact that Nepal is no longer a Hindu kingdom. Nepal is a majority Hindu country — nearly 82 percent of the population — larger than India’s nearly 80 percent. (Although, some dispute this number saying that many Nepalis default to Hinduism on official documents even when their beliefs might be different). And yet, these Hindus did not take to the streets in large numbers when Nepal became a secular state. By and large, there was a peaceful transition and a majority of Nepalis have accepted the non-denominational identity of the country.
There is, however, a minority that remains dissatisfied with Nepal’s transition to secularism and wants to reverse course. These elements have coalesced into the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, led by Rajendra Lingden with Rabindra Mishra as an important party leader. The RPP espouses a return to the Hindu monarchy and Nepal’s identity as a Hindu state, although Mishra has argued in the past for a Hindu-Buddhist state. Although the party claims that a silent majority supports its platform, its poll numbers tell a different story. The RPP is the fifth largest party in the federal parliament with 14 seats, an improvement on its past performances under Kamal Thapa but by no means emblematic of the widespread support it claims to have.
The RPP, however, is no BJP. India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the ruling party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and in recent years, its influence has become pervasive. Under Modi and the BJP’s tenure, Muslims have been hounded and policies put in place to disenfranchise them. Violence against Muslims and other minority groups has become endemic. Majoritarian politics have led to the rise of a yogi, Adityanath, to chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states. Under him, Muslim persecution has reached new heights. The RPP is by no means as brazen as the BJP is, even though they might share the same platform. Despite its right-wing rhetoric and platform, the RPP in Nepal has remained a peaceful and tolerant party that respects the rule of law. I might disagree with its beliefs but I am not going to pretend that the RPP is anything like the BJP.
Perhaps this is why the Indian right wing is seeking new allies. It seems to have lost faith in the RPP and its leaders, perhaps believing them too soft. The new party that is being increasingly promoted from across the border is a little-known outfit called the Nepal Janata Party, not to be confused with the Rastriya Janata Party led by Mahanta Thakur. The Nepal Janata Party, of NJP, is led by one Tribhuvan Nath Pathak, who I’ve never really heard of. Its election symbol is a lotus that bears a striking resemblance to that of the symbol of the BJP, and it has adopted saffron, the BJP’s color, as its own. The party claims to have won 17 seats in the 2022 local election but according to Nepal’s Election Commission, it only won 10 seats — 1 ward and 4 ward members each in Province 1 and Gandarki Province. Nepal has 35,000 such seats so 10 wins are really just a drop in the ocean. For comparison, the RPP won 305 seats while even newly formed parties like Resham Chaudhary’s Nagarik Unmukti Party and CK Raut’s Janamat Party won 99 and 96 seats, respectively.
The NJP was just one among the hundreds of parties that contested the elections and won a handful of seats here and there, mostly at the ward level. These parties have little influence even in the areas from where they were elected, ceding much of their authority to mayors and federal/provincial parliamentarians, the overwhelming number of whom are from the three large parties — the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML, and the Maoists. Most Nepalis — I would bet a very large sum of money — have not even heard of this party.
And yet, as I pointed out in a previous newsletter, there was a strange tweet (I refuse to call it X) on August 17, 2023, from Monica Verma, whose bio states that she holds a Ph.D. in foreign relations. Verma, who has 104,000 followers, states, “After decades of experiencing communist politics, people in Nepal are looking for an alternative. Meet Nepal Janta Party- A new political party that is making waves in the country.” I deign to question, what waves? Verma’s tweet was roundly ratioed, with a vast majority of Nepalis expressing ignorance over the very existence of this party. One choice tweet from Vijay Kant Karna, a former diplomat and current foreign affairs scholar, states: “Good humor. Even nepali people don't know the name of this party.”
Verma’s tweet was accompanied by an image bearing the BJP lotus and saffron color with a portrait of one Anil Kumar Agrawal under whose name is written in Devanagari script: ‘candidate (direct), constituency no. 1, Parsa’, meaning he was a first-past-the-post candidate for the federal election from Parsa district’s constituency number 1. However, no such name appears on the Election Commission’s list of candidates who actually contested the Parsa-1 election. In fact, the Nepal Janata Party’s candidate is named Surendra Prasad Sah and he received 84 votes against the winning candidate, Pradeep Yadav from the Janata Samajbadi Party’s 22,537 votes. So I’m not sure who exactly Anil Kumar Agrawal is and what he was contesting. Perhaps the image is from the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections, which I was unable to verify as the Election Commission website does not appear to archive election results beyond the most immediate. But even in that election, the Nepal Janata Party came 34th with just 15,650 votes in total; just for comparison, the largest party, the Nepali Congress, received 2,418,370 votes.
Verma cites an obscure YouTube video from a right-wing Indian channel called ‘Nationalist Thoughts’ as one source. The video, uploaded on August 8, 2023, currently has just 170 views so it is unlikely that Verma came across this video by accident. The second source is from jagran.com, a Hindi-language media outlet that basically states everything Verma shared in her series of tweets. Both sources feature Khem Nath Acharya who is apparently the vice-president of the NJP. Acharya was reportedly in Delhi in August and met with a number of BJP functionaries, including BJP party chief JP Nadda.
During and after his visit, numerous articles appeared in the Indian media, all of them repeating the same ‘facts’ and opinions, all playing up the image of the NJP as a new force in Nepali politics that will restore Nepal’s identity as a Hindu state. Here’s a sample of just the English-language article:
There are many more in Hindi and other Indian languages and all of them have appeared within the last two weeks. None of them have made any attempt to fact-check the claims made by Khem Nath Acharya or even provide a dissenting view. In fact, the talking points are so similar across all of the articles that they read like they were all cribbed from the same press release. Even articles that claim to have interviewed Acharya, like one in The Print, say basically the same thing.
Acharya might actually be more well-known than his party. He’s long been active in the Hindu nationalist movement and identifies himself as a ‘Sanghi’, a member of the Sangh Parivar, which includes the political Bharatiya Janata Party, the paramilitary Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the internationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the militant Bajrang Dal. He’s been affiliated with the Nepal wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rastriya Hindu Yuwa Manch Nepal. For more than a decade, Acharya has been attempting to mount a political campaign to bring back Hinduism as the state religion but to little effect. In 2015, he even went on a hunger strike but ended when no one gave in to his demands. At least he received a letter of support from the Hindu Janajagruti Samaj, another militant right-wing Hindu organization that has been linked to protests against the painter MF Husain, anti-LGBTIQ legislation, boycotts of Muslim traders, and even the murder of Indian activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh.
Acharya’s visit to Delhi might have kicked off the flurry of articles about the NJP but the manner in which the reports were produced and disseminated leave me skeptical that any real journalism was done. The manner in which news about Acharya and NJP spread across the Indian media landscape is suspect, as is their content. It is also telling that larger media houses, such as The Times of India or The Hindu, seem to have ignored Acharya and the NJP. To me, this looks like a carefully orchestrated media blitz by the Indian right wing in order to create press for the NJP to garner more support and funding for the party trying to bring back Nepal’s status as the only Hindu state in the world.
This is troubling, to say the least. It shows that the Indian Hindutva lobby is very much interested in Nepal and is looking for allies. Perhaps it has concluded that the RPP is not strong enough or radical enough and seeks to support a different party more aligned with the Sangh’s ideology. If that’s what’s going on, that is even more troubling, especially when coming on the heels of the visit of Dhirendra Kumar Shastri, the ‘Bageshwar Dham Sarkar’ about whom I wrote two weeks ago. That baba too preaches Akhanda Bharat, which sees Nepal as an integral part in its ‘true’ avatar as a Hindu rashtra.
Nepal has so far managed to avoid the communal violence that has plagued India for so long. Tensions build to the surface sometimes here too but such instances are thankfully rare. I would like to think that any party that seeks to import Hindutva into Nepal will rightfully fail. Nepalis by and large have little tolerance for intolerance. However, recent incidents have shown that Nepal’s political class is very willing to get in bed with the Hindutva lobby. Take, for instance, Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba’s wife, Arzu Rana Deuba, meeting with the BJP’s foreign department chief Vijay Chauthaiwale and tying a rakhi around his wrist. Or Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a staunch communist, shedding his safari suit for a saffron robe to worship at the Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. More recently, the afore-mentioned Nepal visit of the dhongi baba from Bageshwardham at the invitation of Nepali Congress parliamentarian and billionaire Binod Chaudhary.
Let’s make no mistake, the shroud of Hindu nationalism looms over us now and unless we reassert our diversity and tolerance for difference, there is always the danger that this specter from the south will swallow us too.
Pranaya Sjb Rana Pranaya SJB Rana is editor of The Record. He has worked for The Kathmandu Post and Nepali Times.
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