BY THE TIME the rath yatra arrived on a cold January morning in Jawalakhel, in the south of Kathmandu, it was an hour late. A man dressed in a daura suruwal—traditional Nepali Brahmin garb—had been apologising profusely to a waiting congregation of about 250 people, trying to keep them occupied. At one point, a demonstration had marched past double-file, raising expectations that the rath had arrived; it turned out to be a protest by the city’s street vendors. When it did appear, the procession was unmistakable. The rath itself was a small cargo truck, superimposed with an oversize cow sculpture painted generously with religious iconography, and with three white plastic horses attached to its front. Two jeeps followed, one disguised as a Hindu temple and the other a Buddhist stupa, each complete with a Brahmin priest who blessed anyone and anything that came in the way.
Behind the truck cab, under the cow’s head, stood leaders of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, or RPPN. With the yatra, they had travelled almost 2,000 kilometres across Nepal in the last nine days, calling for the Hindu-majority country’s return to its earlier status as a Hindu kingdom. Now they looked quite spent. Loudspeakers alternated between a bhajan and an old anthem glorifying Nepal’s royal past. As the procession moved on from Jawalakhel towards its final destination at Tundikhel—a large ground in central Kathmandu, and the Mecca of popular politics in Nepal—the waiting crowd had dwindled to less than half its initial size.
By all standards, this was a rather disappointing showing for Nepal’s most popular right-wing party, and the fourth largest one in the country’s current constituent assembly—the second such body elected since a civil war and popular movement that ended, in 2006, 239 years of rule by a Hindu dynasty, the Shahs. In May 2008, 560 of the first assembly’s 601 members voted in favour of making Nepal a secular republic, with the RPPN’s four delegates the only ones voting against. Ever since, the RPPN, itself a breakaway from an older conservative group called the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, has campaigned on two planks: Hindu nationalism, and the reinstatement of the monarchy. The first assembly was dissolved after failing to deliver a new constitution, and a new body was elected in 2013. Though the vote was dominated by the centrist Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), the RPPN saw a strong rise in support, securing 24 seats and leading some to hope for a sustained right-wing revival. The rath yatra, timed to reach Kathmandu on 2 January, was meant to influence the new assembly ahead of a self-imposed deadline for tabling a draft of a new constitution, on 22 January (it missed the cut-off, and has not promised any new date for delivery). The RPPN had hoped to show its rising political capital, but instead exposed its limited popularity.
In mid February, I met with Gagan Thapa, a prominent figure of the 2006 movement against the monarchy and a rising leader of the Nepali Congress, which, with 196 seats, is the strongest in the present constitutional assembly. He explained that the RPPN’s electoral surge did not mean growing support for a Hindu kingdom, but was “the result of the popular dissatisfaction and anger” with the country’s “yet incomplete politics of change.” Thapa argued that after the first constituent assembly, led by the party of the former Maoist rebels, failed its promise of delivering a progressive constitution, a number of parties opposed to the Maoists benefitted from an anti-incumbent swing. “This was not,” he said, “a vote for a particular party, or leader, or ideology.”
The RPPN, of course, disagrees. The same day I spoke to Thapa, I visited the party’s headquarters in Dhumbarahi, a residential area just off Kathmandu’s ring road. The bright yellow building still sported a placard advertising the rath yatra. Inside, the place was replete with royalist paraphernalia, including cutouts of the Shah king who united Nepal by conquest in the eighteenth century, but, besides a few stickers, was surprisingly free of religious symbols or artefacts. I spoke to the party’s general secretary, Chandra Bahadur Gurung, who insisted that secularism was the main issue at hand. “Secularism will end the Nepali people’s common identity, their religion and values,” he said, “and eventually end the country’s existence.” He explained that the party wanted a constitution that respects the precepts of Hinduism, and complained of Christian proselytisation. “There is a conspiracy to end this faith that is followed by over two billion,” he said, with surprising calm for a man who believes his religion to be under existential threat. “And it hasn’t happened spontaneously. It has been planned, and some Nepalis have been bought with dollars.” Evangelists, he said, were “forcibly” converting people by giving them books, stationery and paracetamol.
But with Christians comprising less than 2 percent of Nepal’s population, and Hindus a solid 80 percent, the anxiety over evangelical conversion is, in the words of the political analyst and commentator CK Lal, a “manufactured hysteria.” Matters of religion, he told me, are not of immediate concern for most Nepalese today, making an upsurge in favour of a Hindu nation unlikely anytime soon.
Whether manufactured or not, the hysteria matters. For International Human Rights Day, on 10 December, the British ambassador to Nepal, Andrew Sparkes, published an open letter to the constitutional assembly calling for the guarantee of a range of protections, including the “right to change religion.” Sparkes soon came under fire from several quarters, accused of promoting conversion and interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs, including by some members of the ruling, and avowedly secular, Congress. After the government sought clarification, the British embassy explained the ambassador’s statement as “simply a reference to a fundamental individual right … not a reference to supporting ‘forced’ conversion or proselytising.”
The furore came only a couple of weeks before the rath yatra commenced, and for the RPPN it offered an ideal chance to drum up support. But the party didn’t capitalise on the scandal. The demands in the manifesto that accompanied the yatra were wide-ranging—a Hindu nation; an end to caste discrimination and untouchability; a ban on cow slaughter; mandatory education for girls; an end to child marriage, polygamy, dowry and “other social evils”—but said nothing specifically about conversion. At the yatra’s conclusion at Tundikhel, RPPN leaders did accuse rival parties of conspiring with the West to encourage evangelism and make Nepal a secular state, but by then few were listening.
Meanwhile, the party has tried to expand its influence by claiming to represent what it has christened the “Omkar family.” This, Gurung told me, includes all Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Kiratis and followers of Bon—an expansive composite that accounts for at least 94 percent of the Nepali population. The RPPN presents its fight against secularism as one to preserve the identities of everyone falling within this definition; but the party can neither prove a mandate to speak on behalf of any of the individual communities, nor point to any real political or social grouping between them. Behind the pretense of inclusion lies the pointed exclusion of Muslims and Christians, many of whom converted to escape caste discrimination and form some of the most marginalised and vulnerable communities in the country.
But the RPPN’s biggest handicap remains its stubborn association with a monarchy that now has little public sympathy. Kamal Thapa, the party president, held cabinet positions in a royalist government prior to a popular uprising that established parliamentary democracy in 1990; other high-ranking party officials were also once loyalists of the palace. Thapa was also the home minister during the last days of royal rule, when the king employed emergency powers, and was instrumental in clamping down on the street movement that helped topple the regime. Any association with the party is now, in effect, seen as an endorsement of monarchy—a position that even many Nepalis opposed to secularism have problems with. Even the RPPN’s remarkably improved presence in the second constitutional assembly hasn’t brought its demands closer to fruition.
As the RPPN flags, though, others seem ready to seize upon the pro-Hindu plank of the party’s programme. Within the Congress, Gagan Thapa told me, “there is a group … that thinks we made a mistake in becoming a secular country. This is a big group, and could have a significant impact in our upcoming party convention.”
Four days before the blown deadline for drafting a constitution, I headed to Babarmahal, an area packed with government ministries and offices, for an RPPN demonstration. The organisers planned to march to the constitutional assembly’s premises, a few kilometres away, to bolster the position of the party’s legislative delegates. About 3,000 supporters gathered. Within arm’s reach, a coalition of various Dalit groups was also massing for a demonstration. A large red banner announced their demands, including “the establishment of a secular state.” As our group started moving, I fell in beside Mohan Shrestha, a party spokesperson. He told me the RPPN had made some strategic changes: while earlier it had been demanding popular referendums on the return of the monarchy and the Hindu nation, it would now ask for referendums on secularism, federalism and republicanism—a concession to the language of the new political mainstream. “We’re working on maturing our political agenda,” he said, his voice almost drowned out by loudspeakers.