WEA-RLC Report: Religious Freedom at Risk in Nepal

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September 13, 2010

The Constituent Assembly of Nepal is to draft a new constitution to replace the 2007 interim constitution currently in force. While many progressive changes have been proposed by the Assembly’s committees on key areas of governance, the committee on fundamental rights wants the country to retain the ban on activities aimed at religious conversion.

Until 2006, Nepal was world’s only Hindu kingdom, which survived sporadically for 239 years. The Himalayan nation, situated between India and China, is currently in transition from a monarchy to a republic. To formalize this transition, the Assembly, which was formed by an election in 2008, was mandated to draft the new constitution within two years while also acting as Nepal’s parliament. The Assembly’s term was, however, extended by one more year as it could not meet the May 28, 2010 deadline.

The delay was due to a lack of consensus among Nepal’s political parties on some “key” provisions in the new constitution such as federalism. Religious freedom was seemingly a non-issue. Although none of the major political parties – the country’s largest United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) or the Nepali Congress – is against religious minorities, their views on religious freedom do not seem progressive.

The 2007 interim constitution – which was drafted by a committee representing all major parties to replace the one promulgated by the monarchy in 1990 and which currently governs Nepal – restricts religious freedom. It states that a person may only practice religion as passed down to him/her from ancient times and bans proselytization.

WEA-RLC spoke to Ms. Binda Pandey, who heads the Assembly’s Committee on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles (CFRDP) and is a member of the Unified Marxist Leninist party, to ask her if the limits on religious freedom are likely to be lifted. “We had a detailed discussion on religious freedom provisions and we came to the conclusion that one can convert from one religion to another individually, but any activity aimed at converting someone else may not be allowed,” she said.

The Preliminary Draft Pandey’s committee presented to the Assembly seeks to make any attempt to convert a punishable act.

Chapter 2 of the Draft defines the “Right to Religious Freedom” as: “Every person shall have the freedom to profess, practice and preserve his or her own religion in accordance with his or her faith, or to refrain from any religion.” But a clause that follows sets the ground for restrictions. It states, “Provided that no person shall be entitled to act contrary to public health, decent behaviour and morality, to indulge in activities of jeopardizing public peace or to convert a person from one religion to another, and no person shall act or behave in a manner which may infringe upon religion of others.”

The rationale behind the restrictions, as per the draft, is: “This right cannot be claimed by any person engaged or making [an attempt] to get indulged in any activity contrary to public health, decent behaviour and morality, get indulged in activities of jeopardizing public peace or converting a person from one religion to another, and acting or behaving in a manner which may infringe upon religion of others. This provision has been made in order to make such an act culpable.”

The Draft was prepared after 478 hours of discussion and considering over 28,000 suggestions sent by organizations and individuals to the committee – and also after making a study of “international covenants to which Nepal has been a party (signatory), and after making a comparative study of the constitutions of different countries, as well as on the basis of the constitutional exercise of Nepal and special circumstances.”

None of the members of the 43-member committee on fundamental rights is Christian while there are a few Muslims and people from Nepal’s ethnic minorities.

“We received a few suggestions from some missionaries who wanted the freedom to convert, but that was not what the majority wanted,” Pandey said.

This shows that religious freedom is seen as an issue of interest to Christian missionaries alone, and not as part of people’s fundamental or human rights. Many non-governmental organizations are advocating for the rights of marginalized communities in the new constitution, but there is little visible effort by Nepal’s civil society or the international community, barring a few Christian lobby groups, to ensure religious freedom.

Nepal is a member of the United Nations and has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as ratified its Optional Protocol. The Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its State parties, holds that the right to manifest one’s religion includes carrying out actions to persuade others to believe in a certain religion. Even otherwise, an individual can exercise his or her right to convert to another religion – which is permissible in the proposed scope of religious freedom in the new constitution – in a substantial manner only when there is freedom for all religious communities to propagate their religion.

According to the 2001 Census, 80.6 percent of the 29.5 million people in Nepal are Hindu. Around 10 percent are Buddhist, 4.2 percent are Muslim, and 3.6 percent followers of indigenous faiths. Christianity is practiced by less than 0.5 percent of the population. However, it is believed that since the Census was conducted during the Hindu monarchy rule, people of other faiths did not reveal their religious affiliations out of fear.

It is also believed that over 20 percent of Nepal’s population is Dalit (formerly “untouchable” according to the caste system in Hinduism) – according to the Census, Dalits comprise around 13 percent of the population. To escape societal discrimination and atrocities, many Dalits have converted to Christianity. The religious restrictions in Nepal could be targeted at Dalits converting to Christianity.

Nepal’s lawmakers are seeking to make religious restrictions even more severe than in some Indian states that have enacted anti-conversion laws for similar reasons and have faced international criticism – for example the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. The Indian anti-conversion laws have survived scrutiny of courts only because they seek to ban conversions carried out by force or fraudulent means, at least on paper. But the proposed clause in Nepal’s new constitution treats even conversion by religious persuasion as unlawful.

India’s experience with anti-conversion laws, some of which have been in force for over 40 years, serves as a warning that legislation concerning conversion can be grossly misused by State as well as non-State actors. For it is tricky to define a religious conversion or gauge someone’s intention to convert someone else. Numerous Christian workers in India have been arrested and harassed on charges of conversion even when they engaged in social work, as any charitable act can wrongly be misconstrued as allurement. However, none of the numerous cases filed against Christian workers in India has resulted in conviction.

Like in India, several right-wing Hindu groups operate in Nepal and have targeted Christian and Muslim minorities in the recent past.

The deadline for Nepal’s new constitution is eight months later, but the committees assisting the Assembly have submitted their proposals, many of which will find space in the new constitution. Moreover, the Maoists in Nepal are inching closer to politicians who favor restoration of monarchy, as both are against the intervention of India – South Asia’s largest and most influential nation – in Nepal’s domestic politics. This can weaken the case for religious freedom. However, there is still time for international advocacy and lobby groups to hold consultations with members of the Assembly and its committee on fundamental rights on the need for the expansion of religious freedom in a country that is now a democratic and secular republic.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world.