Kathmandu, Nepal – If approved by parliament, the new anti-conversion provisions in Nepal’s criminal code would jail anyone involved in preaching and handing out religious material. Anyone killing cattle for its meat would suffer a similar fate.
In reaction to the draft law, religious minorities have called for amendments to the draft proposal because the suggested changes constitute a violation of religious freedom and favour Hinduism.
The decision to fight the new legislation was made at a conference held a few days ago in Kathmandu by the Interreligious Secularism Protection Movement. Proposed by Catholics, the event (pictured) brought together representatives of various religious (Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i) and tribal communities as well as leaders from different political parties.
The proposed changes to the criminal code went before parliament on 23 June, and were immediately controversial, raising concerns among secular-oriented parties and religious minorities. Parliament began debating the changes last Sunday and will continue for several days.
Under Article 160, anyone inducing a Hindu to convert to another religion could be prosecuted. Just talking about one’s religion to others could be deemed proselytising and be punishable. Conviction could entail fines of up to US$ 700 and five years in jail. If the offender is not Nepali, he or she could be immediately expelled.
Religious leaders and secularists propose instead a minority law and the creation of a religious affairs commission to protect the rights of religious minorities and guarantee everyone’s rights, including that of Hindus, to convert to another religion.
Even though the proposed changes have not yet been approved, many noted that Hindu extremism is already growing inside Nepali institutions. This could offset decades of struggle for democracy and the separation of state and religion.
Amar Dhoj Tamang, a member of the Tamang tribe and vice president of the Tamsaling Party, said that members of this community were recently arrested in Kathmandu for killing a cow for its meat. “For centuries, the Tamang have eaten beef. Eating what we want is our right, but now we are even afraid of looking at cows for fear of arrest,” he explained.
For human rights activist Charan Prasai, Hindu fundamentalist groups want to stir tensions in the population in order to undermine the legitimacy of the secular state. In their view, people should have had the right to decide whether to keep Hinduism as state religion or not when the monarchy fell in 2006. However, in his view “fundamental rights like democracy and the separation of state and religion cannot be approved or cancelled by will of the majority”.
For Maoist Party member Binod Pahadi, unless changes are not made to the draft bill, the country will go back by 50 years. “If the proposal is approved in parliament, meetings such as these will no longer be possible because we will be accused of criticising the Hindu religion,” he said.