The May 18 declaration by Nepal's parliament ending the country's distinction as the world's only Hindu state was one of the several hard decisions taken by the new government to coax Maoist rebels to join in a peaceful political process. But the move has bred new conflict with the country's Hindu majority.
Hindu groups in Nepal - which have strong backing from powerful Hindu fundamentalist organizations in neighboring India - have termed the declaration of a secular Nepal as "defamatory" and "dangerous," and have said that it could provoke a "religious crusade" in this tiny Himalayan nation.
Following the announcement, Hindu groups organized rallies in at least four districts here, and forced the southern industrial town of Birgunj to close for two days last week. Hindu holy men in saffron gowns have been taking to the streets in the capital, Kathmandu, and other cities demanding the reversal of the declaration. Hindu leaders warn that this is just the beginning of what would be a nationwide campaign in the country, which is 80 percent Hindu.
"How can a 250-member parliament decide on something as serious as this? A referendum would have been the best way to go about it," says Diwakar Chand, general secretary of the World Hindu Federation (WHF), UN-registered umbrella body of Hindu groups around the world.
There may not be a better example of the importance Hindu groups around the world - especially in India - lay on Nepal than the fact that the WHF is customarily headed by an individual recommended by the King of Nepal. The country's kings are believed to be the incarnations of Vishnu - one of the top three gods in the extremely populous Hindu pantheon that theoretically has 330 million gods. Currently, the federation is headed by Bharat Keshari Singh, a top aide of King Gyanendra.
Rajnath Singh, president of India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told a Nepali delegation in India last week that Nepal ought to remain a Hindu state. "The BJP would not appreciate a situation where Nepal loses its true identity and buckles under Maoist pressure," he told the delegation, according to a report carried by the Indian daily, The Hindu.
The biggest worry for Hindu groups is whether the sanctity of cows will be protected in a secular Nepal. Cow-slaughter is illegal. Hindus worship cows as incarnations of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and the better half of Vishnu. The cow is also the national animal of Nepal.
Hari Bhakta Neupane, president of Sanatan Dharma Sewa Samiti, the oldest Hindu group in Nepal, says that if people begin slaughtering cows in secular Nepal, communal riots are inevitable.
"Imagine a day when people slaughter cows in front of Kathmandu's temples. Hindus will be ready to give up their lives to stop it," he warns. Expressing worries also over the possibility of a conversion drive by people of other faiths, Neupane added that the campaign to have Nepal remain a Hindu state will soon reach each of the country's 75 districts to prevent all these "unpleasant eventualities."
While Hindus have strong reservations, Buddhist groups representing 12 percent of the population in Nepal, as well as Muslim, Kirat, Jain, Christian, and other minority groups, have welcomed the declaration. But those who have been most vocal in welcoming the move are the ethnic minorities.
"Hinduism lies at the root of racial discrimination in Nepal for the last 238 years of dynastic rule," argues Krishna Bhattachan, an anthropologist who leads a movement of ethnic minorities in Nepal. "One state religion has meant the dominance of one culture, one caste, and one language."
According to the Nepalese government's Central Bureau of Statistics, there are over 103 castes and ethnicities, at least 92 different languages, and over 10 different religions in Nepal.
Traditionally, people from the top two castes in the Hindu hierarchy - Brahmins and Chhetriyas - have shared power with the king. Even when Nepal exercised limited democracy for 12 years after 1990, most of the elected prime ministers were Brahmins. The parliament as well as the bureaucracy has an overwhelming majority of Brahmins and Chhetriyas.
While neutral observers say the parliament should not have invited trouble by dividing Nepal over religious, caste, and ethnic lines at such fluid times, leaving this question for the constituent assembly to decide when it drafts a new constitution, political leaders see the move as essential in addressing many of the causes of conflict.
An overwhelming majority of Maoist rebels, who have waged a violent war for the past 10 years, belong to ethnic minorities with almost no representation in the state's decisionmaking bodies.
"The declaration has given the minorities a feeling of ownership of the state," says Raghu Ji Pant, parliamentarian and senior leader of Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist, the biggest party in the alliance of seven democratic parties. "The declaration has also ended the Hindu hegemony which legitimized the rule of autocratic Vishnu incarnations in the country," he adds.
While observers warn that the democratic parties might lose their votes to new parties that could come up with Hindu fundamentalist agendas in future elections, Mr. Pant insists that the parties have not antagonized the Hindu population of the country. "Never have the Nepalese people voted on the basis of their religious faiths. For them, political beliefs are supreme when it comes to casting votes."