Agents of Other States: Contesting Secularism and Negating Agency in Nepal
Substantively, the debates about secularism in Nepal are over the proper place and role of religion in a modern, heterogeneous nation-state. The manner in which these debates take place, however, reveals much about how democracy can be made to operate and how particular democratic ideals are constructed. In this paper, I examine how political agency is conceived of, employed, and negated in the secularism debates.
Political agency is a concept and concern central to the work of sociologists interested in how states function. Most studies are concerned with agency from one of two directions: topdown and bottom-up. The top-down approach focuses on how states or other corporate bodies facilitate or suppress the agency of individuals and groups. The bottom-up approach focuses on how individuals and groups express or self-suppress their agencies vis-à-vis the state or organized body of which they are a part. Many studies employ both approaches in order to understand the reciprocal relationships between the two directions of agency and power.
An under-studied aspect, however, is how agency functions and circulates at the middle level, between individuals and groups. This middle ground is critical to democratic settings, as this is the space in which democratic deliberation occurs. I focus here on one aspect of agency at this middle level: the manner in which agents discursively negate or deny the agency of their opponents by claiming that their opponents are under the control or manipulation of exogenous forces. Although this tactic is effective in mobilizing supporters, it undermines the democratic ideal of public debate amongst political equals. The use of this tactic is widespread in even the most stable democracies. It is, however, particularly problematic for the long-term prospects of secularism, which requires a far greater degree of empathy than is commonly acknowledged.
While there are many layers to the debates over secularism in Nepal, I focus in this paper on the issue of the constitutional definition of Nepal as a secular state. An argument often used by both those in favor of defining the state as secular and those in favor of defining the state as Hindu is that their opponents are under the sway of foreign powers. Hindu nationalists are portrayed as the vicarious carriers of Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aspirations. Supporters of a secular state, meanwhile, are cast as the puppets of either Western embassies or Christian missionaries, or both. Either way, the implication is that the opposition does not need to be taken seriously, because the agents do not actually speak for themselves. As a result, both camps effectively absolve themselves of any responsibility to compromise. Regardless of the ultimate decision on the constitutional definition of the state, the establishment of this type of norm suggests a dangerous precedent for the future of democratic debate regarding religion and politics in Nepal.