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Ram Mandir: Sita's 'Hometown' in Nepal Hopes to Gain as Hindu Nationalism Rises

"Even mainstream parties are competing with each other to cloak themselves in saffron," say political analysts.

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"It is a matter of great pride for us that Lord Ram has finally come home. Like Christians have Vatican City and Muslims have Mecca, Ayodhya is for Hindus. This day has come after a long wait," Mithilesh Jha, a resident of Janakpur, a city roughly 225 km away from Nepal's capital Kathmandu, told The Quint.

As the 'pran pratishtha' ceremony of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya was underway on 22 January, Janaki Temple in Janakpur saw celebrations too.

Considered to be the mythical birthplace of Lord Ram's consort Sita, the temple, which was adorned with garlands and flowers, saw locals turn up in large numbers to commemorate the consecration of the temple, located more than 500 km away in India.

"Even mainstream parties are competing with each other to cloak themselves in saffron," say political analysts.

Diyas were lit in Janakpur on 22 January.

(Photo: Facebook/Beautiful Janakpur Dham)

"Even mainstream parties are competing with each other to cloak themselves in saffron," say political analysts.

Janakpur, which is located roughly 20 km from the Indian border in northern Bihar, is the key site of Ram worship in modern Nepal.

(Photo: Facebook/ Nagendra Sah)

"Even mainstream parties are competing with each other to cloak themselves in saffron," say political analysts.

An aerial view of the Janaki Mandir on 22 January. 

(Photo: Facebook/ Nagendra Sah)

"Even mainstream parties are competing with each other to cloak themselves in saffron," say political analysts.

A rally taken out in Janakpur on 22 January.

(Photo: Facebook/Nagendra Sah)

"We lit 1.25 lakh earthen lamps in Janaki Temple and celebrated Deepawali in the evening," added Jha.

Nepal has been buoyed by the collateral tourism prospects, with the country hoping pilgrims from across the world, who visit Ram’s birthplace, also make a trip to Sita’s birthplace.

In December 2023, Nepal’s Ambassador to India Shankar Prasad Sharma said that the two nations are working to establish a “sister city relationship” between Janakpur and Ayodhya – with Janakpur as an “indispensable part of the Ramayana circuit".

Envisaged by the Narendra Modi-led government in 2014, the Ramayana circuit retraces the life of Lord Ram and includes major pilgrim sites related to the Ramayana, including Janakpur.

Rajendra Lindgen, chairman and spokesperson of Rashtriya Prajatantra Party, a pro-monarchy party, told The Quint, "The Ram Temple signifies a moment of pride for all followers of Sanatan Dharma. There is nothing wrong in wanting to have a haven for Hindus."

"We are hoping that the people who visit Ayodhya will also make a trip to Janakpur. It will boost tourism and the local economy and will be a win-win situation for both the countries."
Rajendra Lindgen, chairman and spokesperson of Rashtriya Prajatantra Party

However, beyond the tourism pitch, many also see another reality linked to the Ram Temple consecration – the rise of Hindu nationalism in Nepal.

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'Janakpur at Heart of Hindu Nationalism'

Chandra Kishore, a political analyst and media commentator, told The Quint, that Janakpur is at the heart of the Hindu nationalism that is enveloping Nepal.

"It sort of catalysed in 2020 when the pandemic broke out. Anti-Muslim conspiracy theories played a large role in Hindutva propaganda in India as well as across the border in Nepal. Right-wing news Indian channels generated exaggerated reports that Muslim men infected with COVID-19 were sent from Pakistan to India by way of Nepal," he explained.

"This narrative originated in Bihar and claimed that a Muslim Nepalese politician was behind the ‘corona-jihad’ stratagem. Consequently, the Nepal-India border was cordoned off," he added.

Islamophobic misinformation generated in India seemingly influenced social media users in Nepal who took similar anti-Muslim stance, he claimed.

In April 2020, during the first wave of the COVID pandemic, several Muslim women in Janakpur were accused of spitting on rupee bills, infecting them, and then leaving them on the ground for others to become infected.

"As a result, Islamophobic posts targeting Muslim Nepali women went viral," Kishore recalled.

However, he added that there is one major distinction between Hindutva politics in India and Nepal.

"Hindutva politics in India is not new. It has a long history that goes back to the Independence struggle against the British. But today, it has become a part of mainstream politics. In Nepal, however, that is not the case. Hindutva as a political ideology is still nascent. Its seeds have been planted on a soil fertilised by democratic decay."

'All Political Parties in Nepal are on Saffron Bandwagon'

Mahesh Kumar Kushwaha, a Nepalese journalist, pointed out in an editorial in a local newspaper that the Ram Temple’s consecration ceremony and its jubilation was particularly pronounced along the southern plains of Nepal.

This is the area where the majority of Madhesis, who are essentially people of Indian origin, reside close to the borders of India's Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Local governments in Nepal's Madhesh province "have gone beyond just acknowledging the event and have made calls for action," the journalist added.

For instance, he wrote, that Birgunj, another city close to the Bihar border, banned animal slaughter and the sale of fish, meat, and eggs on 22 January. Janakpur municipality, too, issued separate notices, requesting people to avoid any sort of animal slaughtering, or consumption of meat, fish, or alcohol, and instead commemorate the day with lights and celebrations.

Kushwaha further said that it is "a fact that a large majority of Nepalese Hindu Madhesi’s loyalty lies with Modi’s Hindu nationalist ideology across the border."

"Emboldened Hindu supremacy across the border is likely to encourage similar aspirations in Nepal, albeit led by right-wing groups. This will further polarise the Nepalese society, where Muslim and other non-Hindu minorities will increasingly be targets of religious extremism and disharmony. Such developments will push the country towards religious conflicts and communal violence. Nepal avoided such incidents in towns across the border only months ago," he stated.

Analyst Chandra Kishore added that in today's Nepal, even mainstream political parties (even the avowed leftist ones) are competing with each other to "cloak themselves in saffron."

"Old, new, democratic, communist, etc, all kinds of parties are on the saffron bandwagon. Even though Nepal was till 2008 was a Hindu monarchy, religion was never overtly the basis for politics in democratic Nepal. But because the political parties post-2006 (the end of the 10-year-long civil war) have failed so badly to address the people’s basic needs, they wave the saffron flag to maintain their base. Every party is competing with each other to be more saffron."
Chandra Kishore

He added that the Ram Temple has just given "momentum to this rising Hindu nationalism" in Nepal.

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'Simmering Religious Tensions Relatively New'

Communal violence was unheard of in Nepal, experts said.

"Religious syncretism is and has always been a hallmark of Nepal. The simmering religious tension is a relatively new phenomenon," Santosh Sharma Poudel, a faculty at the Department of International Relations and Diplomacy, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu and a co-founder of Nepal Institute for Policy Research, told The Quint.

He added, "What else explains the religious syncretism better than the fact that Kumari Devi, a child deity from the Newari community who are Buddhists, is revered by Hindus. But that secular fabric is slowly coming fraying."

On 23 November 2023, a pro-monarchy ‘Hindu Rashtra’ rally took place in Kathmandu. Tens of thousands of protestors descended on the capital and clashed with police.

Earlier, in October 2023, a curfew was imposed in the Nepalese town of Nepalgunj after trouble began when a Hindu boy allegedly posted a status about Muslims on social media.

In September 2023, a curfew was imposed near in Malangwa, situated near the Indian border, following a clash between the Hindu and the Muslim communities during an immersion ceremony on Ganesh Chaturthi. Around a dozen people were injured – and a 24-year-old youth was allegedly stabbed multiple times with a dagger in the violence.

Then, in August 2023, the Nepalese town of Dharan was on the brink of a communal flareup. On 20 August 2023, two locals from Dharan live-streamed a feast where they were allegedly seen eating beef. The feast was to celebrate their release from police custody. They had earlier been arrested for slaughtering a bull. As cow is Nepal's national animal, slaughtering the animal is punishable by law.

The video ignited ethnic tension not just in Dharan, but across the whole of Nepal. Radical Hindu outfits in neighbouring districts of Morang, Jhapa, and Sunsari began to mobilise, organising a save-the-cow rally on 26 August 2023. On social media, the discourse got extreme with threats of violence.

In April 2023, communal tensions surrounding Ram Navami rallies were seen for the first time in Nepal, according to BBC.

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