Role of Religion in Peace-building and Development in Nepal

Keynote Speech by Kul Chandra Gautam

at Symposium Inter-religious Coexistence, Peace and Development in Nepal

Kathmandu, 17 June 2013

I commend the organizers of this important symposium, Religions for Peace, Nepal; the Winchester University’s Centre of Religions for Reconciliation and Peace, UK, and Tribhuwan University’s Department of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies, for bringing us together for a consultation on “Religious Coexistence, Peace and Development in Nepal”.

All these organizations have an impressive track record of promoting inter-religious dialogue and contributing to peace-building and reconciliation in Nepal and elsewhere in the world.

So, we very much hope and count on this symposium to come up with some creative ideas to harness the potential of Nepal’s rich and diverse cultural and religious heritage for lasting peace and prosperity of this country.

I recall South Africa’s Anglican Bishop and a great peace activist Desmond Tutu comparing religion to fire. Fire can be used to light a candle in darkness and to cook meals to feed the hungry. But it can also be used to burn your neighbour’s house and cause mayhem.

It is the duty of enlightened religious leaders and scholars, like those of us present here, to distill and disseminate those religious teachings that encourage people to light the candle, not to burn your neighbour’s house.

In a world so full of religious intolerance and extremism, often stoked by communal, sectarian and political demagogues, let us not assume that religion is automatically a force for the good.

From the vast and diverse reservoir of religious scriptures, people of goodwill and wisdom need to help distill and disseminate those religious teachings that both reflect the original noble intentions of all religions and that are likely to foster the kind of progressive transformation of society that we all aspire to.

All religions of the world, at their core, teach love, peace, solidarity and compassion as their primary teachings. They seek to foster responsibility enabling children and young people to live with hope. They inspire the elderly to forsake worldly temptations and live a virtuous life.

And yet, we know that in the name of religion, many wrongs are committed, injustice justified, indifference to the plight of women and children accepted, harmful traditional practices perpetuated, and intolerance and even hatred inculcated in the minds and hearts of the believers.

Learned religious scholars and leaders tell us that it is not religion but superstition in the name of religion that is responsible for these negative practices.

We are told that certain harmful and discriminatory cultural practices that we find in all societies, are the product of unique circumstances in the history of those societies that may have had a good rationale at some point but are wrongly applied today.

By definition, most religious teachings are of divine origin, of eternal relevance and of timeless value.

Yet, because most religions have been around for thousands of years, and have evolved in many different social and cultural settings, it is understandable that many local practices have emerged that maybe at variance with the original teachings found in the scriptures.

And because the original scriptures were promulgated or revealed in a social setting that was very different from today’s world, their teachings may need to be understood and interpreted in some novel ways.

We find many contradictions in religious beliefs and teachings. It is not uncommon to find the same holy book, and even the same prophet, preaching different values at different times and in different contexts.

“Spare the rod, and spoil the child” says, one verse from the Bible, which at other places teaches us the opposite.

Ancient Hindu holy books are full of such contradictory remarks.

“Yatra naryastu pujyante, ramante tatra devata”, says one ancient Hindu verse – “Gods rejoice wherever women are revered”. But we also find another verse that justifies subjugation of women in the name of ‘protecting’ them.

“…na stri swatantrya marhati” it says: “A woman does not need or deserve freedom or independence, because as a daughter, she is protected by her father; as a wife, she is protected by her husband; and as a mother she is protected by her son”. Why does a woman need independence?

Or, take the infamous caste system. Many enlightened Hindu theologians argue that in the original and authentic Hinduism, the caste-system was not supposed to be hereditary, or hierarchical, or discriminatory, but just a division of labour.

One line of argument says “Janmanat jayate sudram, sanskarat dwija uchchyate” (or, we are all born as ‘sudra’, but through our deeds we become ‘brahmans’).

Yet, the caste system has degenerated into one of the most entrenched, hierarchical and discriminatory systems ever devised by mankind.

I can tell you that one can find such contradictions in all religions – bar none – if not in scriptures, certainly in practice.

That is why we have had so many holy wars, jihads and crusades in the name of religion.

The origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Irish civil war, the Shia-Sunni conflicts in the Middle-east today, and even the Second World War can be traced to religious intolerance.

We think that Buddhism is among the most peaceful and tolerant religions. Yet, we have seen recently the sad events in Burma and Sri Lanka where Buddhist monks were involved in inciting or condoning violence.

That is why it is important not just to study what the holy scriptures and great prophets say, but how their message is understood and conveyed by your local neighbourhood priests or these days, by your modern televangelists preachers.

For most ordinary people, what matters, and guides their daily life, is not what the holy scriptures say as understood by learned scholars, but what your neighbourhood folk priest tells you every day.

If your local priest agrees to perform religious rites to marry off your 12 year-old daughter to a man twice her age, that is the accepted religion in practice.

If your local priest encourages or condones the giving and receiving of dowry, that becomes a religiously sanctioned practice.

If your local priest tells you that the way you have been practicing your religion is the only correct way, and the practitioners of all other faiths and sects are pagans and infidels, that becomes your accepted religious norm.

So, part of our difficult job at this symposium is to strategize how best we can invoke the most enlightened teachings in all of our religions to contribute to building peace and prosperity in this country – Nepal.

Since we are here representing many religions and denominations, I have one request to all of us. Please do not say or imply: “Oh my religion is alright; it is the other person’s religion that is the source of trouble”.

It is very easy and tempting to be self-righteous, and point fingers at others. But in my long career at the United Nations, having lived in many countries following different religions all over the world, I can tell you with all humility but with total conviction, that all the world’s religions – bar none – have their pluses and minuses.

There is an old saying that it takes a diamond to cut diamond. So, the best way to remedy some of the evils that are perpetrated in the name of religion, is to invoke the enlightened elements of the same religion.

In the spirit of constructive partnership, and inter-faith collaboration, we can all help each other. But I would caution against any tendency by followers of any one religion to say or imply that to overcome some social problems people need to change their religion.

Nepal is now a secular state, and there is full freedom of religion. People are free to voluntarily choose any religion according to their conscience and conviction.

I am a strong supporter of secularism in the sense of separation of state and religion. But secularism should not be misunderstood as a license for conversion.

It is especially unethical to use any financial or material temptations to entice people to change their religion. Nor should there be any discriminatory practices among followers of different religions when faith-based NGOs provide basic social services in various communities.

I consider myself an open-minded agnostic, and no longer a follower of any one particular religion, but an admirer of many.

I am deeply convinced that there is enormous potential for harnessing the power of religion for the good of humanity in all countries, including Nepal.

In my work with UNICEF for the well-being of children, some of our greatest achievements were the result of our partnership with faith-based organizations.

In the 1980s, we were able to raise child immunization rates from 20 percent to 80 percent in many countries of Latin America, thanks to a very productive partnership with the huge network of Catholic Church which reached many communities where the normal government health services could not reach.

Working together, UNICEF and the Catholic Church were even able to organize a cease-fire, stop the war and implemented many “Days of Tranquility” to immunize children in El Salvador.

We collaborated with the Grand-sheikh of Al Azhar in Egypt to get him to issue a fatwa that said female genital mutilation was not a sanctioned or required practice in Islam.

Another fatwa he issued helped us resume polio eradication activities in Nigeria which had been disrupted by local Muslim imams.

In Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and elsewhere we worked with the Buddhist monks and nuns for the prevention of HIV/AIDS and compassionate care of those suffering from AIDS.

The Ramakrishna Mission in India runs a huge network of schools and colleges providing quality education to children from deprived communities, including children with disabilities.

With the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), we prepared a wonderful ethics education manual which provides inspirational guidance for “Learning to Live Together”, and learn together.

It contains specific modules teaching children who live in multi-faith, multi-cultural societies about the importance of solidarity for combating poverty, promoting human rights, protecting the environment, and collaborating for a just and peaceful world.

I have the honour to Chair an initiative of the Arigatou International called a “World Day of Prayer and Action for Children” that campaigns to prevent violence against children.

And I serve as an International Trustee of Religions for Peace, perhaps the largest global inter-faith organization comprising senior religious leaders of all major faiths of the world.

The work we do to promote peace through inter-faith dialogue in many countries in conflict helps establish or re-establish inter-religious harmony – a very important ingredient of peace-building in many countries.

Based on these and many other experiences, I am convinced that in Nepal too religious organizations and leaders can do much to promote peace and development.

Indeed, I see quite a few religious leaders here in the audience who have tried to do precisely that during the period of our intense conflict and afterwards, with some limited success.

My reading of the Nepalese situation tells me that for the time-being, any effort to persuade this country’s top political leadership are generally doomed to fail.

Advice from many well-wishers – from the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Jimmy Carter, from the Norwegian Ministers to respected Nepalese civil society stalwarts – have generally fallen on deaf ears.

Currently, I do not see any religious leaders in Nepal or elsewhere who would command the kind of respect that is needed to have real impact among Nepal’s top political leaders.

So let us not waste our time advocating to them.

And I would also say let us not waste our time offering unsolicited advice on matters concerning the drafting of the Constitution or the election process. Part of the reason for it is that I doubt there would be a clear consensus on these issues even among various religious leaders of Nepal.

However, I believe there is considerable scope for religious leaders to have positive impact at community level peace-building and social change.

One issue on which there is great potential for religious leaders is to campaign against violence.

Thankfully, the armed civil conflict has ended in Nepal, but durable peace has not dawned yet.

This holy land gave birth to Lord Gautam Buddha, the Prince of Peace, who renounced his Kingdom to spread the message of peace to the whole world. But today this country is experiencing an orgy of violence, lawlessness, impunity and insecurity.

Whether it is to settle minor local disputes, or partisan issues blown out of proportion, or even genuine grievances that require thoughtful debate, the first and instinctive recourse of our political party-affiliated trade unions is often to call for Nepal bandh or regional bandhs – a general strike involving shut-down of public transport, closure of schools, disrupting public services, instilling a sense of fear, and inconveniencing innocent people, as we experienced yesterday, disrupting our symposium.

As we head for new elections, this is likely to be a real nuisance for ordinary people.

In a democracy, people have the right to protest, engage in collective bargaining, and press their demands peacefully. But generalized bandhs, indiscriminate closure of schools, public services and businesses that inconvenience innocent people, who are not party to any conflict or dispute, are a blatant violation of citizens’ human rights.

If religious leaders of Nepal were to unite and systematically oppose any such generalized bandhs that prevent children from going to school, patients from going to hospitals, innocent passengers from traveling in public transport, labourers from earning a living, shop-keepers from opening their stores and depriving ordinary citizens from buying and selling essential commodities – I am sure there would be a wave of public support and praise for such initiative.

We know most such bandhs have no public support at all, but people feel intimidated even by small bands of hooligans and passively comply with their fiat.

There has been a move in this country to declare schools, health centres and places of worship as zones of peace. But we have not seen religious leaders showing any organized solidarity for such zones of peace proposals.

We would be doing God’s work and getting the blessings of millions of people if we led such courageous act of non-violent resistance.

Let me suggest that one resolution coming out of this symposium should be that religious leaders of all faith in this country will actively but peacefully oppose any and all calls for generalized Nepal bandh regardless who calls such bandh.

We must acknowledge that ‘structural violence’ of poverty, inequality, exclusion and marginalization has long persisted in Nepal.

As religious leaders, we must fight to end the deep-rooted structural violence in our society, and show solidarity with whoever leads such efforts.

But that does not justify intimidation, extortion and indiscriminate physical violence or threat of violence, because two wrongs do not make a right.

A semblance of justice achieved through unjust means, is not real justice but only a temporary revenge.

Human history shows us that justice pursued through violent means, rarely helps build a just and peaceful society. On the contrary, it often sows the seeds of hatred, distrust and revenge afterwards.

And all of us, people faith and goodwill, seeking social justice, political freedoms and economic progress must reject a culture of violence as an acceptable means for achieving any worthy goals.

Most importantly, we must inculcate in the minds and hearts of our children and youth the values of non-violence and peaceful pursuit of all worthy goals.

At the United Nations, there is a common saying that peace and development are two sides of the same coin. To sustain peace, we must help liberate people from the tyranny of poverty and powerlessness.

So all the good work we do to alleviate poverty – whether through health or education programmes, sanitation or nutrition, employment creation or women’s empowerment – is a sacred enterprise for peace as well as development.

The importance of this message was conveyed to me in a very poignant manner by a respected religious leader in Haiti.

I served as UNICEF Representative in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, in the 1980s. There I befriended an enlightened archbishop of Cap Haitien, Monseigneur Francois Gayot, who once told me that he had commissioned an opinion poll asking an identical question to both his parish priests and to the general public.

The question was this: what did they think was the main mission of the Church and the priests in their community?

The answers could not have been more contrasting.

The priests responded that the main mission of the Church was to inspire and provide religious guidance to the parishioners and to bring them the word of God.

The ordinary people, on the other hand, said that the mission of their church and priests was to help people understand and fight against poverty, inequality and oppression.

As we can see, all too often the priests and the people look at the world, and the role of religion, in very different ways.

We need to bridge this gap, and make religious leaders more responsive to the people’s views and needs, even as they try to inculcate certain moral, ethical and spiritual values among the people.

And just as priests try to bring to the people the message of God, so should they be prepared to learn from ordinary people’s folk wisdom, and bring to their religious leaders the heart-felt messages of ordinary people.

In addition to fostering peace and development, a third area I would recommend for religious leaders in Nepal to focus on, would be to tackle those problems that religions themselves have created or condoned, or which many ordinary people mistakenly think are sanctioned by their religion.

I mentioned the example of child marriage. Many parents think that it is for the good of their own child. After all, no parent wants to harm their own child knowingly.

Governments can pass laws and impose penalties against parents who engage in child marriage. But that alone will not solve the problem in a country where the rule of law is very weak.

It is usually the local priest who officiates the wedding. It seems to me, that we the religious leaders have a special responsibility to educate and dissuade the local priests from ever participating in child marriage.

It is not enough that we say in seminars in Kathmandu that our religion does not justify child marriage.

May I suggest that all religious leaders represented here, especially from the Hindu and Muslim communities, and their organizations and networks, initiate a campaign against child marriage, institute a monitoring system to ensure this practice is really discouraged and discontinued within the next two to three years?

I see here some representatives of the donor community who, I know, want to see progress in this area. I would hope they would be willing to support a campaign led by religious organizations, as efforts by Government alone cannot succeed in bringing about behavioural change in areas involving centuries old traditions sanctioned by people’s faith.

Similarly, we need the proactive leadership of religious leaders, including local priests and pundits, to eliminate other forms of discrimination against women, Dalits and other oppressed groups in our society.

I would like to make one special appeal to religious leaders from the Christian and other evangelical faiths in which proselytizing and conversion is considered common or even a missionary duty.

Please be careful and prudent.

As I said, I am personally a strong supporter of the separation of state and religion, and as such of secularism and freedom of religion. But I find it sad to see that in the highly polarized and divisive political atmosphere of Nepal, even matters concerning people’s faith are becoming controversial.

Rightly or wrongly, I sense that there is a growing perception in this country that secularism is being misinterpreted as license to proselytize and evangelize, even using financial and other incentives to convince poor people to abandon their old faith and join new ones.

I find this deeply unethical and objectionable.

Freedom of religion is a basic human right, but with that right comes the responsibility of respecting all religions and not denigrating any. It is our collective responsibility to make sure that secularism does not get a bad name and become a cause of religious intolerance and strife.

With all the other problems this country already has, we do not need to add any more new problems.

Remember what those ordinary poor Haitian people said, help us fight against poverty, injustice and oppression. God will love you and bless you for that, even if you don’t convert a single person to your faith.

If we have to convert, let us all work together to convert all Nepalis into peace-loving, hard-working, law-abiding citizens, inspired by such values as karuna, metta, ahimsa – (compassion, loving-kindness and non-violence) propagated by the greatest religious leader who was born in this holy land – Gautam Buddha – and similar teachings of the great prophets of other faiths in the world – combined with the modern world’s shared values of democracy, development, equity and social justice.

Thank you.