Unholy row in Nepal over secular budget (Lead)

September 20th, 2008 - 5:27 pm ICT by IANS  

Kathmandu, Sep 20 (IANS) Violence erupted in Basantapur Durbar Square, the heart of Kathmandu city and a prime tourist draw where the palace of living goddess Kumari is located, Saturday as local youths went on the warpath protesting the lack of state funds for ritual sacrifices during Hindu festivals.The area resembled a battlefield from early morning as hundreds of local youths went on the rampage, smashing down metal road dividers, kicking down billboards and setting them on fire and raising angry slogans against the new Maoist-led government.

The lines of shops on the roads remained shut and traffic vanished as tension simmered in the area despite its proximity to two major police stations.

The public anger of a nation once deeply religious and still unable to come to terms with its new-won secularism, was triggered by the ambitious budget unveiled by Maoist Finance Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai Friday that made no allowances for Hindu festivals.

The NRs.236 billion budget focused on education, health and building roads, and discontinued the traditional state largesse given for buying and sacrificing animals during Hindu festivals.

On Saturdays, earmarked as the official weekend in Nepal, eager tourists as well as locals throng the Basantapur Durbar Square.

A Unesco-declared world cultural heritage site, the square boasts of the old palace of the deposed Shah kings where once an infamous massacre took place on the orders of a promiscuous queen, and the palace of the Kumari, Nepal’s living goddess, where hundreds flock to worship or simply get a glimpse of the mystic pre-puberty girl believed to have divine powers.

Saturday also marked the end of Indrajatra, the festival of the rain god, a major tradition for an agrarian nation.

Traditionally, the festival ends with the Kumari being taken around the capital in her chariot and the offering of animal and bird sacrifices.

However, this time the lack of state funds enraged the locals, who began protesting violently at the “state interference” in religion and a tradition that goes back to centuries.

The anger is likely to grow next month when Nepal celebrates its biggest Hindu festival Dashain, which corresponds to neighbour India’s Dussera.

Thousands of animals and birds are slaughtered at various Hindu temples throughout October and November as part of the rituals.

The Nepal Army and police subscribe to the practice and last year, the government sanctioned NRS.1.8 million for Dashain sacrifices alone and an additional NRS.3.2 million on other rituals.

However, animal rights activists, who have been condemning the sacrifices, would welcome the new state measure.

Once the world’s only Hindu kingdom, where its kings were revered as incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, Nepal became secular after a pro-democracy movement two years ago that also saw the abolition of its 239-year-old monarchy.

But the new government has still not been able to shake off all old religious traditions.

Nepal’s first president Dr Ram Baran Yadav has been drawing flak for attending all Hindu festivals in place of deposed king Gyanendra, who observed all religious festivals and was known to offer animal sacrifices both at home and during his visit to India’s famed temples.

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