Nepali artist charged with blasphemy

By Michal Thoma | Journal: Comment | published on 26 September, 2012

As reported elsewhere the acclaimed Nepali painter Manish Harijan's exhitbition titled The Rise of Collateral in Siddhartha Art Gallery (Patan, Nepal) was charged with blasphemy by the group of World Hindu Federation activists. The author and gallerist were even threatened with death. The police, instead of providing protection, padlocked the gallery. More to that, there is actual imminence of legal action against the artist and curator.

Nepal has nearly no record of religious violence and was mostly untouched by the Hindu fundamentalism (aka hindutva) of India. Moreover this country also nominally became secular republic by promulgation of interim constitution in 2007 (before it was a hindu kingdom) . That’s why the attack of bigots and consequent legal action against the exhibition of Manish Harijan's paintings is surprising in some way. The artist’s pictures which depicts hindu gods in western superheroes outfits or Nepali ubiquitous wrathful god Bhairav being overpowered by the Captain America is apparently playful comment on the Western values and ideas penetrating Nepali cultural environment. The parallel makes a lot of sense in country, where the gods are not only subjects of deep devotion but also acts as pop-culture figures.

This was not the way the bigot attackers did understand the Harijan’s work. They took it as mere parody which allegedly hurts their religious feelings. In fact, not too much to be bothered about, it is easy to offend the bigots everywhere in the world. The consequent legal action is much more reason to worry.

Even though officially secular state, Nepal’s still valid civil code, the “Muluki Ain” of 1962, is strongly focused on traditional hindu values and its protection. The Nepal is in a permanent state of transition which got blocked by incompetency and stubbornness of the political parties leaders. It's political limbo and lack of leading ideas, the vague understanding of secularism and free speech among the police and justice staff, which is probably behind the forced closing of the exhibition and imminence of legal action against the artist and organizers.

It is quite sure that majority of Nepali cultural public stands behind the artist and the gallery. It’s only needed to hope, that even the Nepali legal system will favour the spirit of the current transition, instead of outdated legal code. Manish Harijan’s exhibition can become touchstone of the so much anticipated New Nepal, or the another proof, that Nepal is slipping from the path of freedom and democracy.