Samari Utthan Sewa (SUS) is a nonprofit community development organization founded by a group of youths from the Dalit community. Since its inception in 2008, it has been working for ensuring the rights of Dalits and other minority groups based on caste, gender, sexuality, and religion or belief (FoRB). Due to Its prior experiences regarding sustainable community development, knowledge production, advocacy, and result-based management, it stands as a leading civil society actor in Nepal. So far, it has contributed to the socio-economic upliftment of 4,000 households of Dalit, Chepang, and Santhal tribals associated with 250 Self-help groups, 6 agriculture cooperatives, and 6 community-based organizations.
Unlike most other countries in South Asia, Nepal was never colonized and was a sovereign Hindu monarchy for 240 years, from 1768 to 2008. Hinduism has had a strong influence on Nepal since the 18th century. The constitution of 1962 officially defined the state as Hindu nation. When the People’s Movement overthrew the Panchayat regime in 1990, this allowed for the rise of ethnic-based political identities and the adoption of democratic reforms. In this context, the people led a movement of 1990 demanded for the abolishing of the status of Hindu state and declare the country secular as a way of achieving a multicultural, inclusive, democratic society.
Although the 1990’s constitution officially recognized religious minorities, it failed to abolish the country status as Hindu nation. Though the secularizing campaign failed to achieve all of its objectives, it publicized grievances regarding religious equality and respect for religious minorities and has ultimately helped to shape the relationship between religion and government in Nepal in positive ways. Since then, Nepal’s minority populations have appeared more prominently on the public stage, demanding constitutional guarantee of ethno-religious freedom and secularism.
Nepali citizens have openly criticized state’s engagement in maintaining social and economic inequalities favoring high-caste Hindus. The end of a 10-year civil war between Hindu royalists and Maoist rebels brought further reforms, and the country has been a federal and secular republic since 2007. The constitution, adopted in September 2015, upholds the country’s federal and secular identity. Nevertheless, secularism is formally and counter-intuitively defined as an imperative to protect Nepal’s ancient and native (Sanatana) religious traditions – especially related to Hinduism – in addition to religious and cultural freedom. While the constitution guarantees the right to profess and practice one’s religion, It also expressly prohibits converting people from one religion to another and bans religious behavior that disturbs public order or is contrary to public health, decency, and morality.
In a more positive development, in late 2007, the Nepali government declared a number of Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Madhesi, Tharu, and Kirat festivals as national holidays. The Nepali calendar had hitherto recognized only Hindu festivals as such. Confusingly and ambivalently, however, in spring 2016 the government removed Christmas from the list of national holidays, but then, on December 24th, restored its status as a national holiday, and it remains on the official list of national holidays today.
Nepali social structures are still, in many ways, based on and guided by the traditional values, norms, customs, and rituals of the Hindu religion. The overwhelming majority of people in Nepal profess Hinduism, and the constitution of Nepal in no way separates religion and state; and indeed, as noted above, defines secularism in a way that obligates the state to protect the country’s “immemorial” and indigenous religions. In recent days, many incidents have been reported involving violence and discrimination against the country’s religious minorities, particularly Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindu Dalits.
The Asia Religious and Ethnic Freedom (REF) project is an associate award under the USAID-funded Human Rights Support Mechanism (HRSM), supports efforts by local partners to expand freedom of religion and conscience in Asia and builds the capacity of local community partners to lead efforts for REF within their countries. The Asia REF learning team, led by Search for Common Ground (Search) in collaboration with Samari Utthan Sewa (SUS) has conducted a series of workshops and FGDs for local actors to understand local perspectives toward REF and identify their capacity-strengthening needs in internationally funded projects in Nepal.
In order to determine how local actors/final beneficiaries/right holders define “success”, “peace”, and “Ethno-religious freedom”, a day-long workshop with NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) two Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) was conducted using the Grounded Accountability Model (GAM) for identifying capacity-strengthening needs of civil society organizations, and generating localized indicators of peace and social harmony/freedom for ethnic/caste freedoms, peace, justice, and resilience. The activity has been financed by Search for Common Ground. The activity was carried out in the month of September 2023.
FGD with minority and majority groups: Altogether two FGDs represented by minorities and majority ethno-religious groups representing 7 provinces of Nepal was conducted. Altogether 18 individuals from 8 religious minority groups participated in the FGD with religious minorities groups, where 35 percent were Christian, 18 percent were from Buddhist, 12 percent were Islam, 12 percent were from low caste Hindus and 6 percent were respectively from Bon, Jain, Shikh and Kirat religious community. Likewise, a total of 53 percent of participants were Female and 6 percent were from LGBTIQA+ communities. Overall, the participants from minority groups co-created over 52 everyday indicators of religious freedom. Top 20 positive and negative localized indicators, co-generated, voted and selected from the FGD.
Similarly, a FGD was conducted with majority ethno-religious group. Altogether, 19 individuals from the majority Hindu religious group have participated in the FGD, where 11 percent of participants were from the Tribal community, 11 percent were from Madhesi Dalit, 26 percent were from hill Dalit, 21 percent receptively were from Hill Brahmin and Ethnic community and 5 percent were respectively from Madeshi Brahmin and Madhesi OBC communities. Altogether 42 percent of participants were Female including survivors of caste-based discrimination and gender-based violence. Overall, the participants from the majority groups co-created over 83 everyday indicators of religious freedom. Top 20 positive and negative localized indicators, co-generated, voted and selected from the FGD. As per the field situation, both FGD were conducted separately.
Consultation workshop: A Day-long consultation workshop was conducted with NGOs/CSOs representatives working on FoRB and caste issues in Nepal. The workshop intended to understand local perspectives toward Religious and Ethnic Freedom and identify capacity-strengthening needs of civil society organizations for generating localized indicators of peace, social harmony, and freedom. Altogether 22 representatives from diverse organizations e.g., CSOs, academia, legal service providers, and journalists participated in the consultation workshop. Altogether 36 percent of participants were female and 64 percent were male. Overall, the participants co-created over 53 everyday indicators of religious freedom. Top 20 positive and negative localized indicators, co-generated, voted and selected from the workshop.
 Since 2017, SUS has been actively working as a country secretariat and member organization of the South Asian Forum for Religious Freedom or Belief (SAFFoRB) through local to global advocacy, research and dialogues.
 Lauren Leve, “’Secularism is a Human Right!’: Double-Binds of Buddhism, Democracy, and Identity in Ne-pal,” in The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local, eds. Mark Goodale and Sally Merry (Cambridge: University Press, 2017), pp. 78-113.
 Chiara Letizia, “Shaping Secularism in Nepal,” European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, no. 39 (2011): 66-104, https://www.academia.edu/1875996/Shaping_secularism_in_Nepal.
 After declaring Nepal, a federal republic that is “independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive, democratic, and socialism-oriented,” the Constitution goes on to explain that “for the purposes of this Article, ‘secular’ means religious, cultural freedoms, including protection of religion, culture handed down from the time immemorial.” Such protection, which clearly favors Hinduism over other religions and appears to contradict the principle of equal freedom and citizenship for all Nepalis regardless of their religious beliefs or belonging, is a matter of concern.
 Article 26, Constitution of Nepal, as cited in Nepal Gazette (February 28, 2016), http://www.Constitutionnet.org/sites/default/files/2017-07/Constitution-of-Nepal-_English_-with first amendment_2_0.pdf.
 “Government Announces Holiday on Christmas,” The Kathmandu Post (2016), http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2016-12-24/govt-announces-holidayon-christmas.html.
 United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Nepal International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, May 29, 2018.