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Welcome to Sital Niwas, Madame President

Nepal has had an extraordinarily eventful 2015. It has been rocked by catastrophic earthquakes and burdened by a blockade from India, but it has also (finally) passed a new constitution and elected its first female head of state, Bidya Devi Bhandari, who took office in October.

In electing Bhandari as the second president of the post-monarchy democratic period, Nepal joined its South Asian neighbor countries, most of which have or have had female heads of state or heads of government: Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka. Like most of the prominent political women who have led in these other contexts, Bhandari’s political career was early on tied to that of a man in her life – in her case, her husband Madan Bhandari, who was a prominent leader in the moderate communist Unified Marxist–Leninist (UML) party. Bidya Bhandari, however, was a powerful student leader for the UML prior to her marriage, and at the time of her husband’s death in 1993, was the chairperson of the women’s wing of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), meaning that her political career was far less derivative from his success than many other South Asian political women. After her husband’s death, Bhandari took over his parliamentary seat and rose to become a UML central committee member. She eventually became the UML’s vice-chairperson, and is a confidante of Nepal’s current Prime Minister, K.P. Sharma Oli.

In becoming president of Nepal, Bhandari is stepping into a still-evolving role – one which was only created in 2008 and which will be challenged in interesting ways by both her gender and the recent history of the practices she will be asked to perform. While the presidency is procedurally modeled on the British-style parliamentary system, the position in practice has taken over many of the duties – particularly religious duties – once performed by Nepal’s king. In addition to convening parliament, administering oaths of office to the cabinet, and accepting the credentials of new diplomats, the president is also expected to worship Krishna at a particular temple on Krishna Janmastami, receive a private blessing from the Living Goddess Kumari during Indra Jatra, and bless the leadership of the government during Dasai.

President’s building (Shital Niwas) by Krish Dulal. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The majority of the president’s explicitly religious (formerly royal) ritual responsibilities are Hindu, and that might theoretically constrain the identities of the people qualified to perform them. In Hindu contexts, people are not considered to be interchangeable: each person’s social identity (age, gender, caste, marital status, and family relationships) matter for the kinds of religious actions they are expected to perform (or not perform). Men do not have the same dharma (religious duties) as women; widowers do not have the same dharma as husbands; mothers do not have the same dharma as their daughters. Presumably, then, kings do not have the same dharma as presidents, even if an interim and then post-interim government insists on sending a non-king to perform a king’s ritual.

When Nepal made the transition from having a king perform its state-level public ritual to having the interim prime minister and then president perform its state-level public ritual, the change was real and revolutionary. In both the monarchy and post-monarchy periods, however, the core rituals of the Nepali state were performed by middle-aged to elderly high-caste Hindu males. There was no precedent for a president receiving a private blessing from the Living Goddess Kumari during Indra Jatra, but there was nothing in particular in the logic of Hindu ritual practice to prevent it.

When I was conducting my doctoral research between 2008 and 2011 on the transition away from monarchy, and the refiguring of state ritual as part of that transition, it was widely acknowledged that Nepal’s first president was an entirely appropriate candidate to perform all the rituals the king used to. But people from the government and religious leaders wondered, many times, what would happen in the future if the party-based electoral logic of the presidency started to conflict with the gendered, birth-based, familial logic of Hindu ritual. What if a future president was a woman? What if a future president was a low-caste dalit? What if a future president was a non-Hindu, especially a Muslim?

It is time now to find out the answer to the first hypothetical – and hopefully future presidents will continue to push the boundaries of who can represent the nation. For now, given a high-caste Hindu woman in office, the most likely ritual conundrum will likely concern menstrual purity. When Hindu women menstruate, they are barred from participating in rituals, and at 54 it is entirely possible that Bhandari has not yet entered menopause. What would happen if the president began to menstruate on the third day of Indra Jatra, or the seventh day of Dasai?

For conservative Hindus, this consideration might be enough to bar women from taking a ritually-laden leadership role in the first place, but the Nepali state has embraced a far more interesting and challenging approach to its presidency. Indeed, Bhandari’s main opponents in the election were both members of Nepal’s ethnic minorities, meaning that the presidency would have been pushed in new directions regardless of the outcome. What will be interesting to watch in the months and years to come will be whether presidential ritual performances are modified (perhaps even enhanced) around the identities of this and future presidents, and to continue to analyze what the shifting public performances of the state mean for imagining the Nepali nation.

Featured image credit: Nepal Himalayan Adventure 2012 by Ayesha Shafi from Frontierofficial. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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