Kathmandu: Scores of demonstrators flocked to the holiest Hindu shrine of Pashupatinath on Monday to protest against the newly enforced ban on burying non-Hindus on the temple`s forested land even as the former Hindu kingdom`s culture minister warned the state would take tough steps to uphold the ban.
"Today`s protest is just a symbolic one," said Yograj Wanem, general secretary of Kirat Yakthung Chumling, one of the organisers of the protests that started from Saturday after police prevented two burials on the forested land belonging to the 17th century Hindu temple.
"We are meeting Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal later during the day. If he fails to address our grievance, we will have to resort to stronger measures."
The Pashupatinath area remained tense on Sunday night, for the second day in a row, as riot police held back protesters after preventing the family of Jasram Rai from burying his body in the Shleshmantak forest, skirting the temple.
Rai, 40, died of blood cancer on Saturday and when his grieving relatives took the body to the forest early Sunday morning for burial, they were turned away on the ground that the temple and its land belonged to Hindus only.
Rai belonged to the Kirat community, a mighty hunter tribe that migrated to Nepal from Tibet and ruled the country for over 1,000 years under 29 kings.
Mentioned in the Ramayan and Mahabharat, Kirats are traditionally animists who bury their dead.
However, Nepal, which had been a Hindu state till 2006, has no burial sites for most non-Hindu communities.
The forested land is open for burial only to Dashnamis, a Hindu sect with 10 subdivisions.
But since Christians and Kirats were not allotted a burial site of their own, they had been burying their dead clandestinely in the forest.
"It is ironical that during the repressive regimes of Hindu kings, these burials were allowed on humanitarian grounds but not now, when Nepal is a democratic secular republic," said Kapil Shrestha, a noted human rights activist who is supporting the call by Christians and Kirats for their own graveyard site.
"What are these people to do then? Feed the dead bodies to animals?"
On Saturday too, police had stopped another Kirat family from conducting a burial in the forest.
Christians, on their part, say they suffered at least three such interruptions in less than one month.
Since December, the Pashupati Area Development Trust that administers the temple began bulldozing the non-Hindu graves in the forest, saying their presence hurt the belief of billions of Hindus worldwide.
The chief of the trust, Culture Minister Minendra Rijal, has warned protesters that the ban will be enforced strictly and the state will take tough action against people trying to defy it. Christians, who have counter-warned they would dump their dead in front of the Prime Minister`s office, have begun seeking support from the 28 parliamentary parties for their own burial site.
They have identified a forest tract in Duwakot in Kathmandu while Kirats say they are seeking a plot in Muldol in Lalitpur.
Both communities are also urging the government to halt the demolition drive and lift the ban till they are given an alternative site.
The burial protests are bound to affect Nepal`s image before the international community. At the rights review session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this month, some of Nepal`s major western donors pointed out that religious freedom is still restricted in Nepal though it became secular in 2006.