MUSLIMS of NEPAL: Becoming an assertive minority
MUSLIMS of NEPAL: Becoming an assertive minority
By R. Upadhyay
Hindu Monarchy with Hinduism as State religion ruled Nepal for centuries. The system of governance was also based on Hindu scriptures. As Buddhism was accepted as a part of Hindu society, the followers of this religion had no problem in the kingdom. But Muslims, the third religious group in the kingdom was allowed to practice their faith under certain restrictions. They were debarred from propagation of Islam or to follow the Islamic code Shariat in respect of dissolution of marriage by oral pronouncement of the word ‘Talaq’ thrice. In case of inheritance also they were to follow the Hindu-scriptures based code of Nepal. Any violation of Hindu scriptures based Nepal Code was a punishable offence. The situation therefore, was not congenial for the Islamic community to settle there. Even during Muslim rule in India Muslim migration to this country was insignificant. Perhaps strict implementation of Hindu scriptures based code was the main reason behind the indifference of the community towards settling in Nepal. In spite of such restrictions, it is unusual for the Muslims to become a significant third religious group in this Hindu kingdom.
The study of the religion-political sociology of the Muslims of South Asia has been the hot subject for historians for over last two decades but its scope in the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal is found to be proportionately minimal. Historically, it is difficult to come to any definite conclusion on the issue of migration but some reports suggest that Bakhtiyalr Khilji invaded Tibet in 13th century and some of its soldiers sneaked into Nepal. Another report says that first arrival of Muslims in Kathmandu valley was in late fifteenth and early sixteenth century during the reign of Ratna Malla, when Kashmiri traders from Tibet came here via Tibet for their trade in carpets, rugs and woolen garments. Soon after them some bangle sellers locally known as Churaute also arrived in the valley. It is also said that the rulers of Nepal invited a few dozens of Muslim army personnel from neighbouring Indian Territory to train the soldiers in fire arms. The Muslim rulers could not annex Nepal due to the fighting capability of Gurkhas. Shamsuddin Ilyas, Muslim ruler of Bengal had raided the Kathmandu valley in 1349 but returned without success.
Major penetration of Muslims in Nepal was in its Terai region during and after Sepoy mutiny of 1857. Jung Bahadur, the first Rana Prime Minister was the ally of the British but he gave protection and shelter to the Begum of Oudh . This was not possible without the consent of the British. It was a deliberate political move of the British to keep away the Muslim ruling family from its Indian Territory to avoid any mobilisation of Muslim masses around it. Knowing about the migration of the Begum, the Muslims from the border area also started migrating to the Terai region. They were mostly farm labour and small traders. British atrocities in the Ganges valley forced them to flee to the Terai region of Nepal to save their lives. The Hindu landlords were in need of the farm labour for cultivation and the rulers of the kingdom interested for more revenue from agricultural produce, placed no restriction for such migration of the Muslims. However, there was no relaxation in 1853 Code for the migrant Muslims. The descendants of the Muslims settled in the hills still constitute only 3 % of the total Muslim population of Nepal. Rest of 97 % is settled in Terai region mostly bordering India along Bihar and U.P.
Although Muslim conquest of northern India had undermined the centuries old rigid anti-Muslim policy in the kingdom to some extent, the sliding decline of Mogul Empire prompted successive rulers to maintain its Hindu character. Prithvi Narayan Shah during his regime (1743-1775) unified various independent hill kingdoms into modern Nepal. A few months before his death in 1775 he recorded the ‘Divya Sandesh’ (Divine message), which was a part of the guiding principles for state administration. In his divine message he “had envisaged his kingdom as a land of Hindus, contrasting with ‘Mughlana’ (India), the land polluted by the rule of the Mughals and their successors”. (A History of Nepal by John Helpton, Cambridge, 2005, page 56). This contemptuous language about India because of Muslim-rule over it remained a permanent mental load of Nepali masses. India was known as Moghalan as a common language of Nepalese. It is said that the people of Nepal made it a custom not to drive out the cow, the national animal from their field in south direction to stop its entry in Moghlana, where there was no state restriction on cow-slaughter.
Jang Bahadur, the first Rana Prime Minister in the kingdom expanded the ‘Divya Sandesh’ and framed ‘Mulki Ain’ (Law of the Land) 1853 for strict implementation of the caste order based on Hindu social code, which listed the Muslims in the category of impure and untouchables. In fact the people of Nepal tolerated the Muslims known as ‘Mlechchhas’ (barbarians) with restrictions to the extent that only “raw and dry eatables” were acceptable from their hands. (Article of Marc Gaborieau 1972 in ‘Muslim community of South Asia’, Edited by T.N.Madan, Manohar, 2001, page 209.).
The Muslims of Nepal strictly followed the Nepal Code of 1853 and accepted their lower social status as loyal citizens and accordingly maintained a very low and profile under the Hindu Monarchy system of governance. It may be interesting to note that even after their long presence in Nepal during the monarchy there was hardly any significant communal problem in the kingdom. Living in Hindu scriptures-based cultural milieu and related social environment for centuries they accepted the situation as it was.
The end of Rana regime in 1951 and establishment of Monarchy-led multi-party coalition government hardly made any change in the social status of the Muslims. The situation more or less remained the same even after 1959 promulgation of constitution and the formation of democratically elected government with B.P. Koirala as Prime Minister. In 1960 King Mahendra dismissed this government and introduced Monarchy-led party less Panchayat system. He replaced the 1853 Code new Code in1963, which provided equal citizen status to the Muslims. Although, the new Code allowed the Muslims to practice their religion freely, the ban on conversion or dissolution of marriage etc remained as it was in 1853 Code. Any attempt to convert people remained a punishable offence with three-year imprisonment. The King however, nominated one Muslim in his National Panchayat and there was no restriction on opening of madrassas.
Even though the 1963 code did not alter the social status of the Muslims it opened a floodgate for the various Ismamist groups from across the boarder to expand their activities in Nepal. With the support of the ISI and financial support from Muslim world there was a speedy growth of madrassas and mosques in both sides of 1751 k.m. Indo-Nepal boarder particularly along the Indian states of U.P. and Bihar.
Some reports suggest that the ISI of Pakistan with a view to make Nepal its hide out for exporting terrorism to India also financed some NGOs to bring demographic imbalance in Terai region by infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims. The report said, “The official figures show that the strength of the Muslim community in Nepal has grown from 2% of the population in 1981 to 3.5 in 1991. Data compiled by the Nepalese Election Commission in connection with the recent general elections indicates that this figure could now have crossed 5% and more even be close to 10%. Steady migration of Bangladesh Muslims to the Terai considerably contributed to this increase”. (India Today, June 12, 2000). Today there are 300 madrassas and 343 mosques within 10 k.m. of the boarder in Indian side while 181 madrassas and 282 mosques are in Nepal side. (Dastider). It is said that the Islamist world is quite liberal in financing the NGOs to the insidious growth of the Islamist fundamentalist net work in Nepal.
As per 1991 Census Report Muslims constitutes 3.4 % of the total population of Nepal, though the figure claimed by the Muslim organisations of the country is between 8 to 10 %. (The figure is based on the source: HMG, CBS, Population monograph, Kathmandu, 1994 as quoted in Understanding Nepal by Mollica Dastider, Har-Anand Publication, 2007, page80).
Since the government of Nepal did not contest such claim of the Muslim organisations, the figure of 10% appears to be nearer to the factual position. The ethnic structure of Terai region as suggested by Dastider also corroborates it. Today four districts of Terai namely Banke, Kapilbastu, Parsa and Rautahat with over fifty percent of Muslim population are now Muslim-majority districts. In five districts namely, Bara, Mahottari, Dhanusha, Sirha and Sunsari Muslims are the second religious majority and in two districts namely Rupandehi and Sarlahi they constitute as a significantly third religious group.
Whatever may be the correct figure of Mislims in Nepal, it is something amazing to see how this significant followers of Islam compromised with anti-Shariat (Islamic laws) un-Islamic Hindu environment and lived there peacefully for centuries. Socio-political scientists might have their own analysis but it gives credence to some views that Shariat could be made flexible if it serves the interest of political Islamists.
By and large Muslims of Nepal had a feeling of better security of their life and properties under the Monarchy led party-less Panchayat system in comparison to their counterparts in secular and multi-party democratic India. They apprehended that Hindu-majority parliamentary rule would endanger even their present identity. Such feeling made them complacent and accordingly, their participation in the pro-democracy movement of early 1990 was minimal. However, taking advantage of the democratic movement some of the fundamentalist organisations like Millat-e-Islamia and Muslim Seva Samiti were found expressing concern over the state sponsored drive for Nepalisation of the people. The Muslim youths took this move as Hinduisation of Muslims.
Political transformation of Nepal from absolute Hindu monarchy to multi-party parliamentary democracy in 1990 was a landmark development in the history of the kingdom. The interim constitution declared Nepal as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, democratic, independent, indivisible, sovereign Hindu and constitutional monarchial kingdom. It also said, “The state shall not discriminate among citizens on grounds of religion, race, sex, caste, tribe or ideological conviction or any of these”.
The end of political discrimination among the citizens on the ground of religion prompted 31 Muslim leaders to contest in the first general election in 1991 after the promulgation of interim constitution from different parties and five of them got elected including three from Nepali Congress and one each from Communist Party of Nepal and Sadbhavana Party. Sheikh Idris of Nepali Congress was also included in the cabinet.
The sudden rise in political profile of the Muslims not only boosted the morale of this centuries old suppressed community but also provided them an opportunity to raise an assertive voice for sharing political and administrative power. Accordingly they raised demands like 10% reservation in constituent assemblies, reserved seats in Parliament and government holidays on Muslim festival. Similarly the radical Islamists also became active to spread their net work in the kingdom to assertively fight for their separate identity. Immediately after the promulgation of interim constitution, the Imam of the Jama Masjid of Kathmandu led a delegation and submitted a 14-points charter of demands to the then Prime Minister K.P.Bhattarai.
Although Muslims were not fully satisfied due to Hindu character of the interim constitution, they had no problem in their socio-political and religious activities. Muslim organisations like Islami Yuva Sangh, Millate Islamia and Ittehadul Muslimeen, which were operating as socio-religious organisations became aggressive in challenging their centuries old subordinate status. This led to communal conflict in some of the Terai regions, where Muslims are in competitive strength.
Spread of the network of Islamist terrorists in post-1990 Nepal became a security problem for India. The infamous hijacking of IC- 184 from the capital of the kingdom in early 2000 suggested that political transformation made this country a safe hide out for the Jehadis to export terrorism in India. ISI might have masterminded this operation but was it possible without the support of local Islamists? According to a report a Nepali national Nayeem Shah arrested in Kathmandu in 1998 for possession of fake Indian currency of 3.5 lakh disclosed that the notes were given to him by Nepalese politician Mirza Dilshad Beg before his assassination. On November 4, 2006, India’s Union Home Minister of State Sriprakash Jaiswal said Pakistani Militants had found safe hide-outs In Nepal …”(Outlook.com, November 20, 2006).
The Interim Parliament declared Nepal as a secular state on May 18, 2006, which was incorporated in the interim constitution on May 2007. It says, “Nepal is an independent, invisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive and fully democratic state”. Constituent Assembly is to approve this interim constitution after its election in November this year.
How far the Muslim masses of Nepal would integrate in the national mainstream and join the nation building programme under a new political environment only time will say but if the Islamists are not kept under check and political parties imitate the vote-seeking politics of their Indian counterparts, they will remain as backward as they were for centuries. The growth of madrassas in stead of schools for modern education and wide network of Islamist terrorists would only add to their misery. Mushroom growth of Islamic organizations having links with the Radical Islamists of the world has not only become the concern of the people of Nepal but it is also a security risk for India.
On September 1, 2004, thousands of demonstrators stormed the main mosque in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, sets furniture and carpet on fire, tore up a copy of Quran and chanted “Down with Islam’. They were protesting against the killing of 12 Nepalese labourers in Iraq. Police had to open fire to control the crowd. The incident was a signal for the future relation between Hindu and Muslims of the country, who were living peacefully for centuries.
(The author can be reached at E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)
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