Nepali Muslims on the margins

Madrasa education needs to be improved to uplift Nepal’s Muslim community

Ever since he established Barkatiya School in Nepalganj in 1993 on leased property, principal Maulana Ziaul Mustafa Noorani has worked relentlessly to improve the quality of instruction in his madrasa.

More than 500 students attend the school from primary to Grade 10, studying all the subjects in Nepal’s education curriculum, like science, English, mathematics and social studies. But they also study Urdu and Arabic, mandatory according to Muslim culture.

“I transferred from a private school to Barkatiya because I wanted to understand my religion,” says Sahin Khatun, who passed her SLC and is now teaching English at the same school. “The school also prepared me to be well-rounded in all other subjects and gave me a future.”

Apart from students following the regular curriculum, Barkatiya has 80 children studying religion, who will graduate to become clerics in their communities.

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Well rounded: Grade 6 students of Barkatiya School studying Nepali. The madrasa has all subjects of the government curriculum with additional Urdu and Arabic. Pics: Prakriti Kandel

The majority of madrasas in Nepal used to be religious institutions, but in 2004 the government started registering them as government schools and had them adopt the Nepali curriculum, while allowing them to continue religious learning.

However although they are registered, madrasas do not receive the same treatment as other government schools. Barkatiya itself is short-staffed and underfunded, with only three teachers provided by the government for classes up to Grade 10.

“In spite of being mainstreamed, community leaders and schools feel discriminated against because they do not get the facilities other government schools have,” explains Samim Miya Ansari of the National Muslim Commission.

Despite being a school that the community considers a model, Barkatiya receives minimal funding, and the budget set aside for scholarships for needy students has to be diverted to salaries of teachers, most of whom are hired outside of the government’s quota.

After the 2017 elections, which returned Dhawal Rana as mayor of Nepalganj, the school for the first time got funding from the municipality — Rs700,000. However, the education budget is still centralised in Kathmandu, so local governments lack the jurisdiction and resources to allocate to schools in their municipalities.

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This pertains not just to Nepalganj — madrasa schools across Nepal face a shortage of teachers and funding. The situation is most critical in Province 2, which has the largest Muslim population and the highest number of madrasas.

Registered madrasa schools have been receiving Rs168,000 per year as government grants, which is insufficient. With that amount they have to put together their own infrastructure and run the schools with a limited teacher quota, while dealing with misappropriation of even the meagre grants. Many teachers do not receive even their minimal salaries on time and numerous madrasas now have to raise additional money from India or the Middle East.

Meanwhile, government schools are allocated bigger budgets, have buildings, playgrounds and furniture, and enough resources to hire teachers.

Barkatiya is relatively well managed, but most madrasa schools have little oversight and regulation. “Our madrasa schools do not have proper management committees so quality control and financial discipline is a huge problem,” admits Naim Ansari of Samaj Bikas Kendra in Mahottari. Registered madrasas in that district have official permission to conduct only Grade 1, while the other grades are unofficial, which is a reflection of the lack of oversight by government.

Poor support and regulation of madrasa schools has taken a toll on the living standard of Nepal’s Muslim community. Nearly one-quarter live below the poverty line. The Human Development Index of Muslims is 0.422, which is lower than that for Dalits all over Nepal (0.434), according to the 2014 Human Development Report by the National Planning Commission and UNDP. Province 2 has half the number of out-of-school children in Nepal: one-third between the ages of 5 and 12 do not attend school. Most of them are Muslim or Dalit.

Samim Miya Ansari hopes the situation will improve now that the Muslim Commission and the Ministry of Education are prioritising the quality of madrasas. (See interview).

The High-Level Education Commission’s report in January, which triggered a controversy after its call to convert private to public schools, also had a section which reiterated the need to mainstream madrasa schools and called for recognising the qualifications of religious teachers.

Mainstreaming of madrasa schools may have started in 2004, but it has not covered all madrasas in Nepal, mainly because of lack of commitment from the government in Kathmandu. This negligence is depriving the members of one of the country's most marginalised communities from advancing and from being treated equally with other citizens.

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Upgrading madrasa schools

Samim Miya Ansari, the newly-appointed chair of the National Muslim Commission, spoke to Nepali Times  this week:

Nepali Times: What is the current situation of madrasas in Nepal?

Samim Miya Ansari: Madrasas are educational institutions related to our culture, but ultimately they are like any other school. But they are not properly managed. Government grants are inadequate, facilities are lacking, they do not even have furniture. The Muslim community is a little disheartened that madrasa schools do not have even the minimal facilities present in government schools. I have been communicating with the government to resolve this problem.

What will be your commission's role?

The commission is a constitutional body working to improve the status of the Muslim community. In Province 1 and 2, we have conducted hearings in which issues regarding madrasa schools came up. I have urged the government to mainstream madrasas — we cannot ignore Urdu and Arabic subjects, but the Nepali curriculum is also extremely important for Muslim children. Madrasa schools need a proper body to monitor them, which is why a Madrasa Board is being set up under the Education Ministry.

What lessons can Nepal learn from the recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka?

What happened in Sri Lanka is very sad. But the situation in Nepal is different — all religions have lived in harmony and like one family in Nepal for a very long time. Before the 2015 Constitution was promulgated, we had nation-wide protests for the rights of Muslims, but they were all peaceful.

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Keeping ghazal alive in Nepalganj

Wearing a white salwar kameez that matches his short white beard, Mustafa Ahasan (at left, above) calmly sews clothes at his tailoring shop near Tribhuvan Chok, the old Muslim quarter of Nepalganj.

But the 51-year-old is no ordinary tailor — behind him on the wall hangs a certificate vouching for his credential as a noted poet of Urdu ghazal and shayari, forms much admired but little understood in Nepal.

Ahasan and his fellow ghazal enthusiasts keep the proper forms of Urdu poetry alive in Nepalganj through a group called Gulzar-e-adab. With 18% of its population Muslim, the influence of Islamic culture is evident everywhere in this western Tarai city bordering India.

The narrow street called Eklaini has swirling Islamic curlicues over doors and terraces, even on modern concrete buildings, and the sidewalks are packed with colourful chura-pote shops selling bangles and glass beads.

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Mustafa Ahasan was educated in a Nepalganj madrasa and went on to get a degree in literature from Aligarh University in India, where he also learnt Arabic, Persian and poetic metres called beher used in these languages.

“There are only a handful of people in Nepal today who write Urdu poetry in beher, and half of us are here in Nepalganj,” says Ahasan. “We keep up the tradition of Motiram Bhatta, who introduced ghazal in Nepal and who was proficient in these metres.”

Gulzar-e-Adab has been holding regular monthly ghazal events for the past 40 years, says 81-year-old poet Abdul Lateef Shauk (at right, above): “Our events are not just for Urdu poets; we also have recitals in Nepali, Hindi and Awadhi. They are a vibrant hub for cross-cultural exchange.”

Once in a while, the group also holds all-night Mushayra events, inviting poets from across Nepal and India. But Shauk and Ahasan say they are swimming against the tide, as the interest in traditional Urdu poetry is dwindling.

Ghazal scholar Ghanashyam Nyaupane is among a handful of poets writing in beher in Nepal, and agrees that these forms are not very well understood in Nepal. “There are three strands of ghazal writing in Nepal: one group creates its own metres and purists do not like it. The second group has no knowledge of metre at all and just rhyme. The third writes in classical Urdu metre, but this group is very small and getting smaller.”

Sewa Bhattarai

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