Moving to the mainstream

Nepal’s polity provides the Muslim community adequate space for social, economic and political uplifting

Pic: Bikram Rai

Muslims have been living in Nepal even before this country existed. Before the 15th century, Tibetan Muslims from Ladakh traded in woollen products with the kingdoms of Jumla and Mustang. King Ratna Malla sent emissaries to Lhasa and convinced Kashmiri Muslims to use Kathmandu as an entrepôt for trade with India.

The 22 and 24 Kingdoms of Central Nepal brought in Muslim gunsmiths to make muskets and train troops. Others followed in the 17th century to trade in bangles and glass beads, and many of their descendants still ply the trade in Palpa, Patan and Bhaktapur.

Today, Nepali Muslims live in all seven provinces, and form 4.4% of the country’s population. The greatest density is in the Eastern Tarai, where some districts like Bara and Rautahat are more than 15% Muslim. Many of the 28 people killed when a tornado tore through villages in Bara on the night of 31 March were Muslim.

Anthropologists divide Nepali Muslims into five groups, depending on the time of settlement in Nepal and their place of origin: Kashmiri Muslims, Indian Muslims, Tibetan Muslims, Tarai Muslims (which includes Bihari Muslims from Bangladesh settled in the eastern Tarai), Mountain Muslims and a more recent influx of Rohingya refugees from Burma. Despite the diversity within the community, Nepali Muslims have always strived for a common identity based on their Islamic faith.

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Muslims have historically struggled to be included in the socio-economic and political mainstream of the country. Despite forming a relatively small proportion of the national population, the Muslim vote bank constitutes an important enough swing vote to be wooed by the national parties.

Province 2 Chief Minister Mohammad Lalbabu Raut, of the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal, is the only Muslim chief minister under the federal system. Earlier, he was a member of the Constituent Assembly and as one of the senior-most Muslim politicians, the symbolism of his position goes beyond Province 2.

During the Madhes Movement, many Nepali Muslims tried not to be identified as Madhesi, but their involvement in the 2015 agitation established the clout of this community in the Tarai. Now, Nepal’s Muslims are intent on carving out a distinct identity that is not solely based on religion or the perception of them across the border in India.

Although the poverty rate among Muslims in Nepal is not as high as Tarai Dalits, for example, their literacy rate of 40% is much lower than the national average of 65%. Literacy among Muslim women is even lower. There is debate within the Muslim community about the madrasa-based education system and whether it prevents youth from competing for jobs and integrating into mainstream Nepali society.

Muslim women, especially, are seen to be unable to participate on an equal footing with their peers.

The exclusionary nature of some madrasas have made them an object of suspicion, and greater transparency in their conduct would help both the Muslim community and the nation at large.

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Nepal’s constitution gives the Muslim community the opportunity to rise and address its shortcomings. Islamic holy days are now recognised as national holidays and the mainstream press provides adequate coverage to Muslim issues. Nepal’s Muslim community must take advantage of the equal rights of inclusion accorded to Nepal’s faiths and ethnicities.

Nepal’s Muslims should not be swayed by the strong slogans and agendas from across the border, or dismayed by what is happening across the Subcontinent. Nepal’s polity provides them adequate space for social, economic and political uplifting.

Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based commentator. 

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