The Musalman is more protected in ‘Hindu Nepal’ than he is in ‘secular India’. And yet, externally fuelled Islamic fundamentalism and knee-jerk Hindu chauvinism cannot rule out a nasty situation from arising.
The mauzzin calls the faithful to prayer from a minaret that vies for height with the Ghanta Ghar next door and the tower of the Narayanhiti Royal Palace a little further on. It is Friday, and the faithful gather from the far corners of Kathmandu to offer Khutabah at the Nepali Jame Masjid. The crowd bottles up the traffic emerging from the city’s exclusive Durbar Marg plaza.
In itself, the setting is not out of ordinary. The mauzzin has been calling from this spot for a long time, perhaps since the reign of King Pratap Malla in the early 17th century. What has changed over the last year is that the modest historic edifice has been demolished and a spanking new marble-sided,petro-dollar-financed structure„ many times larger, has been erected in its place. Meanwhile, the number of Muslim adherents who turn up for prayer has increased more than tenfold over the last decade.
To those seeking communal conspiracies in the “Hindu state” of Nepal, the Friday crowd at Durbar Marg would seem to provide ample visible proof that the Musalman’s strength is on the rise in the kingdom. For those in the plains media seeking to unearth geopolitical intrigues in the aftermath of the Ayodhya disaster and the Bombay bomb blasts, this manifest Muslim presence in a downtown thoroughfare is proof enough that the infamous Pakistani spook agency, the ISI, is up to something nasty in Nepal. Indeed, Indian journalists and academics have been no laggards these past few months in issuing dire warnings of a Pakistani offensive against the Indian slate, using Nepal’s Muslims as cover.
This is the first time in history that the Muslims of Nepal have made news, but of a kind that they could do without. As a tiny minority, Muslims have preferred to keep a low profile and make little noise. The forced ‘exposure’ of the past few months have brought misplaced notoriety to a community about which little has been written in contrast to the detailed social scientific research and writing that has been done on other Nepali communities. As a political scientist at Tribhuvan University says, “The only way to counter the simplistic coverage of Nepali Muslims by Indian media, which is not merely unpleasant for the Muslim but politically dangerous for Nepal, is to describe the community and to make them human.”
The political scientists and others like him believe that it is important that the escalating Hindu-Muslim animosities in South Asia not be imported north of the border. Thus far, the fact that violent post-Ayodhya episodes have not impacted within Nepal indicates that the otherwise open border between Nepal and India does serve as an effective socio-political barrier which prevents the direct transfer of fundamentalism and fanaticism. It does seem to matter that Nepal is a separate country.
The Hindu state has given members of its Muslim minority the right to practise their religion, at the same time prohibiting them from converting others. Historically, and up to the present, Muslims have largely complied with the stricture and Nepali society has passed from feudal times through the Panchayat era into present-day democracy with the Hindu-Muslim relations more amicable than elsewhere in South Asia.
There is little reason for national smugness on the matter, however. For Nepali Muslims studying in the Subcontinent or working in the West Asia are becoming exposed to what many consider to be more ‘correct’ Islam, and are beginning to articulate their firmly-held views. The funding of schools, organisations and individuals by proselytising donors in the Gulf countries could further attenuate this trend.
Added to all this is the fact that Nepal’s Hindu intelligentsia, for all its anti-Indian rhetoric, largely feeds on the writings of Indian politicians, scholars, journalists. Influence of the Indian media and inherited but as yet un-articulated anti-Muslim biases could together lead to a hardening of this intelligentsia’s attitude towards minority Muslims. This attitude might also be bolstered by a perceived need to protect Nepal from the wrath of Indian politicians and administrators who are convinced (as is former Indian Foreign Secretary J.N.Dixit) that Pakistan intends to destabilise India through Nepal’s open southern border.
Early Muslims and Latecomers
Nepal’s Muslims, while they are mainly Sunni, constitute a heterogeneous group. Their ancestors arrived in Nepal from different parts of South Asia and Tibet during different epochs, and have since lived peacefully amidst the numerically dominant Hindus.
According to the Vamshavalis, Muslims of Kashmir arrived in Kathmandu during the reign of King Ratna Malla (1484-1520 AD). They built a mosque, the Kashmiri Takia, and engaged in different occupations—as scribes to correspond with the Delhi Sultanate, and as scent manufacturers, musicians and bangle suppliers. Some were admitted as courtiers to the Malla durbar, and many traded with Tibet. The descendants of these migrants live in Kathmandu, numbering about 2000. They tend to be well-educated and speak a mixture of Nepali and Urdu at home rather than Kashmiri. While many work as petty businessmen, some have joined government service or entered politics.
The second group of Muslims to enter theValley were those of Hindustani origin. These arrived during the reign of Pratap Malla (1641-1674), who allowed them to erect a separate mosque in the southern part of the property belonging to the Kashmiri Takia. This Hindustani mosque, now known as the Nepali Jame Masjid, is originally said to have been a Shia mosque, an imambara. It was converted into a Sunni mosque by Maulana Sargaraz Ali Shah, a mufti of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who arrived with the entourage of Begum Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow when she took shelter in Kathmandu after the suppression of the Indian Mutiny by the British in 1857.
The third group of Muslims to settle in Nepal came from different parts of northern India during the 16th and 17th centuries, invited by hill rulers to manufacture military armament (including canons). They remained in the hills as makers of agricultural implements, utensils and ornaments. Though the descendants of these migrants are known as the Churaute, or bangle-sellers, a majority survive as farmers. There is a fair sprinkling of these hill Muslims in Nepal’s central and western districts of Gorkha, Tanahu, Kaski, Syangja, Palpa, Argakhanchi, Pyuthan and Dailekh.
Muslim migrants of Tibetan origin include both Ladakhis and those from Tibet proper. The latter arrived mostly after the Chinese takeover in 1959, and in their language and dress these Tibetan Muslims are indistinguishable from their Tibetan Buddhist counterparts. Today, many are engaged in the trade of Chinese consumer durables and selling curios. On the whole, this groups tends to be more affluent than the other Muslim communities.
While the smaller groups provide diversity, the largest community of Islam adherents—more than 90 percent—are the Muslims of the tarai. Concentrated in the tarai districts of Banke, Kapilvastu, Rupandehi, Parsa, Bara and Rauthat, some of the Tarai Muslims were present here at the time of Nepal’s unification while others migrated from British India from the 19th century onwards as wage labourers. While most are small-time proprietor farmers, a substantial number still work as tenants and agricultural labourers. At home they do not speak Urdu, but Awadhi and Bhojpuri depending on whether they are of the Western or Central Tarai.
The Churaute hill Muslims have been greatly influenced by the Hindu hill milieu. They follow circumcision and ritual burial of the dead, but other practises like nikah (bride price) and zakat (charity collected during religious festivals) are unequally observed. The daily namaz and month-long fasting during Ramadan are lightly dispensed with. The Churaute speak Nepali, as do the Kashmiri Muslims of Kathmandu, many of whom are also fluent in Newari. The Kashmiri Muslim lifestyle resembles that of upper middle-class urban Hindus, while in their dress, food habits and some customs the Churaute are indistinguishable from their Bahun-Chettri neighbours.
Living in the Nepali state for a longer period of time and sharing common historical experiences, the above groups have developed a stronger identification with the Nepali state. The Tarai Muslims, on the other hand, like other Tarai communities, continue to have strong ties across the border and receive cultural sustenance from the larger Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Even though the gulf between the hill and the Tarai Muslims has been wide, however, some of it is being bridged as educated Tarai Muslims marry into Kathmandu’s Kashmiri Muslim families, and moulavis from the Tarai take to visiting hill madrasas.
There are two other groups of Muslims in the country. These are the Bangladeshi (“Bihari”) refugees who arrived in 1971, most of whom have been repatriated to Pakistan. Then there are the Kashmiri merchants who first arrived in the 1970s to set up curio shops in Kathmandu’s tourist quarters. There has been a spurt in arrivals from Srinagar since the political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir escalated in 1990. Many shopkeepers arrived with their stocks of handicrafts, rugs and furs.
These recent arrivals have little or no interaction with the older Muslim residents, and most do not even know that there is an old Kashmiri Muslim stock in Kathmandu. The Indian media’s attention is mostly directed at this group of recent arrivals, for their ability to provide cover to Pakistan-supported militants from the Kashmir Valley. Says Mohammad Aziz, who owns a curio shop in the Chhetrapati tourist district, “We are not interested in forming alliances with other Muslims. We are wholly preoccupied with our business and have no time for politics. Inshallah, when the situation in Kashmir improves we will go back.”
The Politics of Numbers
Historically, though the Hindu state has provided the Muslim minority with the freedom to practise Islam, it has also imposed several restrictions. While providing land grants for the construction of mosques and madrasas and establishing cemeteries, for example, it has issued a strict ban on proselytising and cow slaughter.
The Old Mulki Ain civil code of 1854 ordered all the communities living within the country into a single hierarchy based on notions of ritual purity and pollution. In the process, the state assigned the Muslims a caste status towards the bottom end of the hierarchy. As with Christians, they were listed among the “impure but not untouchable castes”—in the same category as oil pressers, butchers and washerfolk. With the enactment of the new Mulki Ain in 1964, the legal backing to the caste system was withdrawn.
According to the 1991 census, 0.65 million out of Nepal’s population of 18.5 million are Muslims, or 3.6 percent of the total. The percentage was 2.6 percent in 1954 and 3 percent in 1971. This gradual increase is explained by natural growth arising from a relatively high fertility rate. The number of conversions to Islam is statistically negligible, and there has been no permanent mass-migration from India. (By way of contrast to the Muslim community’s moderate growth rate, the Christian population which was statistically insignificant till 1971 rose dramatically to 4000 in 1981 and 31,000 in 1991. Only conversion can explain this increase.)
The Muslims of Nepal have never been a part of the landed gentry, as Muslims are elsewhere in South Asia. The average size of Muslim land holdings is 0.86 hectares in the Nepali hills and 1.23 ha in the plains. Many Tarai Muslims are engaged as tenants and agriculture wage labourers.
Due to social and legal handicaps, Muslims are not adequately represented in the bureaucracy, and there are few in trade and industry. In politics, Muslims have a stronger voice now than before. While the Rastriya Panchayat national assembly of 1981 had three Muslim representatives, there were five Muslim MPs in the Lower House that was elected in 1990. The most recent elections of 15 November, however, has put only three Muslims into the new Lower House, a setback that is probably temporary.
The Security Concern
Although in affluence and political representation, Nepali Muslims appear to lag behind those of neighbouring countries, there is a greater feeling of security among them. While their lifestyle is similar to their co-religionists across the border in terms of beliefs and culture, the Tarai Muslim have more sense of personal security than those living in India.
Communal conflagrations in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh that could have easily jumped the open border into the Nepal Tarai, have not.
There have been few outright Hindu-Muslim conflicts in the Nepal Tarai. According to the All Nepal Anjuman Islaha (ANAL), a committee appointed by the late King Mahendra to resolve communal problems, there were 12 recorded instances of communal riots between 1954 and 1977. These riots were mostly provoked by allegations of cow slaughter, religious processions such as the Tajia, or the building of mosques.
The most serious communal flareup was a 1971 riot in Bara and Rauthat, triggered when some Hindus murdered a Muslim on the charge of cow slaughter. The two tarai districts were unstable for two weeks and the situation of the minority Muslims seemed extremely vulnerable. King Mahendra, arriving from a trip abroad, mobilised armed police and suppressed the riot. This use of state machinery for their protection seems to have bolstered the Nepali Muslims’ confidence on the Hindu monarch and state.
Marc Gaborieau, a French anthropologist, is of the opinion that the Muslims of Nepal are protected because they constitute a small minority and maintain a low profile. On the other hand, Mohammad Mohsin, sociologist and one-time minister under the Panchayat, feels that the atmosphere is not highly charged because the hill and Kathmandu Muslims do not react quickly to communally motivated events and tend to trust the state machinery.
It may also be that the Hindu majority does not feel great animosity towards Islam because Nepal has never been subjected to Muslim rule. And then, Nepal has not undergone the trauma of a partition based on religion as has a large part of the Subcontinent. While long-dormant resentments may exist among some, having to do with Gayasuddin Tuglaq’s raid on Simraungad or Samsuddin’s pillage of the Kathmandu Valley kingdoms during the 13th century, and the mythical flight of Rajputs and Brahmins from the Indus-Ganga plain to the midhills, these are not recent-enough historical experience for them to affect present-day inter-community relations.
Soon after the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, it was reported that an idol of Lord Krishna had been broken by a man in Eastern Nepal. With nerves frayed all around, to everyone’s relief he turned out to be not a Muslim but a Hindu distraught over the death of his child.
While Hindu-Muslim relations have been affected by Ayodhya, the country did not experience the violence seen by India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Says Mohammad Hussein Samu, the President of Kathmandu’s Islamic Yuwa Sangh, “By God’s grace such violent incidents have not occurred in Nepal. The credit for this largely goes to our politicians who have refrained from playing the religious card.”
Democracy and the Musalman
As one minority community among Nepal’s many, for all practical purposes Muslims may be regarded as an ethnic group. Says Hamid Ansari, who is an econometrician at Tribhuvan University, “Muslims in Nepal should not be seen solely in terms of a religious minority. They share some facets in common with other Janajati people in that they have been historically neglected by the state.” Like the janajati groups, they have remained inarticulate and docile, although with the coming of multiparty democracy, ethnic assertion has arisen. Nevertheless, while some hill ethnic and Tarai-based groups have begun to challenge the role historically assigned to them by the state, Muslims have been slow to speak up.
Many lay Muslims believe that their national level leaders have not done much to articulate their concerns. This deliberately set low profile seems to reflect the natural diffidence of a minority community, with the leaders realising well that lobbying too stridently might only invite political problems. This does not satisfy someone like Tribhuvan University Political Science Professor S.M. Habibullah, who says, “Muslim political leaders do not have the guts to speak on behalf of the community”.
The Muslim community’s clout seems to be hampered by the fact that while they make up a significant population in several Tarai districts, Muslims do not vote en block and therefore are not treated as vote banks by political parties. Neither do Nepali Muslims have a separate political platform to articulate their demands—there is no Nepali Muslim League or Nepali Jamiha Islamia, for example.
Even after the coming of multiparty democracy, the Muslim electorate has voted for mainstream political parties, and this is clear from, the sprinkling of prominent Muslim personalities across the political spectrum, from Sheik Idris of Nepali Congress to Salim Ansari of Nepal Communist Party, and Mirza Dilshad Beg of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party.
During the transition to multiparty democracy, there were some Muslims who believed that their community would be treated with more respect, especially when they listened to the media carrying Id greetings by party political leaders. Muslim leaders, particularly those of the Left, lobbied for a secular constitution. However, the document that was unveiled in November 1993 maintained Nepal’s status as a Hindu kingdom under a Hindu monarchy. Euphoria gave way to soul searching, and many activists turned towards Muslim welfare organisations, such as the Ittehadul Muslimean Committee, Iqra Modal Academy, Islamic Yuwa Sangh, Nepal Muslim Sangh, Bajme Adab and the Muslim Seva Samiti.
Others, however, believe that a cosmetic change from “Hindu” to “secular” would not have accomplished much. Maintains Salim Ansari, “The fact is that Nepal is de facto secular.” According to the Islamic Yuva Sangh’s Samu, “We have seen what goes on in the name of secularism in other countries. And what if there is a ban on cow slaughter? Buffaloes are a good substitute.” Rather than argue over the constitutional fait accompli, some educated Muslim voices believe that efforts should be directed at gaining more legitimacy for Islamic traditions and practises within the existing framework.
Indeed, there are some measures that the Nepali Establishment could take in fulfilling moderate Muslim demands. This would be preferable to having to deal with strident extremists tomorrow.
The Nepali judicial system already recognises traditional Muslim marriages, such as among patrilineal cousins. What it does not recognise is traditional Muslim divorce. Giving legitimacy to marriage but not sanctioning divorce is a legal anomaly which needs to be resolved.
Muslim employees in government are not entitled to their religious holidays, which are deducted from their casual leaves. The procedure for applying for the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is designed to needlessly harass the applicants. There are these and other matters that need to be resolved.
Rifts and Undercurrents
As a proselytising religion, Islam is in an incongruous situation in Nepal where the state forbids conversion. Unlike Christian missionaries who proceeded to gather a flock despite the state’s injunction, the Muslim community has largely complied with this stricture.
There is a different kind of “conversion” progressing, though, and it is happening within the community. The reference is to the process in which a Nepali Muslim who has studied elsewhere in South. Asia or visited the Gulf countries is influenced by ultraconservative sects such as the Wahabi, and returns a more “correct” Muslim. He then tries to indoctrinate culturally assimilated Nepali Muslims. At the same time, non-Nepali clerics are invited for Dawa, or propagation of the faith.
While this activity is not directed at people outside the faith, some Muslim scholars fear that it would differentiate the Muslims more from the national mainstream, which would be detrimental. Says Mohammad Mohsin, “Such activities could lead to the Muslim community being further alienated from the dominant Nepali culture and society.”
Propagating such “neo-fundamentalist” planks are organisations such as the Islamic Yuwa Sangh and the Muslim Seva Samiti, which, according to their literature seek to “to convey the correct message of Islam,” “strive for the Islamic way of life,” or “live an individual and collective life according to the Koran.”
Samu of the Islamic Yuwa Sangh (of Tibetan extraction) disagrees vehemently with the term “neo-fundamentalist”. He says, “Can a person who believes in the five pillars of Islam be called a fundamentalist? If yes, then all practising Muslims are fundamentalists.” (The 5 cardinal doctrines are: there is only one God and Mohammad is his last Prophet; performing namaz five times a day; fasting during the month of Ramadan; zakat; and, if possible, going to Mecca on Hajj.)
Adds Samu, “We do not advocate implementation of the Sharia. All we are saying is that the Muslim youth should not go into drugs, should not be lost in worldly of fairs but should find anchorage in Islam.”
In order to find solace in Islam, many Muslim organisations, particularly those that are tarai-based, bring in funds from the rich Muslim countries. And this is what is resented by some observers. The imposing new edifice of the Nepali Jame Masjid in downtown Kathmandu is known to have been built with foreign funds, but no one is willing to divulge the source. The allegation is made that in order to collect money in Gulf capitals, Muslim activists tend to paint an overly bleak picture of the status of Muslims in “Hindu Nepal”. Moreover, these organisations are not transparent, with little accountability for funds collected for the Umma.
In their missionary activity, organisations such as the Islamic Yuva Sangh, the largest and best organised, have been able to influence the Tarai Muslims, particularly the rural landed elite. Besides spiritual satisfaction, what they have to offer is scholarships to study in Muslim countries and job opportunities in the Gulf. These groups have not made much headway with the non-Tarai Muslims of the hills and Kathmandu. There is considerable hostility among the “neo-fundamentalists” towards the culturally more assimilative Muslims of the hills and Kathmandu. In fact, the brunt of their ire is directed towards the traditionally liberal Kashmiri Muslims, who, being more educated and articulate than others have traditionally been leaders of the Nepali Muslims. Moreover, these Kathmandu Kashmiri Muslims follow Sufi precepts, which the more conservative condemn as un-Islamic.
There is more of a tendency towards fundamentalism among the Tarai Muslims, with some of their leaders influenced by global militant Islam. Today, variously armed with the muscle of Gulf funding, the neo-fundamentalists seem to be gaining an upper hand in the community and emerging as the spokesmen of the community. In all likelihood, as this trend gains, the relationship between the majority Hindus and the minority Muslims will begin to sour. Unlike the traditional liberals, the neo-fundamentalists are more strident and less compromising.
The rift between the “traditional liberals” and the “neo fundamentalists” is neatly divided between the two mosques in downtown Kathmandu, the Nepali Jame Masjid and the Kashmiri Takia, which follow different branches of Sunni Islam. The Jame Masjid has remained a strong platform for the more puritanical Deobandi school, which calls for a literal translation of the Koran and its adoption in the daily lives of the community members. The Kashmir’ Takia follows the Brailvi school, which provides a more liberal interpretation of the Koran and accepts the authority of Sufi holy men as mediators of Allah. In practice, the Brailvi schools tends to be more accommodating of local customs and practices.
Conflict and Accommodation
The leadership role among Nepali Muslims is thus shifting from Kathmandu’s Kashmiris to educated Muslims of the tarai. While the Kathmandu Muslims have been, as Mohammad Mohsin says, “more loyal to the state” simply by virtue of their deeper links to the Nepali hills, the Tarai Muslims, far removed from the traditional centres of power and the dominant Parbatiya culture, have a greater identification with the other communities of Nepal’s Tarai and the larger Muslim population next door.
A worrying prospect is that Nepal’s Hindu intelligentsia will over-react to the growing Muslim demand for greater representation. For all their anti-Indian sentiments, many among Kathmandu’s educated elite feed from the same trough as India’s Hindu elite. Their self-identification tends to be based on mainstream Indian scholarship, perusal of the Indian media, and contemporary opinion out of the south, and an under-lying pride on Nepal being a “Hindu kingdom”. For example, many educated Nepali Hindus bask in the praise heaped by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters for maintaining “the only Hindu rashtra”.
There are some indications that with the seemingly orchestrated coverage by Indian media of alleged involvement of Pakistan’s ISI in Nepal, the attitude of a section of the Hindu educated of Kathmandu is hardening. This is visible, for example, both in media writeups and in random discussions with Kathmandu’s educated. When asked about Islam, an engineer’s response was sarcastic: “Islam is undoubtedly a great religion. It prides on killing others.” When a bureaucrat was asked about the wisdom of conceding to some of the demands of the Muslim minority, his response was, “You give them a little and they ask for more. See what’s happening in India right now. The way the BJP is dealing with the situation is correct.”
For many Hindus, Islam is simply ulto dharma, or reversed religion, and few are aware of its theological underpinnings. What strikes them are the details of ritual observance, particularly those features that are strange to them. Muslims appear to do just the opposite to what Hindus consider normal, such as washing their feet first during ablutions and moving towards the face rather than the other way around. Hindus face east while performing puja, while South Asian Muslims face west towards Mecca during Namaz.
At the intellectual level, the fear of Islam as the hostile “other” is accentuated by the Western media’s and intelligentsia’s proclivity to be anti-Islam. This attitude is epitomised by the widely publicised thesis of Samuel Huntington, professor of political science at Harvard University, that with the demise of the Soviet Union, the next great confrontation of the West is with Islam. Huntington speaks of Islam’s “bloody borders”, with the eastern one presumably being post-Ayodhya India. Thus, among anglophile Nepali Hindus, Islam is increasingly perceived as an enemy religion, one that is synonymous with fundamentalism.
Yet there are voices among Hindus, particularly among those acquainted with Muslim tradition and culture, that call for a honest hearing to Muslim demands. Says Rajesh Gautam, a historian who has researched Nepali Muslims, “If the state does not heed moderate Muslim demands now, it may further alienate the community, so much so that the leadership passes from moderate to extremist hands. Already, certain radical Muslim organisations are gathering strength in parts of the Tarai, for example in Nepalganj.”
The main Muslim demand relates to greater access to modern education and better representation in the state apparatus. Elsewhere, the voice of the Muslim community is less unanimous. Some believe that traditional Islamic divorce practice should be recognised by the state since it has already recognised marriage among patrilineal cousins. Others believe that this should not be a major concern, and the focus should be on alleviating poverty among rural Muslims, particularly those of the tarai who make up the larger part of Nepal’s Mulim community.
Some believe that Islamic festivals such as Eid ul Fitr, Eid ul Asha and Juma Alwida need to be established as national gazetted holidays, while other maintain that it is enough to give just Muslim employees the days off. If a portion of the Muslim intelligentsia thinks that the government needs to give subsidies to madrasas, other sections believe that doing so would only undermine the autonomy of the madrasas.
Given this lack of unanimity within the community and an absence of a national level organisations to represent the interests of all the Muslims, it is likely that the Nepali state will continue to turn a deaf ear to the major demands of Nepali Muslims. This would be unfortunate.
Kathmandu’s educated classes should be steering the state towards a middle path, so that the Hindu-Muslim divide, which is a blight upon the rest of South Asia, does not finally arrive in Nepal. This middle path involves accommodating moderate demands of the Muslims while being ever watchful for the elite’s swing towards Hindu fundamentalism.