Religious Minorities in Nepal Jel Lica Dastider (1995), Irala Publication INR 185 (pp.140).
Muslims of Nepal Shamima Siddiga (1993) , Gazala SIMika NPR 150 (PP•359)
An eminent Indian journalist was quoted recently in the Kathmandu press as saying that whereas Nepal used to be understood in India in terms of the Himalaya, the Pashupati temple, casinos and honeymoons, with the hijacking of IC 814 and India Today´s leak of the so-called “Nepal Gameplan” intelligence report, the ´Hindu kingdom´ has since come to be associated more with ISI and RDX. While this is indeed true, what is even more significant and more damning is the alacrity with which large sections of the Indian television and print media have jumped to portray the entire Nepali Muslim community living in the Tarai as being anti-Indian and (hence) pro-Pakistan.
Given the sudden barrage of attention on the Muslim community of Nepal, that too in a geopolitically significant context, it is important to look for and review the scholarly works which study Nepali Muslims. Two books published during the past few years attempt to do this— Shamima Siddiqa´s Muslims of Nepal (1993) and Mollica Dastider´s Religious Minorities in Nepal (1995). Unfortunately, neither author does justice to the topic and in the end their works will, if anything, fan the flames of antagonism in India against the Muslims of Nepal.
These two books have several Tribhuvan University´s Department of Sociology and Anthropology in Kathmandu, and Dastider´s for the Jawaharlal Nehru University´s School for International Studies in New Delhi. The books under review provide an insight not only into the individual authorships but also on the academic institutions that have produced and endorsed such inadequate works.
Shamima Siddiqa´s 15-chapter book is heavy on description, including the historical link between Islam and Nepal, lists of the Muslim organisa-tions in the country, Muslim livelihood, women and legal issues. The book also provides some district-wise information on Muslims, and then presents case stu-dies. Unfortunately, because the scholar provides scant analysis, her work ends up as little more than documentation. A major weakness in Muslims of Nepal, is that there is little here that could be called sociological or anthropological. At best, the book is descriptive ethnography, and at worst, it is a treatise on what the author considers to be “authentic” Islam.
Siddiqa does not base her observations on the actual practice of Nepali Muslims. She relates cultural traits not according to the existing social millieu of Muslims living in Nepali hill and plain, but to the Quran—in the process she confuses what is practised with what should be practised. Her presentation is dominated by what may be called a scripturalist interpretation at the cost of a sociological-anthropological explanation. Additionally, her treatment of Islam tends to be unduly apologetic—ascribing all that is good in Islamic practices to the Quran, while what she considers as “incorrect” practices are explained away as later accretions. Claiming purdah to be a Zoroastrian institution is a case in point. In prese¬nting her description of Muslims in Nepal, the author seems to be oblivious to the fact that she is imposing her own version of Islam—apparently orthodox Sunni Islam—on the lay Muslims of Nepal.
Rather than describe the subject people, Religious Minorities in Nepal looks at the relationship between a state that officially aligns itself with Hinduism and its religious minorities. Author Dastider sets for herself the ambitious task of debunking the myth of Nepal as a land of religious harmony. She writes that the Nepali state´s project to present itself as a land of inter-ethnic and -religious calm has quickly unravelled after the passing of the Panchayat era. While the aspirations of the Muslim minority had remained suppressed in the past, with the advent of democracy it has begun to assert itself. The six chapters in the book, among other things, discuss the process of Sanskritisation among the non-Hindu communities of Nepal, the distribution of the Muslim population and its social structures, and the status of Muslims amidst the dominant Hindu caste society. One chapter even tries to draw a parallel between the Buddhist and Muslim self-assertions in the post-Pancha-yat era. Dastider concludes with a call for a new framework to bind ethnic and religious minorities to the state.
Though her objectives are thus laudable, Dastider´s methodology lacks rigour. For example, the parallels she draws between the Buddhist and Muslim activism in Nepal are superficial. Compared to Islam, the Nepali state has had a relatively lax attitude towards Buddhism. The state has co-opted Buddhism in the project of creating a distinct Nepali ethos—one that makes Siddhartha Gautam a national icon, and another which forcibly introduces Buddhism as a denomination of Hinduism. There are, however, no common points of reference with Islam through which it could be coopted in the creation of a distinctive Nepali nationality. Realising this, leaders of the Muslim community have maintained a much lower pro file than their Buddhist counterparts even in the democratic post-1990 era. In their petitions to the government, they have remained squarely within what may be called “the limits of state-tolerance”.
It is the role of social science to diagnose history, but there is little evidence of this in Religious Minori¬ties in-Nepal, The text abounds in statements which either belabour the obvious or are simply ludicrous, and the author clearly underesti-mates the level of sophistication at which the discourse on religion and ethnicity is taking place in present-day Nepal. Each of Dastider´s chap¬ters evinces a definite pattern—a description of historical processes based on secondary sources fol¬lowed by political commentary of more recent times in journalistic style, ending with a dash of pontification on what the state should and should not do. The occasional insightful interludes present inferences drawn from interviews with key informants, who for the most part go unacknowledged.
The reliance on secondary sources written almost exclusively in English is jarring. Out of 97 sec¬ondary sources cited in the reference, only one happens to be in Nepali while out of the total 36 articles cited, not even one is in Nepali. (Though the Gorkhapatra daily is listed in the reference, it has no citation in the text). Dastider´s narrative is based neither on intensive field-based methods nor on historical archival material. By citing the works of political scientists and overlooking the significant contributions of other disciplinary tradi¬tions in studying religious minorities in Nepal, it is not surprising that the author´s work has ended up this shallow. An additional cavil: given that Shamima Siddiqa´s book was already out in 1993, it is intriguing that Dastider has not acknowledged it in her work.
The methodological and substantive weaknesses outlined above perhaps reflect the academic standards of Dastider´s alma mater. Clearly, young scholars are not being guided well in what is considered one of the more influential political science faculties of India, if they are: 1. discouraged to learn the local languages of the regions or countries being studied; 2. not required to pay attention to field-based research or archival material; 3. not asked to go beyond secondary sources written in English; and 4. are not made to correct their built-in bias against disciplines other than political science and international relations.
These books go some way in introducing the Muslims of Nepal to be what they are, commonfolk like South Asian peasantry everywhere, and not gun-toting Islamic fundamentalists out to wreck and ruin. However more substantive and dispassionate studies need to be undertaken to bring to public visibility the exegesis of the Muslims of Nepal. At the same time, the weaknesses of the two books in their lack of academic rigour on the one hand and absence of intellectual humility on the other, would be something for scholars young and old to be aware of when they themselves contem plate research on people of another country or region of South Asia.