April 23, 2012
Kiran Chapagain, in the April 19, 2012 issue of Khabar South Asia, wrote about the century-plus marginalization of Muslims in Nepal, a condition that this ethnic minority is determined to reverse.
It was a rare moment in Nepal's political history. On Tuesday (April 17th), the Muslim community, a tiny religious minority in the Hindu-dominated nation, came out in the open for the first time demanding recognition of their distinct identity and equal rights.
Muslims, who make up less than 5% of Nepal's population, are peacefully advocating equal treatment for their community under the country's new constitution.
A broad alliance of 31 Muslim groups submitted a ten-point memorandum to the chairman of the Constituent Assembly, Subas Nembang, pressing for their rights to be protected and their identity upheld in the constitution currently being drafted.
With intense negotiations on the document gaining momentum ahead of a May 27th ratification deadline, Nepal has seen different communities calling for their aspirations to be accommodated in the new law of the land, expected to turn the Himalayan nation into a federal state for the first time and institutionalise the world's youngest republic.
The new National Muslim Struggle Alliance is seeking recognition of their distinct identity, equal treatment based on secularism, and a Muslim commission under the new constitution to address the community's needs.
They have also demanded: a guarantee of proportionate representation for Muslims at all levels of state government; preferential political rights in some states; reorganization of Madrassa education and permission to enforce Muslim family laws and protection of mosques.
"Our community's concerns were never addressed in the history of Nepal's constitution," said Sadrul Miya Haq, a Muslim MP and coordinator of the alliance, which includes lawmakers, politicians, students and religious leaders.
"We would like to make it clear that Nepal's Muslims will be compelled to launch a decisive movement to safeguard our identity if the new constitution does not accommodate our concerns," he told Khabar South Asia.
Unlike in other South Asian countries where Hindu-Muslim riots are frequent and often devastating, in Nepal, Hindus and Muslims have lived in relative harmony and peace for generations.
(Note: This was not mentioned in the Khabar South Asia article, but the National Muslim Struggle Alliance staged a protest at Singhadurbar, Kathmandu on April 21. Over three dozen activists were arrested, after a scuffle broke out between them and police. Among those arrested were former state minister for home affairs Rijwan Ansari and 3 lawmakers from Muslim Community. Police had intervened and arrested activists of the Muslim Alliance on charges of trying to break into the prohibited zone. Their demands also include a constitutional recognition of a separate Muslim identity and the formation of a constitutional commission.)
The Muslim community, however, began raising its voice after the country was turned into a secular state following a people's uprising that ended the century-old dynasty in 2006.
"The main problem of the Muslim community is identity. So the new constitution should accommodate their religious and cultural rights," Hafiz Muhammad Zahid Parwez, a researcher at the Center for Educational Innovation and Development at Tribhuvan University, told Khabar.
Nepal's Muslims have historically been marginalized and their representation in politics, bureaucracy and decision-making level is dismal, Parwez said.
"Until the interim constitution was adopted in 2007, there were no constitution and policies that recognized the rights of Muslims," he said.
The interim constitution has incorporated provisions aimed at uplifting socially marginalized communities, including Muslims, and adopting a policy of inclusion in state mechanisms.
"The policy has encouraged participation of the Muslim community," says Mohna Ansari, the only Muslim woman lawyer in Nepal and a member at the National Women's Commission. "Yet there should be a population-based inclusion policy if we are to see due representation of Muslims in state mechanisms."
A top leader of Nepal's largest party the United Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN (M) said that it has taken the demands of the Muslim community seriously and is committed to addressing them.
"Our party maintains that there should be proportional representation of the Muslims and other marginalized communities," said the Maoist party's Vice Chairman Narayan Kaji Shrestha, who is also the deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs.