Nepal Muslims want greater say as constitution deadline looms

KATHMANDU (IINA)- Crossing the rickety steel wire bridge, Sheikh Islam puts his arm forward, showing the expanse of the valley that unfolds here in the Kathmandu Valley just south of Bandipur, a few hours from Nepal’s capital city.

“We are Muslim, but we are Nepali as well,” the sheikh, the local community leader here in this small village an hour’s drive and walk from the main highway.

“But we are a growing segment of society and we hope to have our voices heard as political leaders write a new constitution.”

According to recent government statistics, of the 30 million Nepalese in the country, some five percent are Muslim. With a Constituent Assembly currently drafting a new constitution that will lead the country into its latest democracy effort, 6 years on from the end of the Maoist “insurgency” the Muslim population feels ostracized and absent from the proceedings.

“Here in our village, we are struggling to make life tolerable and our community has hopes that Muslims will have a voice in the drafting process,” his English near flawless after having spent three years studying in the UK in the late 1990s, at the height of the Maoist war with the government. “I learned a lot from London and believe that we can have a representative democracy for all of Nepal.”

But his optimism is not shared by the wider Muslim community. In the impoverished southern Terai region near Lumbini, Yussuf and his family of 7 are not convinced the politicians understand Muslims and fears their prejudice toward Islam will prevail in the constitution, which is to be completed by the end of this month.

In his small hut, with no electricity and limited fuel, he boils water for tea, searching for two cups, then pouring the steaming black tea into one of the two cups on the wooden plank that doubles as a table and a cooker.

“We have no income. What we earn is from the land and the land is drying up. Our community here is small, but we are strong in our faith and believe God will help us in the future,” he says, relaxing against the straw wall of the one room house. “People often say very insulting things to us daily because of our religion and I fear that the conservative Hindus will not give us our right as a citizen of this country.”

For him, and others in the Terai region, faith takes precedence over hope. The Muslim community has not seen much representation in the few democratic stints the country has witnessed in the past half-century, despite their growing numbers. Now, as political leaders aim to develop a federal system that can incorporate the over 100 ethnic groups in the country, Yussuf, like Islam, are banking on tolerance and understanding to prevail.

“In many ways, the Muslims in Nepal struggle like everyone else, but with the rising fear of Islam across the world, Nepalis remain scared of Muslim a leader, that’s why we are pressing for change,” Sheikh Islam said. “It is something that we can achieve, but it requires having a say in the process.”

Making matters hard still for the community is the police crackdown on Muslim activism in the country. On April 24, 23 Muslim activists, including 7 politicians, were detained for protesting at the District Administrative Office in Kathmandu, a prohibited zone.

Although they were released later in the day, it revealed the need to heed Muslim calls for inclusion.

The activists issued a letter demanding issues of the Muslim community be addressed in the new constitution, which they argued had not been dealt with in the past.

According to National Muslim Federation Chairman Taj Mohammad Miya memoranda were submitted to the government offices across the country.

The community has been demanding the formation of a constitutional commission and a federation that recognizes the Muslim community as an integral aspect of Nepali society. In the memorandum, they called on the state to adopt the policy of positive discrimination for the community.

“Places with less than 500 Muslim people should be declared Muslim conservation zones,” the memorandum demands.

Since then, on numerous occasions, the Muslim community has taken to the streets to demand a greater say in a country with 103 different ethnic groups, and where the majority makes up less than 20 percent.

Yussuf and his family are part of the proposed “conservation zones” and upon hearing the proposal were sparked with interest. But they fear the Hindu nationalists and the Communists could move to allay their hopes.

“If the discrimination we face is anything, then it will be hard for the Hindu leaders to agree to something like this because they do not like us and believe us to be dangerous,” he argued.

But Nepal Congress Party negotiator Ramchandra Paudel said that all issues are being addressed in the new constitution, including the Muslim community.

“The Muslims have a right to be heard and a need to be represented in the new democracy we are building here in Nepal. I know they have been left out of many discussions of our future in the past, but now is a time for change and unity and we can achieve this for Muslims and all Nepalis,” he said.

His statement is likely to go over well with the community, said Sheikh Islam, but he still is hopeful that the community, which largely lives at or below the national poverty line, will see action from the country’s political leaders.

“We are a strong minority and we will survive either way, but it is our hope that the new constitution will help bring us into the political and social society that is Nepal’s future,” he argued, pointing that the vast land that unfolds here in the Kathmandu Valley. “There is no better place that Nepal, for us Muslims and for all people.”

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