Nepal's Muslims call for Constitutional Input

BY IRIN
May 02, 2012

A growing sement of Nepali society want their voices heard.

1233 4.2 percent of Nepal's population is Muslim PHOTO: Joseph MaytonSheikh Islam, a local community leader in Mantikar, a tiny mountain village of 1,000 inhabitants in Nepal, stops at the rickety steel wire bridge and with a broad sweep of his arm indicates the expanse of the Kathmandu Valley that unfolds on the outskirts of Nepal's capital city.

"We are Muslim, but we are Nepali as well. We are a growing segment of society and we hope to have our voices heard as political leaders write a new constitution," he told IRIN.

According to the Nepal Central Bureau of Statistics, 4.2 percent of Nepal's 30 million inhabitants are Muslim.

More than 90 percent live in the Terai - the southern plains bordering India - one of the country's most densely populated and poorest areas, where they are predominant in the Banke, Parsa, Kapilvastu, and Rautahat districts.

Nepal's Constituent Assembly (CA), a legislative body elected in 2008 to draft the next constitution, is working to complete the task by 27 May - its 5th deadline.

More than five years since the end of a decade-long civil war between Maoist forces and the government, in which 13,000 people died, many Muslims complain that they have been left out of the drafting process.

"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," Sheikh Islam noted.

His optimism does not appear to be widely shared among Muslims, who are under-represented in government. The 2007 interim constitution was the first time in Nepal's history that Muslims were officially represented. Of the 329 members of the interim parliament, four are Muslim - much lower than the 4.2 percent in the overall population.

Nepal's political leaders aim to develop a federal system that can incorporate the more than 100 ethnic groups in the former Hindu monarchy.

"In many ways, the Muslims in Nepal struggle like everyone else, but with the rising fear of Islam across the world, Nepalese remain scared of Muslims, which is why we are pressing for change," said Sheikh Islam.

1234 A halal butcher on the streets of Kathmandu PHOTO: Joseph MaytonMaking things tougher is an incident that occurred on 24 April. Muslim activists and politicians demonstrated at the District Administrative Office in Kathmandu, a prohibited zone that is off-limits to protesters, demanding that their voices be heard in the drafting of the constitution and their identity and religious background be supported - 23 were detained. Some in the community perceive this as a crackdown on Muslim activism and further action has been threatened.

A broad alliance of 31 Muslim groups submitted a 10-point memorandum to the CA in mid-April, calling for the formation of a constitutional commission and a federation that recognizes the Muslim community as an integral aspect of Nepali society. They also asked the state to adopt a policy of positive discrimination towards the community.

"We would really like to be able to build more mosques, expand our traditions and be able to publicly practice our faith without being fearful of repression," said Sadrul Miya Haq, a Muslim MP and coordinator of the National Muslim Struggle Alliance (NMSA). "Fundamentally, the Muslim demands are part of the need to create freedom of religion that does not keep Nepal only Hindu."

As the deadline for Nepal's constitution approaches, many contentious issues among Nepal's ethnic, caste, regional and political groups remain to be resolved. Analysts warn of further political instability unless a constitution can be agreed upon soon, while NMSA says it will launch a second phase of protests on 2 May to ensure constitutional garantees for Muslims.

This article was first published in IRIN.