External Affairs

Nepali Muslim Leaders Question Own Parties’ Commitment to Inclusion

Under-represented in politics and often invisible in conceptions of national identity, not a single Muslim candidate has been fielded by any party in the upcoming national assembly elections.

At a press conference in Kathmandu on Friday, Muslim leaders from the Nepal’s three largest parties – the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) (UML), Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the Nepali Congress – together criticised their own and other parties for neglecting Muslim representation in politics.

The criticism comes ahead of February 7 elections for the upper house of parliament, known as the national assembly, in which local and provincial representatives elected in 2017 will cast their ballots.

No party has fielded a single Muslim candidate for the national assembly.

Neglect of Muslims in leadership roles

“The attitude of the national parties attracts our serious attention,” read a joint statement, which was signed by Seraj Ahmad Farooqui, president of the UML-affiliated Nepal Muslim Etihad Sangathan, Abdul Sattar from the Congress-affiliated Muslim Sangh Nepal, and Ather Husain Farooqui from the Maoists’ Muslim Mukti Morcha Nepal.

“The parties should be ashamed of themselves – the Congress, the Left Alliance, and the Madhesi leaders,” said Najbul Khan, a women’s activist and Congress candidate for parliament under the proportional representation (PR) system. Khan sustained an injury to her vocal chords when she was hit with a police gas canister during pro-democracy protests in 2006, so she spoke at the press conference in a strained but passionate voice. “In speeches, they talk about equality…but in an important constitutional body like the National Assembly, when there is not one Muslim represented, this makes me very sad.”

Though Muslims make up nearly 5% of the population of Nepal and many participated in recent popular movements for democracy and federalism, they are under-represented in politics and often invisible in conceptions of national identity. Muslims are also among Nepal’s poorest groups, and although a limited system of reservations in politics was introduced in 2008, Muslims were not included until 2017.

Political parties’ neglect of Muslims in leadership roles has led Muslim leaders to question their parties’ commitment to the spirit of the country’s 2015 constitution to end discrimination and “build an egalitarian society founded on the proportional inclusive and participatory principles.”

A Left Alliance consisting of the UML and Maoists won November-December 2017 elections a landslide, securing majorities in six of seven provincial assemblies and the lower house of the national parliament, called the house of representatives. The Alliance won on a platform of “prosperity through stability” and promises to stand up against Indian interference – a particularly sore topic ever since India’s 2015-16 unofficial border blockade.

Although the Maoists and UML declared they would merge into a unified party following the elections, they have yet to do so. The parties are said to be working out the details of power-sharing as they await national assembly elections, after which they can form a government to replace the incumbent Nepali Congress.

An imbalance

Though the Left Alliance emerged from the election as clear victors, the position of marginalised groups like Muslims is less clear.

Under the 2015 constitution and related elections laws, some political seats at the local, provincial and national levels were reserved for marginalised groups, including women, indigenous groups, Dalits, Madhesis, and Muslims. Women must constitute 33% of parliament, including both the national assembly and house of representatives.

To meet this requirement, the Election Commission is holding off announcing proportional representation (PR) election results until after the national assembly elections, because more women representatives may be needed to compensate for an abundance of men in the national assembly. However, reservation quotas for other marginalised groups – including Muslims – apply only to the PR seats, which make up only 40% of the house of representatives, according to Bhola Paswan, a journalist who specialises in inclusion issues.

And despite reservations, high-caste hill men are over-represented in key leadership roles. This demographic holds three times their share of mayoral posts and are the largest group in five out of seven provincial assemblies. At the national level, many marginalised groups are likely to be under-represented across party lines once final results are announced. In 165 first-past-the-post races, for example, only three Muslims won (one each from Nepali Congress and the Madhesi parties Rastriya Janata Party Nepal and Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum).

The outsiders

One reason why Muslims advocate for more equal representation is because in socio-economic terms, Muslims are among Nepal’s poorest groups. Their Human Development Index score, which takes into account standard of living, health, and education, is 0.42, just below hill Dalits and above Madhesi Dalits. Likewise, Muslim adult literacy is 45%, well below the national average of 66%.

Muslims have also been victims of sporadic communal violence in Nepal. Instances include Hindu-Muslim riots in Nepalgunj in the 1990s, vandalism of mosques and violence against Muslims in Kathmandu in 2004, the bombing of a Biratnagar mosque in 2008 in which two were killed, and the murder of two Muslim leaders in Banke in 2016. Although Hindu nationalism does not find widespread acceptance in Nepal – for example, even the moderately Hindu-nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party fared miserably in the recent elections – Muslims have often had to live with sporadic threats from fringe groups.

The Nepali Jame Masjid in central Kathmandu.

The Nepali Jame Masjid in central Kathmandu. Credit: Peter Gill

Furthermore, Muslims have been historically considered as outsiders by the Nepali state. As the sociologist David Seddon discusses in his recent book The Muslim Communities of Nepal, the 1854 Muluki Ain (National Code), which ranked citizens according to a Hindu caste hierarchy, placed Muslims near the bottom, just above Dalits. Religious freedoms opened up gradually after the end of Rana rule in 1950, and some Muslims were given token positions in the King’s cabinets under the Panchayat Period from 1960-1990. Still, most power remained in the hands of high-caste Hindu men, even after the return of multi-party democracy in 1990.

Following the Maoist insurgency from 1996-2006 and the Madhesi protests of 2007-08, political discourse focused more closely on issues of inclusion for the marginalised. Reserved seats were first instituted for the the constituent assembly (CA) elections in 2008, and the CA declared Nepal a secular state that same year.

But Muslims were not initially included in the reservations system; they were instead grouped with Madhesis, an umbrella term for a variety of marginalised groups that share ethnic and linguistic similarities with people across the border in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Though some Muslims identify as Madhesi and took part in the Madhesi protests – indeed several were killed amid police crackdowns – others rejected the Madhesi label. They pointed to the fact that although most Muslims live in the Terai (the homeland of Madhesis), others have historically lived in Kathmandu and the hills. The need for a separate identity was accommodated partly in the 2015 constitution, which explicitly named Muslims as a marginalised group, and in a 2017 election law, which finally granted Muslims their separate quota.

Lack of inclusion

But even with reserved seats, some Muslims fear their exclusion will continue without a shift in prevailing political attitudes.

While Muslims may receive reserved PR seats, there is a feeling that these are less influential than the directly-elected seats, since occupants feel more pressure to toe their official party line.

“Whoever comes in the proportional seats, they are chamchas of the leaders… No one who advocates for Muslim people, for a Muslim movement, can get a seat. They are stopped, there are barriers to them getting there,” says Ather Husain Farooqui, from the Muslim Mukti Morcha.

The national assembly election provided a second chance for political parties to show their commitment to the spirit, rather than merely the letter of the law, regarding inclusion. National assembly members must approve of legislation that originates in the lower house. Unfortunately, the major parties’ failure to include Muslim candidates for the national assembly has failed to convince many Muslims that they are committed to inclusion.

At the end of the press conference, Taj Muhammad Mia, the vice-president of the UML’s Nepal Muslim Etihad Sangathan, recalled that even Nepal’s former King Birendra had named a prominent Muslim, Dr. Muhammad Mohsin, as a cabinet member. “If provisions could be made for Muslims at that time, now, finally, after fighting for and receiving democracy and federalism, why is our community given zero seats?”

Peter Gill is an American journalist based in Nepal. He tweets at @pitaarji.