The issue of identity was at the front and center of the constitution making exercise during the four years of Constituent Assembly’s existence. It is commonly held that the failure of the CA to come up with a constitution by May 27 deadline was largely due to the failure of the major parties to come to the same page on how to address the identity question in a federal setup. The task was made even more challenging by various ethnic and religious communities agitating (often at cross purposes) for recognition in the new constitution. Among these was the 1.1 million-strong Muslim community, which hit the streets right across the country in the lead up to May 27, demanding that their grievances be addressed in the new constitution. Heeding their demand, the government had on May 21 signed an 11-point agreement with the Muslim struggle committee, guaranteeing the community’s demands would be addressed in the soon-to-be-drafted constitution. But the failure of the CA once again threatens to put their agenda into obscurity.
But that didn’t seem to have dampened the spirits of the Nepali Muslims who got together to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, one of the two major Muslim festivals, on Monday. The day, observed at the end of month-long fasting in the month of Ramadan according to the Islamic Hijri calendar, is celebrated as a festival of joy by Muslims around the world. On the holy day, Muslims gather in the morning at outdoor locations and mosques to offer annual prayers. While only Muslims were given holidays on this day before 2006, it is observed as a national holiday in the new setup. It is certainly a laudatory gesture on the state’s part, but nearly not enough to take into confidence the Muslim community that has effectively been treated as second-class citizens ever since Jang Bahadur Rana framed the Muluki Ain in 1854 based on the Hindu varna system, which denigrated Muslims as ‘impure’ and ‘untouchables’.
This traditionally silent minority gained its voice following the historical Jana Andolan II which freed the country from a subjugating monarchy that promoted Hinduism at the expense of other faiths. The Muslim community was hoping that the May 21 agreement would help secure their rights, but the CA’s untimely demise has once again given them enough room for doubt. We believe the commitments made in the May 21 agreement should still be honored, for the concerns of the Muslims since its signing remain the same. The new constitution (whenever it comes into force) must make clear commitments to respect all religions equally and to right the historical injustice.
Thus it is important that the Muslim Commission stipulated in the 11-point agreement comes into being so that it can identify and press for major agendas of the Muslim community. As was the case with other marginalized communities, the traditional elites have heretofore made the decisions on behalf of the Muslim community. It is only appropriate that they be allowed to voice and actively participate in addressing their own concerns in the secular, federal democratic republic of Nepal