Alienation of Muslims in MadheshThe ‘othering’ of the most significant minority will probably require more effort from civil society.
Janakpur is a city looking for a purpose. In the Hindu lore of the Ramayana, it was the capital of King Janak. The city continues to appear on the maps of ancient India as the capital of the Videha kingdom. The reputation of Videha was so formidable that when Ajatshatru, the king of Magadh in the fifth century BCE, succeeded in subjugating the Vrijji confederacy, he began to style himself as "vaidehi putra" or the "son of videha".
It seems that the region passed into the hands of wealthy priests and powerful chieftains after the decline of Buddhism and the resurgence of Hinduism, which made Janakpur reassert its religious identity. Simraungarh emerged as the seat of political power where tribal chieftains negotiated limits to their spheres of influence. The Karnats made Simraungarh their capital without challenging the religious supremacy of Janakpur. The Mughals began to exercise indirect control over the north-eastern fringes of the Ganga plains after the fall of the Karnats. The Oinwar Brahmins and the Sen warriors ruled over their realms as tributaries of the Mughal reign. However, no ruler dared to challenge the sanctity of powerful temples and their priests.
By the time of the Anglo-Gorkha war, Janakpur had acquired its commercial identity of being an important trading centre. Supply lines from the Ganga plains northwards ran through the town, where the exchange of commodities between pastoralists from the mountains and peasants from the plains took place regularly. Once the victors handed over the territory to the war's losers due to strategic considerations, the Gorkhalis tightened their stranglehold over the region rich in agricultural and forest resources.
The Ranas laid down railway tracks to transport timber to the Indian market. Land revenue was collected with severity even during floods and famines, and the loot was carried away on elephant convoys to Kathmandu via Birgunj. Little wonder some of the earliest anti-Rana movements began in Mahottari. After the royal-military coup in 1960, the sanctity of the Hindu monarch was challenged for the first time when Durganand Jha threw a bomb at the motorcade of King Mahendra. Resistance remained the defining characteristic of Janakpur throughout the authoritarian rule (1960-90) of the Shahs.
The missing link in the glory of Janakpur is the story of its Muslims.
The final tally of the national census is yet to be announced, but preliminary results show that Madhesh is the smallest in the area but has the highest population among all the seven provinces of Nepal. Its population density is more than double that of the second-placed Bagmati. Despite being so tightly packed, the province is strikingly diverse. Muslims are its second-biggest religious community with about 12 percent of the population.
Muslims have been part of the landscape in Madhesh for at least half a millennium. Unlike allegations of conversion at the point of the sword in the neighbourhood of Delhi, Sufism helped spread Islam in the interiors. The earliest reference to a Muslim village developing around a Malang in Mahottari comes from the story of Tasmaiya Baba that found a statuette of Laxmi Narayan buried underground and built a shrine to house the deity. Malangs are mystics, often Sufis, revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. The story about Tasmaiya Baba of Matihani has it that when he arrived at the site, the Malang of the Muslim village told him that his place was at the north-eastern corner. A few centuries later, the Muth (temple trust) that grew around it became incredibly influential and convinced the Sens of Makwanpur to found a formal school in 1718 AD.
The town of Malangwa is actually named after a Malang Baba. Sufi Malangs often stayed at the edge of the settlement and survived at the mercy of the weakest, the poorest and the neglected section of the caste-ridden Hindu society. That could be why most converts of the early years came from communities that caste Hindus despised as 'untouchables'. In Janakpur itself, the Maharani of Tikamgarh, who commissioned the Janaki Temple, asked her managers to build a mosque for Muslim masons that were brought from Faizabad. The community has since grown and dispersed, but remains inconspicuous. Some artisans and traders still live in the area and pray at the mosque.
Islam doesn't differentiate between believers that swear allegiance to the divinity of words revealed by the only Supreme to his final prophet in the world. The reality, however, is a little more complex.
The size of the Ashraf elite is rather small in Madhesh as it was never governed by Muslim monarchs. Even Mughals ruled through their local Brahmin supplicants. The Ajlaf or merchants that converted from Hinduism to obtain royal patronage are similarly few for the very same reason. The Arzal and Pasmandas that came from the Hindu "outcastes" form the bulk of the population.
The remittance economy has proven to be a greater leveller than the religious command of eating, living and praying together. The Muslims that have succeeded in bettering their lot in life find themselves in a fix. They want to escape from the stifling confines of respectability politics, but are fearful of the majoritarian backlash. The Dajyu Syndrome of displaying "ritualised, accommodating and sycophantic style of behaviour" towards Khas-Arya ethnonationals is even more pronounced among Muslims than the rest of Madheshis.
Having got the status that they wanted—residents of the capital city—the intelligentsia of Janakpur doesn't seem to know what to do with it now. The town was a centre of pilgrimage and will continue to remain one in the future. Its industrial dreams were shattered with the collapse of Janakpur Cigarette Factory. Trading declined due to transportation bottlenecks.
The profit sector paid to the ambition of emerging as an educational centre when lecturers of the once famous Ramswaroop Ramsagar College submitted to market forces and became "tuition teachers". It has acquired the notoriety of being the hub of businesses of illness where almost three dozen profit-sector "hospitals" have come up in the vicinity of Rangbhoomi grounds alone.
Perhaps more in resignation than due to conviction, influential interlocutors in town have begun to engage with the menacing politics of Hindutva. Somewhat like Sufism, the Bhakti movement and Ramanandi sect doesn't believe in the division of the divine in the name of different faiths. But the question that leading journalists and retired professors ask an occasional visitor from Kathmandu isn't about the Millennium Challenge Corporation controversy, the impeachment motion against the chief justice or the impending local elections. They seem to be more interested in the Hijab hullabaloo in Karnataka and the likely impact of Uttar Pradesh election outcomes.
A Muslim listener to one such conversation shuddered, perhaps more out of fear than repugnance. Having a chief minister born a Muslim is all very well, but the "othering" of the most significant religious minority of the province will probably require more effort from civil society. The Kathmandu intelligentsia that routinely misspells the very name of the province is unlikely to be of any help in creating a multi-faith culture to institutionalise secularism.