Nepali Times
State Of The State
Muharram in madhes


Last week, it was Muharram. It is observed in mourning to commemorate the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain, the younger grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in Karbala over 1,400 years ago. The influence of Sufism has transformed this solemn occasion into a symbol of the eternal conflict between forces of virtue and evil.

On the tenth day of Muharram, the Tazia, also called Daha in the vicinity of Janakpur, is taken around town in procession with mourners beating their chests and shouting 'Ha Hussain, Ho Hussain'. In the evening, the Daha is buried. Just as Muslims participate enthusiastically in Holi, Hindus share the pangs of the Muharram commemorations.

As a boy, I went around my village with the Daha procession for five years to fulfil a vow made by my parents for my good health. The string of bells around my waist would tinkle wildly whenever I jumped to the wails for Imam Hussain. Though the processions of, say, the Jolahas (weavers) and Dhobis (washermen) never mingled, I could accompany whichever Daha I chose.

Muharram was marked with traditional fervour this year too. The VDC contributed Rs 10,000 to the kitty and Hindu volunteers controlled the crowd that poured in from surrounding villages.

But Daha this year went beyond traditional practices and became an occasion for political mobilisation. Muslims are angry at the way the police and administration have behaved in Janakpur and they are with the majority Hindus in demanding their rightful place in Nepal's polity.

Janakpur's Muslims came with the Maharani of Tikamgarh to build the Janaki temple. Many of these rajmistris, or royal masons, settled down behind the building they had constructed. As Janakpur has become a magnet for rural migrants, land prices have shot through the roof. While most of the original settlers around the temple have sold their property and moved out to cheaper locations nearby, some still remain. They were the targets of police atrocities last week.

A civil society fact-finding team last week heard harrowing tales of police brutality. At least four Muslims have died, and when this uprising is viewed with an objective eye they will be noted as the first Muslims to lay down their lives for a secular Nepal.

Muslims are a significant minority in Nepal, and comprise between four (say census figures) and eight (say community leaders) percent of the population. They live in almost every tarai district, and Nepal has more Muslims than some of the smaller west Asian sultanates such as Bahrain (586,000) or Qatar (885,000). A 'New Nepal' can't be built without including them in nation-building.

Forward-looking states promote national solidarity and harmony between diverse groups by establishing impartial institutions, constructing a shared history, collective memory, and common heroes. Sometimes camaraderie developed in the trenches helps cement bonds. But nothing builds a sense of citizenship as effectively as participation in a freedom struggle.

During the April Uprising, for the first time in Nepali history, people from every background rose up together. This laid the groundwork of consensual nation-building. The ongoing protests in the madhes which build on that foundation have involved Musahars, Chamars, Kurmis, Khatabes, Doms, Dusadhs, and Muslims.

Hindu mythical agents of virtue always win and truth prevails. In Islamic traditions, victory is known only on Judgement Day, each struggle is important. This Muharram will not be forgotten.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)