SOME devout Hindus attributed it to the rare October 24 solar eclipse, which they believed had brought bad luck. The man-on-the-street casually shrugged it off as a stray incident. But Kathmandu's intelligentsia has been shaken by the Hindu-Muslim riots—the third such incident since the '70s—that rocked the west Nepal town of Nepalgunj in the last week of October.
The town, bordering the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, came to a virtual standstill between October 26 and October 30. A minor quarrel between a grocer and his customer over vegetable prices flared up into violent Hindu-Muslim riots that left over 15 injured. The police resorted to lathi-charges and tear gas and had to finally fire several rounds in the air. Overnight curfew was clamped on the Terai town until sanity prevailed and members of both the communities took out peace rallies.
The first Hindu-Muslim riots in Nepal took place in the Terai district of Rautahat in 1971. Remembered as Gai Kanda (the Cow Incident), the unrest began when local Hindus were angered by reports of cow slaughter. A more serious—but less violent—protest erupted earlier this year, when Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a Buddhist and member of the ruling United Marxist-Leninist cabinet made some innocent remarks about cow slaughter at a human rights gathering in Parsa, yet another Terai district with a large Muslim population. He later issued a public apology but not before the incident had become a serious embarrassment for the Communist government.
This time, however, the ruling coalition government, which has not even completed two months in office, was spared further embarrassment as the clashes did not spill over to other districts. But the intelligentsia appears rather concerned. Is Nepali society beginning to lose it age-old character marked by communal harmony? "It's a natural backlash against the long Hindu dominance," says Ganeshman Gurung, a sociologist. "It is also the manifestation of a growing sense of unease in the ruling Hindu elite." High caste Hindus—the Brahmins, Chhetris and the Newaris—dominate almost all walks of life, including the legislature, the judiciary and the bureaucracy. While other classes feel they have been deprived of their fair share of privileges, Muslims, constituting about 3 per cent of the nation's population and not part of the traditional class structure, often feel like pariahs.
Nepal's Muslims, largely Sunni, constitute a heterogenous group. The Kashmiri Muslims, who have been in the country since the late 15th century, engaged in different occupations as musicians, manufacturers and bangle suppliers. There has been another spurt of arrivals from Srinagar since the political unrest in Jammu and Kashmir escalated in 1990. Other groups from different parts of northern India also settled in Nepal during the 16th and 17th century at the invitation of hill rulers to manufacture armaments. These Muslims remained in the hills and a majority of them are now farmers. The largest community however are the Terai Muslims—those living in the plains bordering India—who constitute 90 per cent of the total Muslim population. They are concentrated in the districts of Banke (Nepalgunj is the district headquarters), Kapilavastu, Rupandehi, Parsa, Bara, Rautahat, Saptari and Sunsari from east to west Nepal.
In 1990, when Nepal was drafting its new democratic constitution, it could have set the ancient Hindu order right by giving all communities their due, feel human rights activists. Unfortunately, the nation let the historical moment slip by. But others claim that the constitution well embodies the pluralistic nature of Nepalese society and if the word 'Hindu' is mentioned it is because an overwhelming majority of the people in the country are Hindus, giving Nepal its distinct identity. "Sectarian struggles are on the rise throughout the world," says Lok Raj Baral, a political science professor. "Stray incidents, however, should not be overplayed," he warns.
A high-level government commission set up to look into the clashes hasn't made its findings public yet. According to Baral, the influx of Bangladeshi Muslims, which is beginning to throw the traditional Hindu-Muslim equation off balance, could be one reason for the recent communal strife. Counters a long-time resident of Nepalgunj: "There are reports of Bangladeshi Muslim migrants entering Nepal via West Bengal but it is unlikely that they are responsible for the recent unrest."
Significantly, unlike in neighbouring India, Hindu-Muslim clashes in Nepal have never before gone out of control. "This is the first time in history that Nepal's Muslims have made news but of a kind they could do without," remarks Sudhindra Sharma, a sociologist. As a minority, Muslims have preferred to keep a low profile. "The forced exposure has brought misplaced notoriety to a community about which little has been written," Sharma observes. "The fact that the violent post-Ayodhya episodes have not affected Nepal indicates that the otherwise open border between Nepal and India does serve as an effective socio-political barrier."
What is a matter of concern, feels Sharma, is that the Nepalese intelligentsia could well be overreacting. As he points out: "The Hindu intelligentsia largely feeds on the writings of Indian politicians, scholars and journalists which are laden with as yet unarticulated anti-Muslim biases." If these sentiments are allowed to permeate Nepal, the little nation could have a big problem on its hands.