Contrary to the constitutional requirement for the central government’s consent for any kind of international funding, the Province 2 government has introduced a bill to create a body that receives foreign funds to operate schools for Muslim children in the eight Tarai districts.
The bill comes amid a controversy surrounding the halting of three bills—Police Act, Public Service Commission Act, and Civil Servants Adjustment Act—by the provincial government, further putting it at loggerheads with the federal government.
The decision to float the bill, a draft of which was obtained by the Post, also puts the spotlight on Mohammad Lalbabu Raut, the chief minister of Province 2.
Some critics say the bill is his plan to woo the sizeable Muslim population in the province that Raut, himself a Muslim, hopes to keep intact as his vote bank. Records at the National Muslim Commission show that nearly three-fourths of the total Muslims in the country reside in the Tarai province.
The new bill proposing a Madrasa Education Board to allow foreign funding for madrasas not only contradicts the constitution but will also have serious implications for national security, as most madrasas are located in areas close to the Nepal-India border. The growing number of madrasas across the border has been a routine security concern for New Delhi.
Indian officials have said in the past that any kind of proliferation of extremism in the madrasas may hamper Nepal’s internal security dynamics, and have repeatedly alerted Kathmandu to be cautious. According to a senior police official in Kathmandu, Indian officials are concerned that the funding for the madrasas could be used for radicalisation. However, Nepal has downplayed such concerns, saying that local and national officials regularly monitor madrasas across the country.
The draft bill for the formation of the board envisions a fund to support Muslim schools in the province that receive financial support in gift or grant from domestic or foreign organisations and individuals.
The draft under consideration at a committee of the provincial arliament will have to be endorsed by the full House before it is fully implemented.
The draft comes at a time when a majority of the madrasas operating in the Tarai region are reluctant to register with the authorities despite frequent calls from the government.
About 907 madrasas that focus on Islamic teaching, along with Urdu and Arabic languages, are registered with government agencies, which officials say is less than one-fourth of the total number of madrasas operating in the country.
Officials said that in areas with low density of schools and where the population remains detached from the modern education system, the provincial education board should make efforts to set up regular schools with common curricula under the provincial education board. But it requires changes in circular and pedagogy, which the provincial government is lacking. Officials also said that specialised subjects could be incorporated into the curriculum to teach courses related to a religion or an ethnic group.
The logic behind the institutional set-up is to help support the madrasas that are deprived of basic education, said Dipendra Jha, chief attorney of Province 2. That said, Jha told the Post, the provincial government cannot receive foreign funds or investment without approval from the federal government.
Though Muslim organisations say the total number of madrasas is around 2,000, Zaheed Pervej, a Tribhuvan University professor who has researched extensively on Nepali madrasas, said there are about 4,000 Muslim religious schools.
Pervej said that by introducing the bill, the Province 2 government hopes to continue the operation of madrasas in its current form. “The bill is politically motivated,” he said. “The provincial government doesn’t seem bothered to address real problems in such schools.”
Clarifying that the move was not politically motivated, Jha said there would be no controversy over the legislation if a non-Muslim was the chief minister. “This is not a religious bill,” said Jha. “It’s an education bill. I don’t understand why there is such a hue and cry over this. It can be amended by parliament.”
Pervej said it was illogical to open international funding for madrasas while a majority of them are operating without maintaining transparency. He said his study showed that the major reason behind the Muslim schools’ reluctance to register is the fear that they will need to disclose their sources of funding.
“Many madrasa operators are using the funds gathered at the national and international levels as they please,” Pervej said. “They don’t want to lose their monopoly by getting registered.”
On May 24, 2002, the government issued directives to all the district education offices to make sure the madrasas are registered immediately. The government also granted financial aid to those who complied, on condition that they teach science, mathematics, English and Nepali along with the religious subjects.
Muslim leaders said the madrasas are unwilling to register fearing that the government will impose its curriculum at the cost of the religious texts. Khurshid Alam, president of the Islamic Sangh-Nepal, told the Post that only some prominent madrasas receive support from the Nepali Muslim diaspora in Islamic countries; the rest of them rely on the alms generated from within the community. But Alam argued that now was not the right time for the provincial government to form the Madrasa Board. He said the board should first be established at the federal level to start addressing issues at religious schools. “The provincial government should stop forming the board for now,” he said.
Gyanendra Yadav, internal affairs and law minister for Province 2, told the Post that the state government wants to set up the board to ensure quality education in the madrasas. “The bill will be deliberated in the House before endorsement. All the contradictory provisions, if any, will be corrected before it is endorsed,” he said.