The adoption of multilingualism in Province 2 is significantAmong the changes that are going to have a long-term effect on people’s self-esteem and opportunities is language.
When this column comes out on January 2, 2020, our 20-day journey through the villages of Tarai-Madhes, from Jhapa in the east to Kailali-Kanchanpur in the west, will have ended and Tula Narayan Shah of The Nepal Madhesh Foundation, my fellow traveller in this journey, and I will have parted ways—only to meet once again on January 7 for a presentation on this journey before I head back to my work. I don’t yet know the full impact of this journey on my thinking nor the outcome this will bring. But my memories of overnight stays this winter with families from Jhapa to Kailai will remain etched in my mind. Except for a few nights of stay in the towns of Birtamod in Jhapa, Biratnagar in Morang, Janakpur in Dhanusha, and a couple of nights of roadside stay, we found warm hospitality with families in the villages that are facing the cold wave. Even though I knew a bit about the two eastern-most districts of Morang and Jhapa, because of my upbringing there, this journey would not have been possible without Tula Narayan’s extensive contacts. Nor would this trip be educating without his decade-long research work in the plains.
The journey began with a presentation on the politics and problems of education in Tarai-Madhes jointly organised by The Nepal Madhesh Foundation and Martin Chautari, one of the oldest research centres in Nepal, which has over the past two decades bridged the gap between the academic and the popular. Martin Chautari has been able to do so by building a library of scholarly books and publishing a peer-reviewed academic journal and research works on history, media and society, and inviting academic and non-academic speakers for presentations to a mixed audience.
After an intensive first three days of travel through Jhapa and Morang, I presented my findings on the cultural forms of the indigenous Rajbanshis at the North-South Collectives, a Biratnagar-based research organisation whose motto is ‘localising knowledge.’ About a week in, I made my third presentation to an audience that consisted of Province 2 government officials—including the chief minister, ministers, secretaries, and Policy and Planning Commission members at the invitation of the PPC Deputy Chairman Dr Bhogendra Jha. Used to speaking to fellow academics and students, I found this presentation most fulfilling because theory met practice there. The fact that I represented the humanities and spoke from my interdisciplinary training and interest in society, culture, ideology and people’s lives added to the occasion.
I don’t know if other provinces of Nepal organise such presentations by academics and writers, especially from the humanities, but the Province 2 government’s willingness to listen to people of all kinds shows that decentralised governance has created an immense hunger in the provincial level to learn about their region from multiple perspectives. Of course, politicians, planners and bureaucrats know their provinces by virtue of the political and administrative process of election and orientation. But society and people are complex entities, and any knowledge about them remain incomplete and ongoing.
Since the inaugural government of the provinces came into existence about two years ago, the Province 2 government has initiated a number of programmes and passed laws about women, Dalits and the environment that will have a long-term salutary effect on the lives of people. So, from the work it has done so far in these crucial areas, the government seems willing to do things for its people that will be an example for other provinces. It knows that the country and the world is watching whether the experiment of federalism will work in Nepal. And for any social or political entity to succeed in changing society and improving people’s lives, the flow of ideas in the governing circles is essential.
Province 2 is unlike any other province. The people of the province were the driving force behind federalism. Peoples of the plains, originally called the Madhesis, wanted localised governance because they felt excluded and discriminated by the Nepali state right from its inception in the 18th century. The discrimination was wide-ranging—people felt it in language, culture, and access to state mechanisms. So, they struggled for federalism; after a long and hard struggle, they got it—albeit partially. The western Tarai-Madhes, traditionally the land of the Tharus, remains to be formed as a province in itself like Province 2 where mostly caste Madhesis live. Yet, even in this truncated province, some changes are palpable.
Among the changes that are going to have a long-term effect on people’s self-esteem and opportunities is language. For example, the province has begun to use multiple languages in its everyday proceedings. My presentation itself involved many languages, excluding English. The deputy chairman began the proceedings in Maithili. The chief minister, who comes from a Bhojpuri-speaking region and usually speaks in Hindi, spoke in Nepali. Meanwhile, I said I would speak both in Maithili and Nepali; but in the question and answer session, when an audience member asked a question in Hindi, I answered in Hindi and quoted a couple of verses in Sanskrit.
The use of multiple languages in one government proceeding struck me as the most remarkable development in federalism. Before the implementation of federalism, you wouldn’t dare use any other language than Nepali on such occasions. The dominance of Nepali had become such that non-Nepali speaking people couldn’t compete successfully for government jobs because Nepali was the medium for exams and interviews.
You couldn’t speak other living languages even in mixed gatherings. The adoption of the European model of nationalism by the king in 1960 had created a one-language tyranny and stifled people’s creativity in this vigorously diverse country.
The country became a republic in 2008, but the legacy of monolingualism remained. That is why the culture of multilingualism that Province 2 has adopted is of immense significance. It will enhance people’s self-esteem, open up career opportunities for non-Nepali speakers, broaden the cultural and linguistic horizon of Nepali speakers, and raise the overall level of people’s consciousness and knowledge. After all, an enhanced level of idea flow is a pre-condition of social and national progress. While Province 2 has begun to do that, it is beneficial for the entire country.
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