Linguistic discrimination and conflictAs long as there is unfairness, the goal of an inclusive and prosperous Nepal is impossible.
Gyani Maya Kusunda, one of the two fluent mother-tongue speakers from a nearly extinct language, died last year in her hometown Lamahi, Dang in western Nepal. Sadly, the loss of a mother-tongue speaker from such a highly endangered ethnic community of Nepal didn't receive any attention from the state nor engender discussion in the public sphere. The demise of 82-year-old Gyani Maya is not just the loss of language; it is the loss of Kusunda culture, tradition and history, and most importantly, a source of knowledge of the community that enriches the world. This sort of apathy reflects the Nepali state's century-long discriminatory treatment and negative attitude towards the languages spoken across different ethnic and linguistic groups of the country. The continued disregard towards the grievances of ethnic and linguistic communities for recognition and protection of their mother languages and linguistic human rights are anticipated to trigger a conflict situation in society, threatening peace and prosperity.
Nepal is linguistically and ethnically one of the most diverse countries in the world. It is home to as many as 123 languages and 123 castes/ethnic groups (Census Report 2011). Kusunda's extinction is more significant in the sense that this is the only language in Nepal that doesn't fall under any language family and, therefore, is categorised as a language in isolation. The fact that more than 50 percent of the mother languages in Nepal are enlisted as endangered by UNESCO with 18 nearly extinct conditions (less than a thousand speakers) echoes the history of the language policy that privileged one language at the cost of others. The promotion of the Nepali language, formerly known as Parbate, Khas-Kura and Gorkha by the so-called high-caste ruling elites throughout history marginalised the mother languages of ethnic and linguistic communities and forced them into extinction, such as the Dura language.
Language, conflict and state
In South Asia, language has been a vital issue. The language movement in Pakistan gave rise to an independent nation, Bangladesh. Since Bangla speakers were denied the use of their language as an official language, the movement was launched against the state for recognition of Bengali as a state language and East Bengalis as equal citizens of Pakistan. February 21 is celebrated as International Mother Language Day, observing the victory for the Bengali language in 1956 and honouring the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the sake of language rights.
The imposition of Hindi as a national language of India sparked conflict in the multi-lingual country that partly fuelled the rise of militant separatist movements in the 1980s. The rise of the Gorkhaland movement is related to language sentiments in India. Sri Lanka had a similar experience of violence for decades (a contributing factor to the civil war from 1983 to 2009) because of the denial of linguistic federalism demanded by the minority Tamil community.
The language rights movement in Nepal has quite a long history. The Nepal Bhasa speaking Newar community has been in the frontlines of equal language rights movements since the time of the autocratic Rana rule. Other indigenous peoples have been supporting the movement that is against unequal constitutional provisions, restrictive clauses concerning the use of mother tongue in education, and the Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the use of mother tongues at the local bodies, among others. Even after the introduction of a federal republic democratic system, the treatment of the state towards historically oppressed communities has remained more or less the same.
Multi-lingual education or education in mother tongue is a basic human right enshrined in many international laws such as the Child Right Convention 1989, International Labour Organisation Convention 169 and the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People 2007, to which Nepal is a signatory. The goal of Education for All has failed to succeed as the government remains reluctant to facilitate the process to exercise this fundamental right to education through one's mother tongue enshrined in the constitution of Nepal.
Language politics has had a wide-ranging implication in socio-economic and educational opportunities for mother-tongue communities. The restriction on the use of the mother tongue has deprived them of passing examinations taken by the Public Service Commission for various civil service posts. Lack of fluency in the official language in a court proceeding and the prohibition on the use of their mother tongue in police custody has constrained justice. Their right to information has been violated. It is evident that the rigorous exclusionary policy of the state is largely responsible for the low socio-economic, cultural and educational status of ethnic communities.
The survival of a language is related to a distinct ethnic identity and culture. But the assimilating language policy has remained highly detrimental to minority languages such as Kusunda, Jirel, Baram, Surel, Tilung and other unidentified/non-recognised languages such as Malpande. Documenting extinct language and exploring the possibility of language revival could be worth considering for the protection and preservation of languages. But the state lacks interest in this. With such a situation in place, the community's resentment and antagonism towards the state is expected to grow subsequently.
Language, inclusiveness and prosperity
Nepal's diversity is always cherished. But when it comes to respecting the cultural and linguistic rights of marginalised communities, the state tends to display a greedy nature. The exclusion of certain caste/ethnic communities and the non-recognition of their cultural and linguistic human rights are a hindrance to peace and prosperity.
Constitutional provisions alone are not enough to preclude a violent upheaval; the formulation of inclusive policies that treat all communities and languages equally along with their rigorous implementation is crucial. A change in the mindset of members of the state apparatus along with the political will of the government and its bodies is equally critical to safeguard and promote the large number of languages spoken in the country. Mother language is a carrier of culture and day-to-day communication of the indigenous communities. As long as there is language discrimination, the goal of an inclusive, democratic and prosperous Nepal is impossible. Thus, ensuring language parity is important to prevent violent conflict in the country.