Language chauvinismThe recent arrests in Balaju show the need for a greater understanding of language diversity.
On the sidelines of the political drama hogging the limelight was the somewhat disconcerting turn in the long-standing protests against the road expansion going on in Kathmandu Valley’s north-western exit of Balaju. Locals had been declaiming that the land appropriation process had been unfair and been engaged in acts of disobedience for years. For their pains, this time, some of the protestors were detained by the police. And, when some activists went to enquire about their well-being, they, too, were arrested—but for the affront of communicating in Newari, or Nepal Bhasa, a language that some of them were most comfortable with but which the openly eavesdropping policemen could not understand.
Such were the actions of the police under the nominal leadership of a home minister whose party had launched a bloody insurrection to guarantee every Nepali the right to nurture and make use of their own mother tongue. It is a wonder that the police could be so openly provoked by the sound of Newari in the face of the fact that the current Prime Minister is married to someone who grew up speaking that same language. Thus, while the audacity of the cops beggars disbelief, it also points to a structural problem that goes much deeper: the fact that despite the political changes of 1990 and 2006 and the three democratic constitutions we have seen in three decades, there has been not much change in the ruling elite in terms of their proclivities. Hence, all those who attain positions of authority end up adopting and buttressing a mindset firmly moored in an unhappy past, which includes undermining all the languages spoken and used in the country other than Nepali.
With its rich history and a provenance older than Nepali’s, Newari perhaps invoked a certain kind of envy among the rulers. Hence, as outlined in Suwarn Vajracharya’s PhD dissertation, a trend started by the Shahs was taken up by the Ranas in terms of discouraging the use of the language in public life, and in later years even incarcerating those who wrote and published in it. The 1950s’ decade-long interregnum between the Ranas and the Shahs was when the use of Newari flowered. Newspapers were established and Nepal Bhasa also became the language of instruction in some institutions. Most importantly, Newari-language news broadcast began on Radio Nepal.
It all came to an end, however, with the advent of the Panchayat system. The process was gradual but with devastating effect. First was the revocation of Kathmandu Municipality’s 1958 decision to provide services in Newari alongside Nepali. Then, came the termination in 1965 of the news broadcasts in Newari (and Hindi). And, with the New Education Plan of the early 1970s that made it more difficult to study non-Nepali languages, Newari appeared doomed.
Perhaps it was in recognition of the stellar role played by inhabitants of the core areas of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, along with other Valley townships, among the first actions of the new government after the restitution of democracy in 1990 was the restoration of the status quo ante with regard to the news in Newari and Hindi on Radio Nepal. While the 1990 constitution retained Nepali as the official language it also granted recognition to all the languages spoken in Nepal as ‘languages of the nation’, thereby paving the way for these languages to be used without fear from the state.
A major blow, however, was the Supreme Court’s ban in 1999 on the use of Newari and Maithili in local governments. The Court’s decision was based on a petition against the introduction of Newari by Kathmandu Metropolitan City, and Maithili by the Janakpur District Development Committee and the Rajbiraj Municipality as official languages. In all the cases, these languages were to be used in addition to Nepali. However, the perception, which was fuelled in part by the Nepali-language media, was that these languages were meant to supplant Nepali’s official language status. A group of busybodies promptly challenged the local governments’ authority to designate a language other than Nepali in the conduct of official business, and the Supreme Court unfortunately agreed.
Cue to post-2006 Nepal and we find the 2007 Interim Constitution and the 2015 Constitution premised on the restructuring of the state, which included ending all forms of discrimination based on linguistic differences as well. That was indeed a far cry from the 1990 Constitution which simply granted every community ‘the right to preserve and promote its language, script and culture’ while also allowing the operation of primary schools in the local tongue.
The 2015 Constitution also granted the seven provinces the authority to designate one or more languages as the official language of the province alongside the mandatory Nepali. Similar authority has also devolved to local authorities through the mandate given to the Language Commission. More pertinently, the ‘right to language and culture’ has even been included in the list of fundamental rights whereby everyone has the right to use their language and to ‘preserve and promote their language, script, culture, civilization and heritage’. Despite all these protections accorded by the law, the hapless Newari-speaking activists found themselves in the slammer.
That the Supreme Court summarily ordered the release of all those arrested in the Balaju episode shows how both the law and the courts have bowed to the inevitable over time. In fact, the judiciary has gone one step further and now provides free interpretation services in all the courts for those who cannot communicate in Nepali.
Since the incident happened around the time of mass popular mobilisations against an increasingly unpopular government, the issue of the right to language became another cause célèbre as well. And, unlike in the past, when champions of the Newari language would nearly all be Newars themselves, this time around they found allies among non-Newars as well. These consist of those who suffer from Nepali-language chauvinism themselves but also a progressive bunch of individuals whose mother tongue is Nepali and who could feel the pain of the constrictions imposed by the state on their compatriots. The demand now is that all languages spoken in Nepal be recognised as official languages.
As was to be expected, the drumbeat of negativism is slowly being heard and amplified in the media. The spin now is that it is a ridiculous demand whereby each and every government department is being asked to provide services in all the 100+ languages spoken in the country. Languages other than Nepali have been brought into use in local governments all over the country although so far it is only the main language(s) of the region that has been considered. But the judiciary has shown that language need not be a barrier to receiving government services—just by providing translation support when required.
Nepali-language chauvinists should be well aware by now that the language project of the Nepali state has been a resounding success and there can be no rolling back of its paramount role from our lives. What official status to other languages would do is grant all Nepalis a sense of belonging to the state. Hopefully, it would also temper the prejudices of government officials such as the police in the Balaju case. Neither can be such a bad thing, can it?