Beyond language wars

August 17, 2009 at 9:56 pm Leave a comment

Beyond language wars

– Pramod Mishra

The Vice President’s oath in Hindi and the Supreme Court’s judgment against it has once again thrust the contentious issue of language center stage. Even as Nepal worries its head over whether VP Jha ought or ought not to retake his oath in Greek or Farsi or Swahili, it’s time to give a different turn to the language question.

Yes, Khas-speaking Nepalis (I am going to use “Khas” for “Nepali” just to separate the language from the nation-state and language-based nationalism and see how it works in the discourse about languages in a multicultural country) must be proud of the Khas language and so should the speakers of Hindi- or Nepal bhasha- or any other language. And when Khas-speakers or Khas sympathizers like me, who now speak Khas more than any other language, celebrate Khas language and literature at home and abroad, we should all be proud of its achievements. A language spoken by a handful of hill Hindus only a couple of centuries ago has spread all over the country and beyond and produced, since Bhanubhakta’s days, an admirable body of literature.


Let’s all celebrate it.

But Khas speakers and their enthusiasts and its sympathizers must not try to impose the language on others in the state institutions at a time when Nepal and Nepalis are engaged in redefining Nepali identity and restructuring the Nepali state. Khas speakers trying to impose and belligerently shame VP Jha into retaking oath in Khas is the same hubris if VP Jha would say that everyone else in Nepal should take their oath in his language, be it Hindi or Maithili or whatever. In other words, the emergent Nepal cannot have a monolingual identity.

I of course know that Khas in time changed its name and became Nepali, with the barrel of the gun became the language in which the government functioned, and during the Panchayat era became invested with emotional nationalism, but we are not living in the Panchayat or Rana periods. We have had more than one uprising and over ten years of insurgency and more than ten thousand deaths. Why? To repeat the exhausted slogans and ideas of Panchayat nationalism? Instead of broadening the field of discourse, expanding the mental horizon and making our hearts capacious, the Supreme Court decision has made it a backward-looking force, which it has often been in matters of ethnicity — It defeated the attempt to make Maithili and Nepal Bhasa mediums of communication in Janakpur and Kathmandu municipalities respectively and sat on the citizenship bill in the 1990s just because some advocates filed petitions. So, the Supreme Court in its present form for all its legal expertise and service has fallen short of a new Nepal.

In the new constitution, the structure of the Supreme Court needs to be revamped and justices need to be chosen or elected, somewhat like in South Africa, by an independent panel comprised of the diversity of professions, political parties, civil society, legal experts and so on so that those who become justices are not only legal luminaries but can keep the interest of the country’s diversity and future in mind rather than advocate the failed ideas of the past about language and nation and national identity. At this sensitive point of transition from the past to the future, the best the Supreme Court could have done to help the country was to sit on the petition against the Vice President’s oath and let the Constituent Assembly (CA) make the decision about language in due course.

What are the consequences of the VP retaking his oath in “Nepali”? Have the justices thought about it? It will further alienate the Tarai from the mainstream and give the separatists and hate-mongers another pretext to spread their hate against Khas-speakers. No matter how Khas-speaking Nepalis can show their belated advocacy of the Tarai languages, they should know that Hindi remains the lingua franca of the Tarai, whatever the number of its speakers as mother tongue. That is a fact. And since the census has found that about two hundred thousand Taraiwasi speak Hindi as their first language, and members of parliament and even ministers take their oath in Hindi, what was the harm in the VP taking his oath in Hindi and signing the Nepali version for the records? He could have taken his oath in Farsi or Greek or whatever for all I care as long as what he says in his oath commits him to be an honest, Nepal-loving, Nepal-defending high official of the state.

This is not a time for narrowness; this is a time to expand one’s intellectual horizon and political sympathies. That day would be a truly multicultural day when a Khas-speaking high official takes his oath in Hindi or in any other language than his mother tongue and a Madhesi or any non-Khas speaker voluntarily takes his oath in Khas rather than being forced by the Supreme Court. In order to cultivate a multicultural habit of mind for a new Nepal, how about mandatory taking of oath of office in other than one’s first language for at least ten years?

In the interest of plurality and internationalism, I offer the following:

a. Almost every VDC, at least in the Tarai, now has an English medium “boarding school” where anybody who can afford sends his or her child to study in English medium. In the past decade, there has already been a sizable number of young folk who use English. hat will be the role of their English in Nepal? Only tourism, English teaching and English journalism, science and technology, and manpower export to the English-speaking West? What about their role in the state structure as civil servants, security officials and politicians in a globalized world?

b. It’s not just the foreign ministry that needs English-capable personnel. Almost every ministry now needs personnel fluent in English. And especially those ministries that need high ranking officials to interact with our neighbors need to be efficient in the languages of the neighbors. There are examples of Nepali officials in the border areas where they have to sit in meetings with Indian or Chinese officials, but they know neither Hindi nor English nor Chinese enough to serve the interest of the state well. As a result, they cannot effectively accomplish the international tasks.

c. On the other hand, those who are posted in ethnic areas within the country need to be efficient in the local languages and cultures of the region. For example, an Indian Administrative Service official who becomes a cadre of a particular state learns the language of the state in addition to his English, Hindi or whatever language he has as his mother tongue in order to carry out his or her duties effectively. And because they don’t know ethnic languages other than Khas and/or their mother tongue within Nepal, they fail to win the hearts and minds of the people and serve them effectively. In a new Nepal, the civil servants’ and security officials’ language skills need to be mandatorily broadened even as diversity is created in recruiting personnel. Emphasis on Indian or African language learning became the core of a colonial official’s training for employment in the British Empire. In this sense, Nepali officials have been worse even than the colonial officials.

d. A new Anglophone Nepali ethnicity has come into existence in the past decade or so in Nepal. This is not just the case of Nepal. It’s all over the world. English is gradually supplanting Hindi or at least going hand-in-hand with it in India. One needs to look at the crop of young journalists and writers who have emerged in the past decade in the Nepali public sphere. And the mushrooming English-medium schools are going to produce thousands of Anglophone Nepalis in the future. Nepal-loving and patriotic, this Anglophone manpower will not be Khas- or any one-language fanatics. They will love their languages and do everything to enrich them but because of their broader training and exposure to the English language and its treasures of ideas, they will more likely be more broad-minded and balanced in their judgment; they may not wish to impose their language, culture and way of life on others. They will be more willing to go out of their narrow box and reach out to other cultures, languages, classes and peoples who are not like them, don’t dress like them, or speak like them. They will have more tolerance and room for ambiguity in matters of identity and culture.

And so it is time that we thought of issues of language and culture not in terms of outdated national identity but in terms of how Nepalis will survive and thrive both as a multicultural country and as part of a more complex global community. It is only through the acceptance of one another rather than rejection of others or imposition of one’s language and culture on others that a new society can come into being. And English can work as a powerful force to create that expansive vision. And when Khas-speaking Nepalis’ hearts and minds expand and become inclusive, Khas language may truly become Nepal’s beloved language acceptable to a broader swathe of non-Khas ethnicities in addition to its continued relevance as an official language. But narrow-minded belligerence will only breed narrow-minded counter-belligerence.



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Eyes on the ball Tarai’s language dilemma

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