Tarai’s language dilemma

August 19, 2009 at 6:58 am 2 comments

Tarai’s language dilemma

– Pramod Mishra
Those who have designated Hindi as their mother tongue in Nepal can’t write it correctly Khas-speaking Nepalis oppose Hindi because they fear Hindi will, with its bigger force, undermine the predominance of Khas or challenge the Khas-dominated national identity.  A few Maithili and Bhojpuri (I haven’t seen any Awadhi-speaking opposition to Hindi) speakers along with some Khas speakers oppose Hindi because they rightly think that Hindi will eat up these weaker languages spoken as mother tongue in the Nepali Tarai.  On the other hand, the Tarai parties almost unanimously support Hindi’s prominence along with Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi and so on.  What is the underlying mystery behind this confusing language politics?

While I leave the specialized analysis of linguistic complexity to professional linguists such as Drs. Ramavtar and Yogendra Yadav, who have done significant work on Maithili and Nepal’s other languages, I am going to offer here my understanding of the tussle between Hindi and Maithili.

Why has Hindi become the lingua franca of the Tarai despite the absence of any curricular, official support as it exists in India?  Bollywood and Indian television may have been reasons in recent years for its spread but the main reason is the failure of Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi to shed their rustic, dehati association, on the one hand, and the discriminatory politics of successive Nepali and Indian governments on the other.

There is a two-fold reason for the failure of Maithili as a formal language of widespread use: political discrimination and philological misunderstanding, on the one hand, and the vice-like grip of the big castes-predominently Brahmins but also Kayasths and Rajputs and to a lesser extent Bhuminars-of Madhubani district of Bihar (panch kosh) on its written verse and prose forms, on the other.  Maithili dramas have a more mixed nature because while these are written by members of the big castes they are performed for the general public in a Maithili spoken.

The situation of Bhojpuri and Awadhi resembles Maithili in their dehati nature but not in the six hundred years of Maithili’s written literature.  True, Awadhi has Tulsi Das’s 16th-century Ramcharitmanas and Malik Mohammad Jayasi’s Padmavat of the same period but anything else of note after that?  And Bhojpuri may have some recent activists championing its written verse and prose forms without much traction in the curriculum and the official world, it certainly is roaringly popular as a dehati language of racy, raucous songs and poems-“Ara heele Baliya heele, Chapra heele la” readily comes to mind-and recent movies of north Indian village culture.   One is not sure if recent activism alone will make Bhojpuri and Awadhi shake off their rusticity and rise to the formal, official level without years of government support.

Mathili’s case is more complex.  Richard Burghardt, whose untimely death was a great loss to South Asian area studies, has written an incisive essay on the fate of Maithili as a language.  What I knew from my general observation and experience as a Maithili speaker, Burghardt confirmed in his scholarly findings.  For example, I knew that Maithili and Sanskrit as elective subjects in Bihar’s Public Service Commission tipped the balance in favor of Maithili Brahmins and Kayasthas in Bihar’s state-level jobs, the same way the alumni of Tindhara Pathsala in Kathmandu become Nepal’s civil servants in hordes by writing their public service exams with Nepali and Sanskrit as optional subjects with the added advantage of Nepali as a medium of writing and interview.  As far as I know, Lalu Yadav put paid to this unfair advantage that went against non-Maithili writing Biharis, such as those who spoke Maithili but didn’t learn its written forms and Angika, Magahi Bhojpuri and Bajjika speakers. 

This government disfavour dates back to at least the 18th century. But one can easily extend this discrimination against Maithili farther back in time because after the Muslim control of north Bihar, Persian became the language of official business and gradually Urdu the spoken form in the official world.  Maithili may have thrived better in the palaces of Malla kings in medieval Nepal but its fate in north Bihar remained tied with the Maithili pandits’ finicky written form and the rural folk’s language of folk songs, plays and to a limited extent verses.

Burghardt clearly lays out how Maithili suffered in the 19th century since the first census of 1872.  George Grierson, the first philologist to have investigated north Indian languages thoroughly, studied Maithili extensively and fluctuated between designating it as an independent language like Bengali and Oriya and denigrating it as a descendent of a non-existent “Bihari” language.  And the British census takers, too, following the philologist considered it as a dialect of Bihari and later the Indian government after Independence counted it as a dialect of Hindi to bolster the Hindi-speaking nationhood and avoid the Maithili-speaking areas separating from Bihar.  Thus, Maithili always suffered from philologists’ misunderstanding and Indian government’s political exigency.  And in Nepal, Khas became Nepali and the Rana and Shah rulers left no room for any other language in the state structure.

But the Maithili elite were no less to blame for Maithili’s misfortunes.  For example, in the 1961 Indian census more than half of the Maithili-speaking population dropped Maithili as their mother tongue in favour of Hindi.  Why?

True, Mathili is spoken by almost everyone in its various forms from the border of Bengal in the east to the border of Bhojpuri-speaking areas of western Bihar and central Nepal.  Even in Jhapa and Morang, save for the Rajbanshis and Bengali Muslims, other Taraiwasis, such as Yadavs, Kebarat, Gangais, etc., speak Maithili.  But they would much prefer Hindi to Maithili when it comes to Maithili’s written form.  Why?  The reason is the dominance and monopoly of the big castes, especially the Maithili Brahmins on its written form and their idea of what is chaste or shuddha Maithili.  In particular, the so-called pure Maithili spoken within what is called panch kosh in Madhubani district of north Bihar; it has monopolized its written form.  That sort of Maithili, they say, “is the preserve of those who cultivate their minds, not their fields.” To further quote Burghardt, “In the former category one finds Maithils from the so-called ‘big’ castes: the Maithil Brahmans who are guardians of Sanskritic knowledge, the Bhumihar Brahmans who are the traditional landlords of Mithila and the Kayastha scribes who kept the accounts and revenue records for the Bhumihars.” Burghardt left out the Rajputs.  That is why, having grown up in a Rajbanshi environment, when I first encountered the written form of Maithili in my college on the banks of the Ganges, it appeared an alien language to me.  So I never studied Maithili either in high school or college, opting instead for Sanskrit and speaking Maithili only as my mother and father tongue and loving its folk forms, from hilarious parodies to Vidyapati’s more nuanced, somber and erotic songs.

And my father always wrote his letters to me in his broken Hindi and when he died, I switched from Hindi to dehati Maithili to write letters to my mother, which others in the village read out to her.  Writing in Nepali, Hindi or chaste Maithili would have felt artificial, embarrassing to me and to her.  That’s why, it is also said that “Maithili is woman’s speech, the menfolk opting for Hindi in their more public lives.”

Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi by all means need state patronage and promotion.  Maithili certainly deserves the status of an official language but its written form has been the preserve of the Maithili Brahmins and Kayasths of certain districts of north Bihar.  They will be its immediate beneficiary in government jobs rather than the larger populace who speak it but do not care for its so-called pure, panch kosi form.

On the other hand, Hindi is nobody’s mother tongue.  And even those who have designated it as their mother tongue in Nepal can’t write it hundred percent correctly because of Hindi’s complex grammatical gender system.  Hindi is a learnt language for everyone.  A Nepali-, Maithili-, Bhojpuri-, Awadhi- or whoever has to labor equally to learn it.  For example, when I went to India to study, it didn’t take me long to beat most Biharis in Hindi exams.  Although Sanskrit-knowing Brahmin teachers and writers and Hindutva ideologues still try to steer it toward tatsam vocabulary and pandit-Hindi, Gabbar Singh-Hindi, Lalu-Hindi and Ghazal-Hindi are too powerful a force to be tamed by the RSS volunteers. 

Now, if Maithili breaks free of its caste and geographical barriers in its written form and Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi manage to have infrastructure in schools, they certainly deserve their due official recognition and government patronage because a common Taraiwasi lives in these languages. 

But then the question of the recognition and empowerment of languages in Nepal is not just the internal dynamic of a specific language; it’s more a matter of how those who do not speak Khas or Nepali as their mother tongue and are not hill high caste Hindus can have parity with Khas-speaking hill high castes in the state structures.  That is the crux of the language question in Nepal.  If the new constitution addresses the bigger issue, the language question will no longer remain as volatile.



Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Beyond language wars Tribes of Terai

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ranjit  |  September 5, 2009 at 6:02 am

    I am totally disagree with you. existance and empowerment of Hindi is beneficial for it’s co-language like Maithili,Bhojpuri,Nepali,orria etc. There are many region behind this. One of them is that Hindi is ancestral-stock for these all sister language. it is a proved fact. I think , Here You established your personal assumption. One need comp. scintific study before drawing any conclusion.

  • 2. Bhojpuri  |  December 27, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Its a great language. Just love it.

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