Nepal’s language imbroglio
Nepal’s language imbroglio
– Suhas Chakma
Nepal’s Vice President (VP), Paramananda Jha’s decision to take his oath of office in Hindi was greeted with near apoplexy by the political establishment in Kathmandu. The Supreme Court (SC) of Nepal instructed the VP to retake the oath in Nepali by 4 p.m. on Aug. 30 2009. VP Jha has refused to take fresh oath. Nepal is in a major political and constitutional crisis.
Speaking as a member of an indigenous group — the Chakmas — and as someone who has spent a lifetime defending minorities and indigenous communities, I find much of the argument very familiar. The undertone of the debate in Kathmandu seems clearly premised on a fixed idea of what is, and what is not Nepali. This sits on the exclusionary idea that Hindi is an Indian language and all that infers about many people of the Tarai.
Many see Kathmandu’s anger over Hindi as smacking of the restrictive view of Nepali identity defined by the prior regime. This fixed view of the Nepali identity was the backbone of the regime and was used to suppress rather than include.
And, for the Madhesis and other Janajati groups, this should have ended with the old regime.
Despite the vehemence of those that insist on the VP retaking the oath, the debate on language in the ‘new’ Nepal has not yet been decided — the constituent assembly is stuck — but if one thing is certain, it is that the likelihood of Hindi now becoming a recognised national language has increased dramatically.
Opponents of the VP have portrayed the case as a legal issue. It is not. It should be clearly understood as political. The SC has a shaky reputation for independence. Certainly the unseemly haste of the SC in this case versus its refusal to comment on the age of the former Chief of the Army staff (CoAS), Rukmangud Katuwal, suggests that there is a good case to answer. The government is in any case more than selective about obeying decisions of the Court. For example the directions of the Supreme Court with regard to disappearances have not been complied with.
Tension is mounting and a two-day general strike (banda) in support of the VP has brought the Tarai region to a standstill. With the Madhesi parties being critical to the coalition government, the end of the Madhav Nepal led coalition government is looking ever more likely. India is literally on the spot. It is caught between the sentiments of Madhesis and the survival of the Madhav Nepal led government which has been propped up against the Maoists but whose survival depends on the support of the Madhesi political parties.
Risking another conflict?
The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) in its latest report, “Madhes: The challenges and opportunities for a stable Nepal” of Sep. 1 2008, argues that the VP debate should be seen in the context of an already shaky peace. The report examines the specific issues of the Tarai which — unless addressed within the political framework peacefully — will contribute to instability. It has the potential to drive Nepal into another conflict.
The Tarai is already in chaos. Armed militant groups proliferate week by week. Mob violence is growing. Kathmandu has vacillated over talking with the armed opposition groups. Most worryingly the government is placing an ever greater emphasis on a knee-jerk security-centric response. The aim of the intervention is to restore law and order. The architect of the plan is the Home Minister, Bhim Bahadur Rawal, who openly admits that his own cadres are involved in regular illegal violence and criminality. It is unclear how the Minister can act in favour of the rule of law for one group but ignore it for another.
The pattern of operations by the security forces in Nepal is well documented. The Kilo Sierra operations under G.P Koirala are a good example. The Army operations that emerged under Sher Bahadur Deuba in the run up to the Royal takeover are another. In both, the security forces responded with systematic violations of human rights against the civilian population. The state allowed these acts to go unpunished. This fuelled further grievances that, in the absence of legal or peaceful options, converted into support for extremist politics and armed opposition groups.
It is difficult to see how another clumsy armed intervention by a violent and ill-disciplined security forces in the Tarai will result in any different result. But the risk this time is higher. The security forces are dominated by one ethnic/geographic group. Force will be a gift to the armed opposition groups. They will inevitably exploit existing popular grievance amongst the people of the Tarai and portray the state’s response as a repressive colonial invasion by the hill people. Effectively, the government is proposing a security centric response that will result in more insecurity.
ACHR’s concern over the operation is not theory. As noted in the report, within weeks of the launch of these “new” operations at least three serious allegations of extra-judicial executions have occurred. The Nepal police have — entirely consistent with past form — claimed these extrajudicial executions to be “encounter killings”. ACHR is particularly concerned that there have been many similar reports. It is time for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to act.
India’s role: Bring state governments into line
India has enormous leverage. Delhi’s interest, role and leverage in Madhesi politics are often misunderstood. With regard to the Tarai, Delhi’s policy approach through the period has been moderate.
India repeatedly insists that it is not backing extremist outfits, whose spill-over effect would inevitably be felt in India. However there are multiple armed groups operating from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Support to these groups is understood to be coming largely from the local politicians in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, not necessarily the Indian state. Delhi complicates the situation by sending multiple and conflicting messages to different actors. India’s senior policy-makers appear to understand that encouraging identity chauvinism will invite instability, but lower level officials and non state actors may have a vested interest in fomenting a new conflict in Nepal.
A shaky peace:
ACHR’s recent Briefing Papers on Nepal have repeatedly underlined the wider fragility of the national political situation. The constitution making process — supposed to redraw the Nepali social contract and create an institutional framework of inclusive democracy — is in limbo, with missed time-lines and growing inter-party differences. The peace process is floundering and incomplete, with two standing armies, the Nepal Army and the Maoists’ Peoples Liberation Army. The political wisdom of pushing the Hindi issue should be examined against this background. It is clear that there is a need for concerted action by all supporters of Nepal’s shaky peace process.
(The author is Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights)
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