Battle over Hindi
Battle over Hindi
– SUKHDEV SHAH
The newly re-instated Vice President (VP) Paramananda Jha put up a valiant fight against his torturers—Supreme Court and almost the entire pahade establishment—who felt outraged at his audacity to take oath in Hindi—not that it is a foreign language but more so because it is the language of a country which Nepalis have come to hate.
Before discussing why Nepalis hate India, let’s discuss some of the reasons why we like it as well. First, we share a common border, which probably is the most open than anywhere else in the world. Millions of people cross the border each day without caring—not even knowing—which country they have crossed into. Governments on both sides of the border have erected checkpoints and customs posts but, for most practical purposes, they are stationed there more for the harassment of citizens than for providing border security.
The second reason for a loving relationship is the range of goods and services transacted between the two countries, which are so basic and diverse that even a brief halt in bilateral trade flows could wreck havoc inside Nepal, and especially for people living, say, within a 20-mile stretch of the border that comprises some 10 million people on the Nepal side, about a third of the population. Nepal braved the trade blockade instituted by India in the late 1980s—lasting over a year—due very much to the fact that the impact of blockade was softened by a porous border, which remained open for all practical purposes, including for border trade involving smaller volumes and in essential items.
We can add a third dimension to this warm and inescapably close relationship—deep cultural ties that make the two countries almost inseparable, except for the imaginary political line-of-control that separates them. People living in this area of Nepal look Indian, dress like Indian, and also share the same language. In fact, Nepal seems much of a foreign country to them, a distant region disappearing in the mountains to the north!
ROOTS OF DISCORD
Given these broad and deep ties between the two countries, there can be hardly any reason for uneasiness or discomfort—much less for discord and hostility—to affect bilateral relationship, excepting for small and occasional irritants that are normal for neighbors living side by side. However, in reality, Nepal has been overcautious in keeping its distance from India, fearing that too close a relationship will dilute its identity, increase Indian influence, and undermine its ethno-centric power structure that has excluded its southern population from participation in state affairs.
Forcing VP Jha to retake his oath in Nepali (never mind the concession allowed for his mother-tongue, Maithili), Nepal’s ethno-centric power handlers may have won a battle but, most likely, can be losing a war.From this perspective, opposition to VP Jha’s oath-taking in Hindi needs to be looked at as reflecting much deeper emotions than just being a matter of language and dress.
The idea of Hindi-oath-taking came most likely from VP Jha’s political handlers who had achieved quick ascendancy in the aftermath of the fall of monarchy in 2006 and Madhes Andolan that followed it. VP Jha himself has no record of associating with the country’s politics—local or national—having spent his entire life in the legal profession as a lawyer and later as a judge. Given his background, it is most unlikely that he, on his own, suddenly rose to challenge the very symbols of state power—Nepali language and Nepali dress. We can then conclude that he was forced to make this choice as a condition for his ascendancy to vice presidency.
Irrespective of whoever came up with this idea—that VP Jha wear Indian-like attire and take oath in an Indian language—the Presidential Inauguration presented a historic moment to challenge the way political power has been asserted and exercised in Nepal, which basically has meant the exclusion of people who are outside the sphere of influence of Nepali language and Nepali dress. At its worst, VP Jha’s choice of dress and language was no less than a challenge to the cultural hegemony exercised by one group over another.
SETBACK TO NATION-BUILDING
Forcing VP Jha to retake his oath in Nepali (never mind the concession allowed for his mother-tongue, Maithili), Nepal’s ethno-centric power handlers may have won a battle but, most likely, can be losing a war—an opportunity for promoting integration, assimilation, and building a unified nation. Characterizing Hindi as an alien language—unfit for use on official occasions in Nepal—may be a smart idea to keep the Indianization of Nepal at bay but its side effects is to exclude—also demean—a big chunk of the country’s population who identify themselves with the language and wear the attire of VP Jha’s choice at his first swearing-in, in July of 2008.
Certainly, Hindi is no one’s mother-tongue in Nepal but this is also true for most people living in India’s Hindi-belt where Hindi is seldom used as a household language, not even as a local tongue. All Hindi regions of India adjoining Nepal have their own spoken languages: Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithili. For them, Hindi serves no more than as a link language, education language, and language of the elite, and seldom as a mother-tongue. Similar is the case in most parts of Madhes: Hindi is not a mother-tongue to anyone but it also is not an alien language—it functions as a link language for the facilitation of communication with other Madhes regions, as a medium of dialogue for Madhesi elites, and as a language of business and social contacts across the border in India.
In view of the importance of Hindi in the daily life of Madhesi population, opposition to Hindi goes far beyond the issue of language and dress and, more broadly, this can be viewed as an attempt at rejection of the culture of Madhes and ridicule its basic values. The next item on the agenda for such cultural chauvinism might be to bar people from entering government offices wearing dhoti or anything that make them look Indian (this was actually done during the panchayat time). Finally, objections may come against the use of Hindi as a teaching medium in government schools—even banning the teaching of this language. There is no end to how wide such assertions of cultural chauvinism can spread. For example, in Janakpur, on one side of the local landmark—Janaki Temple—panchayat administration erected a pagoda like structure to be the Vivah Mandap (a structure where Sita’s marriage ceremony was performed), but this in no way resembles what local people call marba!
LESSONS FROM BHUTAN
Nepal can learn a thing or two from Bhutan’s experience of handling relations with India, which it has managed to conduct in an advantageous manner. The main indicator of Bhutan’s successful relation with India is the immense support it has received for the development of its hydroelectric resource, which, in large part, has been negotiated on Bhutan’s terms, much more than on India’s. Perhaps, for securing the hydropower deal, India paid more attention to Bhutan’s reliability as a supplier of this critical resource to power its development drive than the price it agreed paying Bhutan. Also, Bhutan obtained entry for its agro- and light-industry products into Indian market on more favorable terms than it can get anywhere else.
Bhutan has not been shy about admitting India’s critical help in lifting its economic fortunes—to the extent that it is on the way to becoming Asia’s Switzerland—a dream that has frustrated Nepal for over half a century. Bhutan’s per capita income, now exceeding $2,000, is double that of India and five times Nepal’s. Bhutan’s economic success has reflected, in large measure, the quality of relation it has maintained with India. Its approach to dealing with India has been rational, pragmatic, and non-confrontational, very much unlike how Nepal has conducted its business with India.
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