[lg policy] Nepal: Recognizing diversity

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Feb 21 10:49:55 EST 2018

 Recognizing diversity

February 21, 2018 01:00 AM Manjeet Mishra

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[image: Recognizing diversity]

[image: Manjeet Mishra] <http://www.myrepublica.com/news/author/2715> Manjeet
Mishra <http://www.myrepublica.com/news/author/2715> The author is a
lecturer based in Rajbiraj

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   - Recognizing diversity <http://www.myrepublica.com/news/36688/>


*Provincial government in Madhes should not fall into temptation of
adopting one language policy for education in the name of cultural

At an oath-taking ceremony, Province 2 set an example of cultural diversity
existing in Nepal. The assembly members pronounced their oaths in four
different languages. Of the 107 members in total, 47 took oath in Maithili,
25 in Bhojpuri, 24 in Nepali and 11 in Hindi.

At the same venue, another event happened that reeked of cultural
insularity. After the ceremony, Chief District Officer (CDO) of Dhanusha
urged the members to sign the oath scripted in Nepali even though they had
picked their own language to pronounce it, thus infuriating the lawmakers.

For those born in Mahendra’s Panchayat era (including this writer) and
having witnessed the forced institutionalization of state policy of ‘one
nation, one language, one dress’, this move of choosing one’s own language
to take oath is certainly progressive and a step forward in the recognition
of diversity. That this happened in Province 2, the only province based on
the majority ethnic identity and has been at constant loggerheads with the
center regarding recognition of its identity markers—mainly language—is a
testament of Madhesi people’s long and hard struggle against a chauvinistic

*Struggle for recognition *

The struggle for recognition of language in Madhes dates back to 1950s.
Bedanand Jha established Nepal Tarai Congress (NTC) in 1951 with one of its
objectives to make Hindi a state language. In the decade, Tarai witnessed a
prolonged movement in defense of Hindi as a language of instruction in
schools and against the imposition of Nepali in the education system. The
movement gained momentum with National Education Planning Commission report
of 1956, based on which the education ministry “ordered all schools to use
Nepali as the medium of instruction.” With the implementation of one
language policy, NTC formed “save Hindi” committees in Tarai districts and
leaders of other political parties also joined the campaign.

Public meetings, protests, marches and strikes were organized in many
districts which led to considerable turmoil, with even clashes occurring
between pro-Hindi and pro-Nepali groups in Biratnagar. In the general
election of 1959, along with NTC, Nepali Congress (NC), Praja Parishad and
Nepal Communist Party (NCP) also supported a multi-lingual policy during
the election. NC and NCP had released their election manifestos in Hindi.
One of the reasons for the electoral rout of NTC is attributed to the fact
that it could not differentiate itself from other parties.

With the usurpation of political power by Mahendra and subsequent
imposition of Panchayat system and banning of political parties in 1960,
fight for language took a backseat temporarily, only to be revived later.
Gajendra Narayan Singh established Nepal Goodwill Council in 1985 and later
transformed it into Nepal Sadbhavna Party (NSP) in 1990 with one its
objective to make Hindi a state language. Even though the party was scoffed
by others as being an Indian stooge and following India’s agenda, it was
able to bring to the attention the demands of Madhesis to recognize Hindi
as a national language. This was possible mainly because of the liberal
political environment of the 1990s.

Even as Madhesis continue to struggle for recognition of their language,
the state used Khas Kura/Nepali, for forced homogenization and assimilation
or exclusion of ethnic groups. In a bid to homogenize diverse ethnic
groups, Nepali was made mandatory subject and language of instruction in
schools. As if forced homogenization was not enough, a controversial Civil
Service Act of 1956 had made it mandatory for the candidates of civil
service jobs to be competent in Nepali language. This virtually led to the
exclusion of Madhesis from civil service.

During Panchayat era, with a powerful king at the helm, the state-centric
nationalism with the Nepali language as one of its pillars was followed
enthusiastically. Due to the ban on political activities, the NC was
operating mostly in Tarai and border areas of India. The Royal government
viewed NC and India as being the main threats to the territorial integrity
of Nepali state. In a bid to ‘protect’ Nepal from the ‘ever-present
internal and external threat’, the government while reframing citizenship
laws included provisions that made it difficult for people of Tarai origin
to obtain citizenship certificate. The requirement of fluency in spoken and
written Nepali language for obtaining citizenship certificate virtually
disenfranchised and denied recognition of Madhesis as Nepali citizens.
After the restoration of the multi-party system in 1990s, despite tall
claims of inclusion, only Nepali was declared as the official language in
the constitution.

While Nepal’s history is rife with events of the state’s use of Nepali
language as a tool to counter the imagined doubtful loyalty of Madhesis
towards Nepal, the discrimination is not limited to the policy level. It
can be equally vociferous on streets. At the oath-taking ceremony, the
first vice president of the republic, Permanand Jha was projected as
committing a cardinal sin when he pronounced his oath in Hindi. The
strident protest that followed and the subsequent nullification of oath by
the Supreme Court is a grim reminder of opposition Madhesis have faced.

*Way forward*

Thankfully, this time around the oath-taking in multiple languages in
Province 2, including Hindi did not bring about much controversy, except
some fringe elements burning effigies of Madhesi leaders and demanding
preference for local languages. This small victory must be relished since
it is a fruit of long and hard struggle of Madhesi people.

Though the struggle to make Hindi the language for the administrative
purpose of Province 2 must continue, the provincial government formed by
Madhes based parties should not fall into the temptation of adopting one
language policy for education and other purposes in the name of cultural
conservatism. It should also desist from compartmentalizing people based on
the language of the community. Any attempt to link Hindi or any other local
language to the ‘pride’ of Madhes would lead to cultural bigotry and
produce inflammable results in the long run because Madhes itself has the
diversity of languages with none in absolute majority. Emphasis should be
laid on cultural liberalism rather than cultural conservatism. It should
not be a case of mere tolerance of cultural diversity or promotion of
plural multiculturalism. A genuine multicultural society celebrates

This is the beauty of federalism. As professor Amartya Sen aptly puts it:
“A sense of identity can be a source of not merely pride and joy, but also
strength and confidence.”

The author is a lecturer based in Rajbiraj


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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