Language Strife Raises Its Head in Nepal: Lawmaker Demands National Status For Hindi  

Madhur Sharma

Jan 07, 2019, 12:47 PM | Updated 12:47 PM IST

Picture for representation
Picture for representation
  • Hindi is caught in the socio-political tussle of Nepal where it is perceived as Indian and thus foreign. A look at how the language issue has yet again raised its head, and being used to fan ‘nationalism’.
  • A lawmaker in Nepal recently called for making Hindi as the country’s national language. Dev N Kalwar of Nepali Congress said in Parliament that Hindi should be Nepal’s lingua franca since 80 per cent of the population understood it.

    To support his case, he cited a study that said 50 per cent of Nepal’s population could speak Hindi and 80 per cent could understand it.

    Though nothing has come out of the lawmaker’s demand, it has yet again brought to fore the issue of Hindi in Nepal, and the larger issue of socio-linguistic tensions in the country.

    Nepal’s 2015 Constitution, promulgation of which led to widespread protests across plains of the country, established Nepali in Devanagari script as the country’s official language. The Constitution, however, also says that a province may assign official status to any language spoken in the state in addition to Nepali.

    Nepalese students hold placards at a protest rally in 2015
    Nepalese students hold placards at a protest rally in 2015

    The states acted accordingly. For instance, province number 2 made Maithili, Bhojpuri, and Bajjika its official languages in addition to Nepali.

    The language issue is rooted in the socio-political tensions of the country where power has traditionally rested with the hill elite, and those in the plains claiming discrimination and marginalisation. This is not a recent phenomenon and has been there since the days of the monarchy. A Madhesi journalist told this author that King Birendra did not have a single Madhesi staffer in the palace, and there he felt little connection with him during his reign.

    The hill-plain divide was at the core of the 2015 Madhesi movement when the plains erupted in protests at the promulgation of the new Constitution that undid several of the 2007 interim constitution’s provisions, the most prominent of which was that of state organisation.

    The erstwhile 2007 interim constitution had proposed 10 states that would have consolidated the Madhesi population. The 2015 Constitution, however, organised the country into seven states which meant that the upper castes from the hills were in majority in six out of seven states. This not only diluted the Madhesi political representation but also prevented their linguistic consolidation.

    The Madhes comprises around 23 per cent of the country’s area and 48 per cent of its population, the majority of which does not identify Nepali as its mother tongue. Maithili remains the most spoken language in the region. It is also the second most spoken language in the country.

    As for Hindi, census records show that it’s spoken by 0.28 per cent of Nepal’s population as mother tongue. Even though a fraction of the population cites Hindi as its mother tongue, it is understood and spoken by a large number of people who have Maithili and Bhojpuri as their mother tongues, which though distinct languages, lie on the broader Hindi spectrum.

    Affirming this, Nepal’s National Languages Policy Commission reported in 1994 that “educated native speakers of the Terai languages used Hindi as lingua franca for intercommunity communication”. Also, Urdu is the mother tongue of 2.6 per cent Nepalis, mostly Muslims. Since Urdu has similar roots as Hindi, as it is the Persianised Hindustani (and Hindi is Sanskritised Hindustani), its speakers are well-versed in Hindi by default. The lingua franca status of Hindi, even in the absence of any official recognition, is thus quite strong in the plains of Nepal, covering some 48 per cent of its population.

    Then why is there such an aversion to Hindi in Nepal when it is practically the lingua franca for close to half the country’s population?

    Sachchidanand Mishra, publisher of Himalini, a Hindi magazine published from Kathmandu, told Swarajya that Hindi is often associated with India and is portrayed as an Indian language.

    A screenshot of Himalini’s online edition
    A screenshot of Himalini’s online edition

    “Hindi is portrayed as a foreign language and that’s why it is discouraged,” Mishra said. “Even though most of the Maithili and Bhojpuri speakers understand Hindi and often use it as well, they are discouraged from mentioning Hindi as their second or third language because of this foreign element.”

    Mishra also touched upon the issue of Urdu. “Language is subject to culture and not religion,” He said. “A Muslim will speak Maithili or Hindi just like their Hindu neighbour, but because of emphasis on religious identity and the increasing tendency to link religion with language, many Muslims tend to cite Urdu as their mother tongue.”

    Nationalism also plays a role, as much of the nationalist rhetoric revolves around India, and portraying Hindi as an Indian agent gives an opportunity to fan nationalism. Numerous protests over lawmakers taking oath in Hindi is testimony to this.

    In an article in Himalini, Shweta Dipti, a professor of Hindi at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University, cited a report on a Nepali portal that claimed that all Madhesi leaders in love with their language and culture were joining forces with the K P Sharma Oli-led communist party, especially with nationalism intensifying.

    Dipti argued, does the support extended by all those in love with their language and culture to the hill-based communists, who had no intentions of amending the contested constitution and accommodating Madhesi aspirations, mean that those not siding with them and campaigning for their aspirations were anti-national and not Nepali enough?

    The swearing-in ceremony of newly-elected Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli (R) on 12 October 2015.
    The swearing-in ceremony of newly-elected Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli (R) on 12 October 2015.

    In her article, Dipti highlighted the hypocritical attitude in Nepal that considered Hindi speakers as foreigners but had no qualms about championing the cause of Gorkhaland in India, a domestic issue of India and alien to Nepal.

    Hindi is thus caught in the socio-political tussle of Nepal where the language has come to be perceived as Indian and thus foreign. With the anti-India sentiment brewing in the country – an instrument to fan nationalism – the language continues to plough through a bumpy road on which it remains at odds with the Nepali national identity that does not seem to accommodate it.

    Madhur Sharma is a post-graduate student of journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and a history graduate from Delhi University. He tweets at @madhur_mrt.

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