Talking out of tune
- Inclusion is about developing a frame of mind that respects everyone regardless of class, ethnicity or creed
Jul 2, 2014-
In my last column, I had briefly touched upon and denounced the use of the racial slur ‘bhote’ by the police during their by-now highly publicised rampage through a Dolpo village last month. And, of all the wonders, the recently announced government policies and programmes actually declared that from now on the police would provide ‘service with a smile’. Was there a possibility that the powers-that-be had been moved by my argument? Fat chance, but there is no harm in a bit of daydreaming.
On a more serious note, on the same day my article appeared, I got a call from someone in Rajbiraj who wanted to appreciate my raising the issue. But he also wanted to vent the anger that had been boiling inside him. As he recounted, during a confrontation in his hometown some time back, our boys in blue bucked themselves up by spewing obscenities against the ‘mu— Madhise’, the former being the common Nepali abuse referring to the female genitalia.
There are many more terms of abuse I have heard used by our cops. As someone who grew up in Kathmandu, I know that one particular favourite is ‘jyapu’ for Newars. Granted, ‘Jyapu’ is the name of a sub-ethnic group within Newars and there is nothing offensive about the term itself just as there is a mountain group who call themselves Bhote and are fine with that appellation. It is the manner in which the term is used in passing or hurled at someone in anger that makes all the difference. And, everyone knows when it has been used to make an anthropological distinction or in its more vile sense. ‘Madhise’, on the other hand, has been passé for some years now and certainly does not have any place in utterances by public officials.
More to the point, there is something seriously wrong when people representing a national public institution such as the Nepal Police go around throwing words and phrases that have no place in any decent society, and can do so with apparent impunity. Granted, things were different in the past and anyone could get away with anything, whether in action or speech. But that was precisely what was supposed to change after the political transformation of 2006, and the creation of an inclusive society. Inclusion is not only about how many Madhesis have joined the army or how many Dalits have made it into the civil service or how many women are in the Constituent Assembly. It is about developing a frame of mind that respects everyone regardless of class, caste/ethnicity or creed, and the first manifestation of that respect is in how one speaks about this group or the other.
To be fair on the police, the individuals comprising the force do not develop their prejudices after they join up but are only a fair representation of our own society where conversations can easily lapse into negative allusions to someone’s social background. I can be quite sure that everyone knows of how even otherwise very reasonable folks can unthinkingly point out misdemeanours by Dalits as reflecting their ‘lowly’ caste whereas similar infringements by non-Dalits would not call attention to caste or ethnicity. Or, how equally reasonable folks can revile Madhesis for their supposed natural predisposition to corruption even though the really big scandals in Nepal have involved a whole lot of non-Madhesis. Equally reasonable Janajatis go about bashing Bahuns for all the ills of Nepali society and politics, and similarly reasonable Madhesis see nothing wrong in abusing Pahadis for the same.
If anyone wants to get a glimpse of how fractured Nepali society can be, just visit any of the news and views websites and trawl through the comments posted by usually anonymous readers. Take these examples posted on nepalnews.com following the bomb blast outside the Nepal Oil Corporation in February 2012 by the short-lived criminal gang Samyukta Jatiya Mukti Morcha. This is a selection of those that make some sense, perverted though they may be, but the venom is unimaginable.
Anonymous: yo sabai naak thepche and chimse chor haru ko kaam ho...[obscenity] mangolians...go back to mongolia...gurung: dont blame this on kiratis rais limbus or neptes...its all because of these bloody madhesis from the terai...nepal used to be peacefull but these bloody madhesi dhotis have made life difficult.
Kirati: Samyukta Jatiya Mukti Morcha today said they did not do the bombing. It is very clear now that the bomb were planted by bahun, chhetry dhotees. And then there are those who try to bring in some reason into the debate but they are just too far and few between.
Anonymous: I think we stupid Nepalese are losing the plot here. People have been killed by explosion caused by extreme group. Politicians are robbing the country of its wealth. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Yet we talk about bahun/chhetri, terai/madhesh.
The comments below are also from nepalnews.com from the same month. It follows the story about the alleged killing of his wife by Armed Police Force officer Ranjan Koirala. The discussion quickly degenerated as follows:
M-G: These Bahuns and Chhetri are corrupt and heartless, who torture, insult, abuse, mistreat and kill their daughters and daughters in laws harkey: Saley khatey gurung magar jatha bheda haru And then the one who tries to inject some sense into the debate.
porky: the reason why nepal is not able to progress because of this jaat-bhaat thing that people are not able to let go.
This is the sad reality of our country where we always blame someone else for anything that goes wrong with our lives. And these anonymous comments reflect the kind of thinking that goes on in our society. It may take time to change such prejudices but it certainly can be done with conscious effort. Every polite conversation at home or elsewhere should banish words like ‘dhoti’, ‘Bahun kattha’, ‘bhote’, ‘Madhise’, ‘Rongba’, etc, etc. Societies elsewhere have done it, and successfully. For instance, only the unrepentant American redneck would still persist with using ‘nigger’ or even ‘negro’; it is a definite no-no in any other company.
Kinds of speech
Our current constitution (as well as previous ones) clearly lays out that the government can make laws to prohibit acts (and that presumably includes speech as well) that ‘jeopardise the harmonious relations subsisting among the people of various castes, tribes, religions or communities, or on any act of defamation, contempt of court or incitement to an offence, or on any act which may be contrary to decent public behaviour or morality.’ There is the danger that the clause can be used to restrict free speech as is being tried with the contempt of court bill currently underway. (Talk of priorities.) But hate speech is something altogether different and it should certainly be contrary to the sensibilities of everyone who believes in ‘decent public behaviour’. Perhaps it is time we did come up with a law prohibiting hate speech in all its varieties, including the terms of abuse listed above (and that should include requiring owners of websites to immediately remove anything that is offensive).
The government’s policies and programmes mentioned above also say that in order to ensure that our policemen and women start smiling, it will replace the current Police Act with a new one. One can hope that this new act will address matters of verbal abuse in no-uncertain terms, and set an example for the rest of society to follow. Fat chance again, but no harm in some daydreaming.
Published: 03-07-2014 09:01