Voices from the plains

  • Response to lingual sentiments in Province 2 is becoming crucial

Feb 16, 2018-

Nepal has adopted a federal structure after completion of the federal, provincial and local elections. All seven provinces have held their first Provincial Assembly meetings too. This shows that all political leaders have accepted federalism wholeheartedly. As federalism is new to Nepal, which has endured centuries of centralised government, some ill effects are also being seen in a few provinces. In Province 1, people in Taplejung launched an agitation after Biratnagar was declared the temporary provincial capital. Similarly, in Province 2, massive demonstrations erupted in Birgunj after Janakpurdham was made the provincial capital. There has been another kind of agitation in Janakpurdham over the issue of the languages used during the very first meeting of the Provincial Assembly. 


On February 7, several Maithili-speaking youths burnt effigies of the 

leaders of Rastriya Janata Party Nepal and Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum Nepal in Janakpurdham. The demonstrators were upset that they spoke Hindi instead of Maithili or their mother tongue at the Provincial Assembly meeting. In this regard, no official statement has been issued by either party. The agitation seems to have been triggered by emotion which does not justify the pragmatic values of linguistic diversity of Province 2. Similarly, a few Maithil activists have been calling for the Maithili language to be declared the official language of Province 2.


Diverse voices

While talking to them about how they can satisfy non-Maithili speakers residing in the province, the activists do not have practically justifiable answers. Such baseless disputes may compel non-Maithili speakers to launch another protest which may result in the failure of ‘infant federalism’. Nepal’s marginalised population had demanded federalism so that they would have access to the power of Singh Durbar at their door.


The 2011 census shows that 123 languages are spoken as a mother tongue in the country. Among them, Maithili, Awadhi, Tharu, Bhojpuri and Bajjika are the most widely spoken languages in the Tarai-Madhes. Maithili, which is spoken by 11.57 percent of the population, is the second largest language in Nepal. Similarly, Bhojpuri is spoken by 5.98 percent of the population, Tharu by 5.77 percent, Bajjika by 2.99 percent and Awadhi by 1.89 percent. All these languages are spoken in Province 2. In such a diverse linguistic scenario, how can someone impose any particular language which cannot incorporate others’ lingual sentiments? 


Language is simply a means to convey a message to another in a comprehensible way. In the meantime, one should know about the essence of a lingua franca in a linguistically diverse society. A lingua franca is used to make communication possible between people not sharing a first language, in particular when it’s a third language which is distinct from both speakers’ first languages. And in the plains of Nepal, Hindi is the major lingua franca which has been connecting people from a linguistic perspective. Not only the local people, but even political leaders whose mother tongue is Nepali speak Hindi when talking to people in the Tarai-Madhes. This is so even though the 2011 census shows that only 0.47 percent of the Nepali people speak Hindi as a mother tongue.


A case for multiple official languages

In a country composed of linguistic minorities, where the provinces are not linguistically homogenous like Province 2, language problems are an everyday affair. The language dispute that has emerged in Province 2 is not strange. However, it should be handled with care, basically by the newly elected representatives of the province. The political leaders must come up with a clear roadmap so that chances of possible disputes can be eliminated. As language is linked to an individual’s identity, people want their language to be spoken more. Meanwhile, in the context of Province 2, no single language can be the official language. Since the federal system is challenging in itself, the psychological ingredient should be kept at the centre while implementing the system. 


Nepal’s constitution has opened the door for all languages to be preserved and used by broadening the jurisdiction of the province. Now it’s the duty of the Provincial Assembly to deal with the situation that has emerged in Janakpurdham. Similarly, lingual fanatics must understand that the imposition of one language on a society in the name of preserving a particular language is not possible. 


Professor of comparative politics Adrian Guelke has written in his book entitled Politics in Deeply Divided Societies, “The adoption in 1992, under the auspices of the Council of Europe, of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is an indication of the change that has taken place towards the status of local languages. Whereas the survival of Europe’s lesser known languages had previously been seen as an obstacle to national cohesion in the states in which they were spoken, their preservation is now viewed in a positive light, as enriching society’s cultural heritage.” 

Lastly, in order to prevent possible linguistic disputes in Province 2, members of the Provincial Assembly should do three things. First, declare Nepali, Maithili and Bhojpuri as official languages in the province. Two, they should assure the ‘lingual activists’ that all the languages spoken in the province must be preserved and promoted. Third, declare Hindi as the contact language which will satisfy the people of Provinces 1 and 5 as they had also contributed to establishing federalism through the Madhes movements.


Chaudhary holds a Bachelor of Laws degree

Published: 16-02-2018 08:17

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