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Different tongues: Constituent Assembly

Bipin Adhikari
The Kathmandu Post
July 2, 2009
From: constituentassembly.blogspot.com

Like many countries in the world, Nepal is also concerned about the need to preserve its cultural and linguistic diversity according to the best formula that one can think of in the face of competing claims of different communities and cultures.

Many factors affect the existence and usage of any given language. Some of them may include the size of the native speaking population, its use in formal communication and the geographical dispersion and socio-economic weight of its speakers. A new constitution providing a policy in this regard can either mitigate or exacerbate the effects of some of these factors. It is, therefore, very important to be holistic and not to miss the jungle for the trees when working on a language policy.

In this context, it is necessary to put in perspective the language policy proposed by the Constituent Assembly (CA) Committee on the Determination of Grounds of Social and Cultural Unity for discussion at the CA plenary session. This is so far largely undone by the constituent of the constitution building process, not to mention the constitutional experts watching the process from outside.

The preliminary draft on the issue provides that all native languages spoken in Nepal are national languages. It is the obligation of the state to ensure equal protection, promotion and development of all national languages. Every native language community has the right to experience their linguistic identity and their relationship with it in dignified ways. Those without sight and voice will also have the right to use Braille and non-verbal communications.

Featuring additional changes, the draft recognizes Nepali — the present official language of Nepal — as the official language of the central government. Along with Nepali, each province has been given the competence to decide how many provincial languages it wants as its official languages. The local units within the provinces may also employ the local language of the area as the official language for their particular region as per the law enacted by the respective provincial legislature.

None of these provisions, however, are deemed to restrain anybody from the use of his or her native language to receive public services from the state. Although it will be necessary to define the nature of this last provision by law, the first three provisions are clear enough and mostly address many of the demands of Nepal's natives.

The committee draft also provides that the official language of the central government shall be the language to be employed for the communication between the centre and the provinces. There are two exceptions, however. First, a province may decide to communicate with the centre in one of the languages it has approved for official business within the province. It goes without saying that the central government has to prepare its bureaucracy — civil, military or judicial — to receive and process business in at least seven or eight languages and respond to the corresponding province as necessary.

Secondly, the provinces are to conduct their official business with each other in the official language of the centre and any other language to be mutually agreed upon between them. There is no provision which addresses the stake of a third party, for example, a province which is a little far from the provinces which have mutually decided to employ a particular language in their dealings with each other. Again, it could be a language, for which the central government has to be better equipped with — whether it is its choice or within its logistical capacity or not. It is assumed that this language policy can maintain the business requirements of the state as well as the cultural and social harmony in the country.

Many commentators, in the House or down the street, are pretending that the language problem has more or less been solved, at least at the committee level; and that efforts to introduce Hindi as a parallel governmental language along with Nepali has been checked at the threshold. The conclusion is without doubt a faulty one, if not malicious.

According to a provision, the central government may choose to recognize a language that fulfills certain required standards as its official language upon the recommendation of the language commission. The only requirement is that such a recommendation be passed by a simple majority of the central legislature.

In other words, the status of the Nepali language as the only lingua franca of the nation has been challenged on multiple fronts. It may no longer be the language of choice for the provinces, as an operative language between the central government and a province, or practically, even as the official language of the centre. The clutches around Nepali — the language of national integration — will try to keep it not just under size, but also inoperative because of a seemingly inappropriate approach.

Additionally, the above provision, which enables the central government to adopt any other language as the official language for its purpose is a carefully inducted provision to give unsoiled entrance to Hindi — a foreign language — as the second official language of the centre through the backdoor. This provision must be dropped altogether.

While the indigenous Nepali language and the treatment given to it by the proposed preliminary draft will have to be subjected to heated discussions and passed by a two-thirds majority in the Constituent Assembly, Hindi can now be the second official language by the decision of the government of the day. A language commission, or the fragile government of Nepal, which continues to be constituted by decisions made elsewhere cannot check the tide of events that unfolds here when it decides on a crucial national issue. It need not be emphasized here how such a decision will be enforced by proxy forces in Nepal overnight.

There is no reason why Hindi should be allowed in Nepal as an official language simply because it serves somebody's strategic interests here. It is an attempt to fish in muddy waters. If it is to be accepted as an official language either of the centre or of any province, it must be proposed and voted according to the Constituent Assembly process. There is a danger that a process to empower the natives and their language and cultures might further marginalize them through a provision whose effect is disastrous to the nationalist aspirations of the Nepalese people (already much fatigued by the sponsored changes).

An end to the political spin of this sort is not in sight. Even if a spin of some kind is intrinsic to politics, it just has to be kept in check and not allowed into areas like this where it should have no place.

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