With over a hundred distinct languages spoken within its borders, Nepal is a linguistically rich and diverse country. Many of these languages will die out by the end of this generation; others will become relics without a soul. Most of these languages have only recently developed a written tradition and having no script of their own, have adopted the popular Devnagri. Some, notably Awadi, Maithili and Newari have a literary tradition that dates back to the medieval era.
Nepal’s linguistic diversity is unsurprising given the seclusion that its geography offers. The development of literary traditions in Nepal happened in areas where cultural exchange and commerce allowed for the development of art and artisans. Most other languages here retained their oral traditions and did not experience the need to start a written tradition. Linguistic diversity was also facilitated by the lack of a centralised authority in the region during the medieval era. However, the Gorkhali conquests that led to the establishment of the Nepali nation made it necessary for the state to have a common language. And naturally, the language of the ruling class came to occupy this position.
The Nepali language is derived from the Khas language spoken in regions around Gorkha and further west. Its name is appropriated from the Newari language and the identity of the Kathmandu Valley. Under state patronage, the Nepali language established itself as the lingua franca of Nepal and over the past two centuries has gradually disseminated beyond Nepal along the Himalayas. It is a language spread by migration to greener pastures, a trend that continues today and has seen the establishment of Nepali language pockets around the world.
Nepal’s feudal masters, the Ranas, did not attempt to propagate Nepali as much as they sought to suppress other languages and limit access to literacy and education. The usage of Nepali by the state establishment extended its influence over Nepal. This was taken a step further under the Panchayat monarchy that wanted to create a singular Nepali national identity through the Nepali language, which co-opted Nepali into the national psyche to the extent that one’s identity was defined by whether one could speak the language. This automatically created a disparity between those who spoke Nepali as a mother tongue and those who didn’t.
The Panchayat rule’s need to create a Nepali identity in contrast to India, meant that languages like Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi, spoken in Nepal’s south, were automatically marginalised for being less Nepali and more Indian. Instances of this brand of nationalism are still widespread—from blatant racism to the opposition to the use of Hindi by the Vice-President. As such, Nepali is our Imperial language. While the languages of Nepal have finally been acknowledged by the constitution as national languages, Nepali continues to enjoy a hegemony dictated by the country’s feudal past.
The constitution is only the first step in disassociating Nepal’s national identity from one language. With it comes the necessity to acknowledge, accept and tolerate the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic nature of Nepal as a state. Unfortunately, Nepali identity till today is closely associated with the language and in turn, the Khas and Brahminic culture it derives itself from. This is a central node of contention with the current conception of the national identity with many non-Nepali language speakers.
For instance, singing Nepali songs—from Narayan Gopal to Albatross—is considered a facet of Nepali national unity and a distinct trait of being Nepali. This is a dangerous idea to hold if instead of its inclusion, it is defined in terms of its exclusion. Taken to extremes it adheres to the old one-language policy and does not give space to the fact that Nepal is not a monolingual culture. What is necessary is the acceptance that there are people in Nepal who do not associate Nepali music, within the public/private sphere, with their identity. Does our national identity allow us to listen to and sing Maithili or Bhojpuri songs and music and be linked in the same way to being Nepali? If it does not, it needs to assume a broader role. The Nepali language does not guarantee a common heritage other than through the acceptance of a state-sponsored and culturally-enforced linguistic domination.
The Janjati and Madhesi movements resulted from linguistically and culturally suppressed groups standing up against centuries of injustice. What we witness in today’s Nepal is not just a political transformation, but the realisation of identities. The problems are not just
economic or political; at the root, they are human. So far, many people in Nepal are Nepali because they have to be one to get a passport, to get a voice, to have a dream; not because they choose to.
Nepal is in transition and never in its history has it ever had such an open space for people to share ideas, debate and discourse. This is the first time a democratic space has evolved here without the pressure of any hegemonic power structure censoring and delimiting the conversation. This is the first time people from all backgrounds have been given the opportunity to articulate their Nepal and their worlds. Yet, we still have leaders who believed in violence, leaders who thought (and still think) change comes from the barrel of a gun. We have intellectuals who refuse to engage in debate. We have opinion makers who do not understand logic. Such leaders and intellectuals comprehend neither the value of free thought within this new space nor the humanity that exists within and around them. But we also have people who sing together. They sing mostly in Nepali, but they are already aware that music, without the burden of lyrics, is not chained to our humanity.
Till now there has only been one way to be Nepali, there has only been one tale to tell of Nepal. Such singular narratives are not just dull, but dangerous because they invite extremism and foster intolerance. A singular perspective is binding. A singular meaning is blinding. A singular story is concealing. A mono-lingual culture is stifling. The more stories we have, the more languages we speak, the more ways we approach the world and place our selves within it, the wider and richer our world becomes. Without the expansiveness of knowing that there are other ways of knowing, other ways to share—how can one truly appreciate the infinitude of ideas and stories? How can one grasp at the infinitude of music? After all, a language unknown, when sung, is music.
Posted on: 2011-09-17 08:52