Reading Gaige in 2015: Part III (The politics of language)


Tharus of the Tarai

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We ended Reading Gaige in 2015: Part II (The politics of citizenship in the 1950s) with an overview of how citizenship laws were first formulated and how land rights came into being in Nepal, and how both these led to the subsequent Nepalization of the Tarai or at least attempted to do so. This week we shall examine two successive chapters on language, communication and national integration in the Tarai.

Chapters 6 and 7:

Prior to 1951, there had been little or no effort for the implementation of a unified mother tongue in Nepal. With over 100 ethnicities, Nepal had and has incredible variety in language and dialects. Post-1951 however, Nepali-speaking democratic leaders were eager to establish Nepal as a nation with its own linguistic identity. With the establishment of the National Education Planning Commission in 1954 and the subsequent release of its report ‘Education in Nepal’ in 1956 came the first attempt to unify language in the country. The report recommended that Nepali be the primary language of instruction in schools beginning from the third grade. The recommendation was justified by stating points such as the need to give status to a language spoken by the majority, the need for a lingua franca and to adopt a national language which was easier to learn than Hindi among other reasons. Additionally, there was also mention of how no truly Hindi speaking populace was part of Nepal.

Though the proclamation of this particular recommendation did cause considerable controversy, it was from 1951 itself that the Nepal Tarai Congress had begun being vocal about wanting Tarai to become an autonomous state with the recognition of Hindi as a state language. Since local administration had weakened considerably in 1951 because of the revolution, the Tarai found courage to make such demands but with the re-establishment of power stemming from Kathmandu as early as 1953, the demands for an autonomous Tarai was dropped from the party manifesto. This will make for an interesting historical reference for all those who believe that the demand for an independent Madhesh is recent.

In terms of primary language of instruction in the Tarai, because there were few Nepali-speaking qualified teachers in Nepal, most teachers had to be recruited from across the border. The controversy for primary language of instruction however was taken to new heights with Prime Minister K .I. Singh issuing a directive that Nepali was to be the primary language of instruction in all schools, and that all teachers, within 2 years, had to demonstrate Nepali language usage in classrooms and they were also to furnish proof of Nepali citizenship within six months. The directive led to an outcry in the Tarai, with the move been seen as another way to force ‘hill culture’ on the Madhesh. It was also seen as a move to bar Tarai citizens from using the language that they were most familiar with. There were little or almost no plains representatives in the parliament then and thus the move was seen as severely curtailing their democracy which only aided to increase the distance between the hill and the plains. Post the decision, the Nepali Tarai Congress decided to launch a ‘Save Hindi’ campaign which managed to include in itself other major parties’ support. While the movement gained considerable momentum in 1957, it began to lose steam as parties began to prepare for national elections in 1958 and align themselves with more pressing issues. Eventually, the need for all teachers to have a valid Nepali citizenship was scrapped as it would mean having to close down many schools in the plains entirely dependent on Indian teachers.

An examination here then on whether Hindi really was the dominant language of the Tarai is warranted. The 1952/43 census stated that only 3% of the Tarai population spoke Hindi as their mother tongue. The census put a number of dialects one would assume as Hindi such as the mid-western and far-western plains dialects under Awadi. The 1961 census in fact reduced the number of the Hindi speaking population from 80,181 (in 1952/54) to 2,867 speakers.

It is interesting to note the 1961 Indian census put Awadi as one of the dialects under the Eastern Hindi category.  Hindi may not be the mother-tongue of many in the Tarai but is certainly the language they use when engaging in trade and commerce and is an important second language. According to Gaige’s calculations, at least 63 percent of the Tarai population spoke Hindi as a second language in 1961. Additionally, it should be noted that census takers assumed second language faculties of households based on their questioning of men alone and often did not question women members. This was a mistake if one takes into account marriage ties the Tarai has across the border. Nepali was assumed to be understood by most of the population and was spoken as the mother tongue by at least 6% in 1961 but Gaige calculates a mere 25 to 30 percent of the plains population speaking Nepali as a first or second language (based on the population of native speakers, the hill people they came in contact with and the students who studied in the language). This percentage still much lower than the Hindi speaking population who use the language as a first or second language.

In 1961, another report from the King appointed National Education asked for Nepali to be the language of instruction in all schools but it was to be implemented in stages as opposed to the previous blanket provision. Elaborating this issue, King Mahendra stated that the medium of education was to be Nepali in all schools but that teaching and examination of papers could be in a language other than Nepali. This statement is vague and contradictory considering that the medium of education is in fact teaching and examination. As Gaige puts it, this and other attempts to Nepalize the Tarai was a ‘pointed assertion of national consciousness.’

It is agreed while there is need for a lingua franca for a nation to help communicate with ethnicities of all kinds and as an official language, it seems almost hypocritical to first allow for the flourishing of trade and culture between the open borders and then dissuade the additional ‘carry-overs’ (such as language) that come into play when engaging in the same.

The literacy rate in Nepal in 1952/54 was only 4 percent and thus communication through the written word was tricky. Mail service had also not been fully developed and newspapers from India, in English and in Hindi, were read by many as opposed to the state paper – Gorkhapatra alone. The state thus relied on the radio as a better alternative to information dissemination. The radio was considered a symbol of wealth then and it was common to see people huddled around solitary radios in compounds of those who could afford the device. However, the plains people were avid listeners of All India Radio than Radio Nepal because of two primary factors – language and content. All India Radio broadcasted programs in diverse languages such as Bhojpuri, Maithili and even Nepali (from its Kurseong point) while Radio Nepal lay unwilling to validate regional languages. This cost the Nepalese government to lose out on tapping on its regional audiences in that time period. Furthermore, because the state published its announcements in ‘highly Sanskritized Nepali’, it became difficult for the plains to discern official announcements, having possibly to rely on Nepali-educated peers.

As Nepal government began to press for school language reform pushing for books in Nepali to be taught at all schools, this began to pose a problem with translations because as Gaige puts it, Nepali as a language (a by-product of culture) had no technological orientation in its development. In later years however, due to integration over time, schooling became an important tool for Nepalizing the plains further.

Find the link to Part I of the series here.

Labisha Uprety

About Labisha Uprety

Labisha Uprety is a Research and Communications Officer at Samriddhi. She enjoys debating and likes her tea black with a little sugar.