Sunday, July 26, 2009

Flashback: Rapping Out An Oath

Amid the ruckus over Vice-President Parmananda Jha’s oath-taking, it’s hard to miss the reflection of people like Anil Kumar Jha and Mahesh Chaudhary. These men may differ profoundly on their vision for the future of the Terai, but they can do so in a Nepali so chaste that would shame the Bahun-Chhettri clique that stands accused of imposing it on them.
As far as the genesis of the national language is concerned, the one most closely associated with the dominant power group undoubtedly had a decisive edge. Still, the language Prithvi Narayan Shah spoke and wrote in was markedly different from the Nepali we know today. As the Shahs sought to broaden their Gorkhali identity across their new acquisitions, co-opting the word Nepal became politically expedient.
Over time, people living in and around the capital city, communities that traditionally made up the army, those with the highest level of education and people who controlled the greatest share of the national wealth helped consolidate Nepali. As the language of the ruling castes and classes, not endorsed by the minorities, critics have long stressed that Nepali merely re-enforced a stifling and oppressive system.
The post-1950 nation-building efforts consciously borrowed the “one-nation/one-language” concept from 18th century Europe. The idea that a national language was essential to national unity may seem offensive today, but it underpinned Nepal’s early donor-funded development endeavors.
The Royal Nepal Academy, Radio Nepal and the New Education Plan buttressed the homogeneity literary magazines like Sharada, Roop-Rekha, Madhuparka, Garima and Pragya fostered. Sanskritization permitted enough influences from Urdu, Farsi and Arabic for Nepali to separate itself from, say, Hindi. (Nyayalaya thus became adalat.)
The 22 states of the Arab League share one language with its Maghreb, Levant and Gulf variants as well as other sub-groups. The language pulsates with Egyptian fiction, Iraqi prose and Lebanese poetry. But Nepali was a curse that had to be exorcised.
Even at the height of the pre-election political fragmentation, the Nepali Congress’ Ram Baran Yadav considered himself first and foremost a Nepali. So he took his oath in the language. Vice-President Jha saw regionalism as an essential component of a new Nepal.
His Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) is pressing a One Madhes One Province platform it believes it won through last February’s accord with the government. Despite the opposition of other communities in the Terai to claims of homogeneity, the MJF emerged as the largest regional grouping.
Surely, Jha could have risen above the MJF and taken his oath in Nepali. That would not have been politically prudent. He could have used Maithali, but that would have lent credence to his Terai critics. For him, Hindi best represented the MJF agenda. After all, scores of Nepali politicians have given interviews in Hindi to Indian broadcasters without kicking up a controversy.
As a former Supreme Court judge, Jha understood the oath of office was far more sacred in its intimacy with the nation’s soul. Yet, for him and the MJF, deferring to the finality of constitutionalism in a politically dominant interim arrangement could only be construed as encumbering the possibility of change.
Hindi not only bridged the region’s indigenous diversity but also reached out to the new arrivals from across the southern border. That undoubtedly emboldened Jha to claim that his choice of Hindi was a prelude to establishing it as one of the official languages.
If, like Maila Baje, the big three national parties and their smaller allies on this issue find this offensive, they are too late. They gave up their right to object when they passed into law those abhorrent citizenship provisions to the acclamation of the anti-Nepali crowd outside.