Don’t foist Hindi on Nepali people

Jivesh Jha


Ever since Sarita Giri, a Member of Parliament from Samajbadi Party, addressed the House in Hindi, there has been a considerable debate over the use/non-use of Hindi language in Nepal. Innocent citizens, who are neither guided by any political philosophy nor by diplomatic consular, believe that it’s unbecoming to prefer Hindi over other local or regional languages spoken in Nepal.

Many argue that if a lawmaker can speak Nepali in India’s parliament, then what’s wrong with a parliamentarian speaking in Hindi while addressing the House in Nepal? This article deals with this question and tries to analyze constitutional frameworks on language in India and Nepal.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has rightly said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”  Everybody loves their mother tongue and wants to see the native language flourish.  Once you know the language, it is easier for you to make good relationship with people and establish contact through effective communication. With this spirit, governments and parliaments often publish their documents in many languages in the quest of winning heart and minds of the people and publicize state policies. In a bid to share the bond of oneness with fellow citizens, competent parliaments pay regard to every language spoken in the country.

It was with this purpose that Nepal’s new constitution has adopted a progressive language policy. The charter under Article 6 provides that all languages spoken in Nepal shall be the national languages. Article 7 provides that Nepali language written in Devnagari script shall be the official language of the country. In addition to this, Nepal’s Constitution gives exclusive powers to provincial legislature to make laws on language provisions. More or less, similar arrangement has been envisaged under Article 345 of the Constitution of India.

The Constitution incorporates a fundamental right exclusively for the language. The provision envisages that each person and community shall have the right to use their language. The provision then goes on to ensure that every person and community would have the right to participate in the cultural life of its community. Each community living in Nepal shall have the right to preserve and promote its language, script, culture, cultural civilization and heritage (Art. 32). Also, there is a clear guiding principle for the state under the Directive Principle to promote multi-lingual policy of the state and preserve and develop the language (Art. 51).

The Constitution envisages that the Nepali language would be language of official business in Nepal. “While there were many changes between these two constitutions, the sections that immediately address language policy and education remained unchanged from those in the Constitution of 1990 (Government of Nepal, 2007),” writes Miranda Weinbergmm in an article published in Working Papers in Educational Linguistics: A Journal of University of Pennsylvania, Vol. 28, Issue-1, 2013. Interestingly, the language policy remains the same in 2015 Constitution as well. Nepali remains the official language of the state.

Moreover, the 1962 Constitution had provisioned that one must have knowledge of Nepali language and s/he was expected to “read and write the national language of Nepal” in order to acquire Nepali citizenship (Article 8). This unrealistic provision led to the denial of citizenship rights of many people who were unable to “read and write the national language of Nepal.”  This myopic move of King Mahendra had entrenched discrimination against Madheshi community on the basis of language.

Dipendra Jha, chief attorney of Province-2 and former NGO activist, argues that as far as citizenship was concerned, Mahendra wanted to suppress any possible democratic uprising by creating constitutional and legal barriers for the people of the southern belt. This condition led to political marginalization of Madheshi people as they were not conferred citizenship so long they were ignorant about Nepali language, writes Jha in Anagarik, a book published by THRD Alliance, Kathmandu in  2016.

Despite the regressive legal regime in past, the laws in force do not deny citizenship rights to persons who don’t know Nepali language. This language has dominance over all other regional languages in terms of official business. Above all this, right to language is the sacrosanct fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution. It means a person or community can knock the door of the superior court at the instance of violation of their linguistic rights.


Hegemony of Hindi  

As per the Constitutional mandate, Hindi written in Devnagari script is the ‘official’ language of the Union in India. “The reason for designating Hindi as the official language, and not the national language is that not only Hindi but all national languages are regarded as the national and not foreign languages. Article 343 (1) lays down the ultimate goals to be reached in course of time,” observes the much-admired commentator of Constitutional Law MP Jain in his popular book Indian Constitutional Law. As the Constitution makers did not want to institute Hindi immediately, but only after a period of transition, the Constitution specified a period of 15 years for this purpose. It was thus envisaged that from January 26, 1965, Hindi would be installed as the official language at the Centre and that in the meantime, English language would continue to be used for that purpose, argues Jain.

A constitutional body of ‘Language Commission’ appointed by the President is empowered to make recommendations as to the ‘progressive use of Hindi language’ for the official purpose of Union; restriction on the use of English language for all or any of the Union official language and any other matter regarding the official language of Union and States.

Much like Article 344 of Indian Constitution, Nepali Constitution under Article 287 provisions for the establishment of Language Commission for the protection and promotion of all languages let alone India’s ‘progressive use of Hindi language’.

The Constitution places the central government under an obligation to take steps to promote the spread and development of Hindi language (Art. 351). This arrangement suggests that the Hindi-promoting lawmakers in the Constituent Assembly have ignored a fact that multilingual India is better educated and nationally integrated. This constitutional push for Hindi, in one or some other way, obliterates the shared cultural legacies between Hindi and Urdu.  Its shows the official action and political preference of Hindi which ultimately aims to ensure hegemony of Hindi that would neither contribute in enrichment of other regional languages nor would it bridge the gap between Hindi speakers and non-Hindi speakers. Also, the Hindi enthusiasts, members of RSS and BJP who are language chauvinists often link Hindi with nationalism. They want every Indian learn and speak Hindi.

Interestingly, the percentage of Indian population with Hindi as the mother tongue stands at 43.63 percent as per 2011 census, while Bengali remains the second most spoken language and Marathi stands in third place.

Nepali is the largest speaking language in Nepal while Maithili is the second largest speaking language.

Similarly, to ensure the protection and promotion of regional languages, Article 350A and 350B were inserted. To achieve this goal, Constitution lists 22 regional languages under Schedule-VIII. Interestingly, Maithili and Nepali both have been enlisted under the Schedule-VIII. Nepali is the largest speaking language in Nepal while Maithili is the second largest speaking language. According 2011 national census, the percentage of Nepali speaking people is about 46.6 percent while the percentage of Maithili speakers stood at 11.57 percent.

English chauvinism 

So far the inter-governmental communication is concerned; Article 345 in the India Constitution lays down that for the purposes of communication between two states, or between the Center and a state, the official language of the Centre should be used. However, the practice is to adopt English as the language of inter-governmental communication.

For instance, all the notifications regarding the current Coronavirus lockdown made under Section 6 of Disaster Management Act, 2005 are issued in English.

Interestingly, the language of the High Courts and Supreme Court are English (Article 348). The rationale behind this arrangement has been explained by admired commentator of Constitutional Law MP Jain. He observed that “India has a unified judicial system; there exists a basic unity in laws prevailing in the country and decisions of one High Court are freely cited in the other High Courts. The problem of language of the law thus assumes a special significance. If a High court adopts the local language then it would be difficult to cite precedents from this Court in other High Courts.”

However, Article 348 provides that all the authoritative, i.e., laws of the land, and language of the High Courts and Supreme Court shall be in English. As English remains the language of Supreme Court and High Courts, it is necessary to keep one language of law even when state legislatures opt for various official languages.

The Official Language Act 1963 provides for continued use of English for the official purposes of the Union indefinitely, notwithstanding the expiration of the period mentioned in Article 345.

The acclaimed critic of Constitutional Law HM Seervai in his book Constitutional Law of India (1998) maintains, “The provisions of our Constitution relating to language have raised no serious questions of legal interpretation, but they have raised serious political problems.”

Unreasonable push for Hindi in Nepal

In India, it has been provisioned that Hindi and English shall be the official languages of the Union. However, the constitution has given power to the state legislature to officially recognize any language if it is satisfied that a substantial proportion of the population of a state desires the use of any language spoken by them to be recognized by that state.

Despite the Constitution of India, in both letter and spirit, engraining that a language could get official status in a state provided it has to pass the test of whether it is being spoken by a “substantial proportion of population”, it is ultimately left at the Union’s mercy for a decision.

Indian machineries in Nepal–be it through Nepali Congress, Madheshi parties or India’s own secret instruments–have, of late, intensified efforts to enlist Hindi as one of the national languages in Nepal. It is not only derogatory but also against the spirit of India’s own constitution. Hindi is spoken not even by 1 percent of Nepalis as the mother language, let alone by a “substantial portion of population”. The Constitution of Nepal has adopted a liberal approach regarding the language policy-making. Even the provincial legislature has jurisdiction over language. In this regard, Schedule-VI, entry 18 places obligation over the State to enact laws for the promotion and preservation of language.

Hindi is spoken not even by 1 percent of Nepalis as the mother language, let alone by a “substantial portion of population”.

In Nepal, some Madhesi parties which brought their election manifesto in Hindi, have intensified efforts to enlist Hindi as one of the national languages of Nepal. Constitution of Nepal has adopted a liberal approach regarding language policy-making. Even the provincial legislature has jurisdiction over language.

To put it simply, Upendra Yadav-led Madheshi People’s Right Forum, Nepal contested the Constituent Assembly-I election with election manifesto in Hindi. Later, the party contested polls with manifestos in Nepali. The Madheshi parties are not firm with linguistic philosophy nor do they stick to the use of ‘Madhesh’ word in their parties’ nameplate.

What next?

In southern plains, Nepali is a rich man’s language and an urban phenomenon. The rural folks barely understand this language. Randhir Chaudhary, a commentator of Madhesh politics, rightly argues, “Not only the local people, but even political leaders whose mother tongue is Nepali speak in Hindi when talking to people in the Madhesh.” Yet, the love for Hindi would potentially harm the protection and promotion of other regional languages like Maithili, Bhojpuri, or Awadhi. If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head; if you talk to him in the language he speaks, that goes to his heart, said Nelson Mandela. Hindi chauvinism or Hindi nationalism would not help India, i.e., Bharat (Article 1 of Indian constitution) to integrate the states linguistically. Nor is it desirable for Nepal to marginalize Maithili, Bhojpuri or Awadhi by pushing for hegemony of Hindi.

The author holds an LLM in Constitutional Law.

Published on 12 June 2020