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RIGHTS-NEPAL: Attempt to Limit Official Language to Nepali Resented

Ramyata Limbu

KATHMANDU, Jun 27 1999 (IPS) - A recent decision by Nepal’s Supreme Court barring local institutions from using local languages to reach non-Nepali speaking communities, has caused a stir among rights activists.

They say the apex court’s decision, pronounced early June, fails to honour the multilingual, multiethnic and plural character of this Himalayan country.

“It’s a grave injustice to the indigenous communities,” declares Padma Ratna Tuladhar, former parliamentarian and president of the Forum for the Protection of Human Rights.

Tiny Nepal is home to more than 40 ethnic groups. In addition to Nepali, over 60 languages are spoken around the country.

“The Supreme Court’s decision has created hurdles in the process of protecting and promoting local languages. It contradicts the Local Autonomous Governance Act which provides for local bodies to protect, and to promote local languages, art and culture,” observes Tuladhar.

A well-known Newari language activist, Tuladhar was deeply disappointed when Nepal’s apex court quashed the decision by three local bodies to introduce Newari and Maithili as additional official languages.

“Language reflects the culture and dignity of a people. How can you promote a language without using it?”

In order to encourage communities to interact with local bodies, the Kathmandu Metropolis, the Janakpur District Development Committee and the Rajbiraj Municipality had introduced Newari and Maithili respectively as promised during the 1997 local election.

Kathmandu district, which is 40 percent Newari, is the heart of Newar civilisation and culture. While 60 percent of the population in the main metropolis is Newar; some of the city’s wards (neighbourhoods) are entirely Newar.

“There are many people in the Kathmandu Valley who do not speak Nepali and can only communicate in Newari,” says Advocate Yuvaraj Sangraula, a counsel for Kathmandu Metropolis.

Similarly, Rajbiraj and Janakpur — cities in Nepal’s southern terai belt — hold a largely Maithili-speaking population. Janakpur is considered the seat of Maithili art and culture.

“The administration’s job is to work for the convenience of the people and not the other way round. Using local languages in an official capacity would increase the efficiency of the administration,” lawyer Sangraula observes.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the introduction of Newari and Maithili as supplementary languages for official work, contradicts a constitutional provision.

Article 6 (1) of the Constitution states “The Nepali language in the Devanagari script is the language of the nation of Nepal. The Nepali language shall be the official language.”

Yet Article 6 (2) of the Constitution states, “All the languages spoken as the mother tongue in the various parts of Nepal are the national languages of Nepal.”

“The two articles are not mutually exclusive. By virtue of being national languages, the court could have allowed the use of Newari and Maithili in addition to Nepali,” says Sangraula, pointing out that the Constitution does not limit the number of official languages.

Further he argues that the petitioners who challenged the introduction of local languages by the local bodies had failed to explain how their rights had been infringed.

“No one’s asking for Nepali to be replaced as the official language, they are only seeking to employ additional languages for the convenience of local communities,” explains Sangraula.

While the lawyers are planning to seek a review of the Supreme Court order, activists are preparing to raise the issue with political parties and to hold peaceful protests in the streets.

They have a case, asserts geographer-scholar Dr Harka Gurung who thinks the status of Nepali as the official language is not being challenged.

A former member of Nepal’s Planning Commission, Dr Gurung who was speaking at a recent meeting of the National Concern Society, stressed the need to amend the Constitution by electing a constituent assembly to make provisions for allowing the use of all languages.

However, a more convenient way would be to lobby in parliament for new legislation empowering ethnic groups to use their mother tongue, says Sangraula.

In the last couple of years, Nepal has observed a rise in ethnic sentiments. Numerous indigenous groups, who have felt marginalised in the past, are demanding recognition and to be involved in the mainstream of development.

“In some quarters, people may fear the introduction of Newari and Maithili languages as communal,” says Tuladhar. “That’s not the case. The reality is Nepal has diverse ethnic groups. And it is the democratic right of all these groups to speak their language, to promote their art and culture.”

In his opinion, even a feeling that Nepali is being forced on people could further hurt ethnic sentiments and trigger clashes.

 
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RIGHTS-NEPAL: Attempt to Limit Official Language to Nepali Resented

Ramyata Limbu

KATHMANDU, Jun 21 1999 (IPS) - A recent decision by Nepal’s Supreme Court barring local institutions from using local languages to reach non-Nepali speaking communities, has caused a stir among rights activists.
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