Thursday, 3 May 2012

A gloomy picture ahead

The State has already spent billions of rupees for the Constituent Assembly (CA) which has two important tasks to accomplish – end the peace process and draft new constitution of the Federal Republic Nepal. Although the tenure of the CA has been extended for four times, it is not sure that whether the most awaited constitution will be drafted before May 27. Even if it is drafted within that deadline, the present political chaos indicates that the new constitution may not be able to lead the state toward stability (though it may be too early to predict). There are some critical issues three decisive major political parties and Madheshi front have to bear in mind at this critical juncture.

First and the most important issue is they have to realize that they are not representative of all the people. How can we believe that leaderships, who cannot even represent their party, are able to represent people and the whole nation? Why do meetings among political parties are always inconclusive? It has been apparent that political parties seem to be ideologically fragile. They seem to be diffident about what they think and say about the future of the federal republic Nepal. On the one hand, they are not able to develop consensus in their own parties and on the other hand, they think that whatever they agree is acceptable for the people. This kind of misconception is major set back for the delay and likely failure of the CA.
We clearly see that political parties lack both critical studies on nation building and negotiation skills. Especially the leaderships of three major parties seem to ignore the existence of the CA and its members. From a layman perspective, although negotiation and consensus among parties are required, it is not good to make the CA non-functional. Every contentious issue should be discussed in the CA that would help parties reach logical conclusions.

People foresee that even if the constitution is drafted within May 27, it may not be acceptable for Janajatis, dalits, women, Madhesis, and even Brahaman-Chetris. First, political parties have already irritated people for not being able to reach logical conclusions in many attempts. People suspect whether or not they are sincere about writing the new constitution. In addition, there is a stark difference among political parties regarding the nature of federalism. While Maoists seem to favor ethnic federalism, Nepali Congress and UML are arguing for geography and economic viability. While Brahmans-Chetris are against ethnic federalism, Janajatis are not ready to accept federalism that does not address their ethnic identity. Likewise, the Madheshi front’s ‘one-madhesh-one-state’ is not acceptable for Tharus and other Janajatis in Terai. This kind of contention has created very volatile situation in the country. For example, Janajatis have already started criticizing Nepali Congress and UML as anti-Janajati parties. As the demand for ethnic federalism in mounting, the Janajatis leaders from Congress and UML have already crossed their party border and started putting pressure on their leaderships for ethnic federalism. Likewise, Maoists are blamed for provoking ethnic agendas in politics. Those who are against ethnic federalism argue that the agenda of ethnicity may push the country into ethnic conflicts and violence. Contrary to this, Janajatis argue that without ethnic federalism the long-seated history of feudalism and exclusion cannot be removed.

It is apparent that it all kinds of federalism proposed by different parties are contentious. In this situation, political parties should be more cautious and serious about the nature of federalism. They should not only think about drafting a constitution for the sake of constitution but also analyze whether or not it represents voices of people. It is time to think that what happens if people do not accept the constitution in future. Who will be responsible for the conflict and instability invited by the new constitution? How will the newly formed states function smoothly? Political parties should also discussion these issues critically. But as there is no time for taking the draft of the constitution among the people for their comments, it is almost certain that the constitution is going to be just an ideological mixture of Maoists, Congress, UML and Madheshi front. As there is no enough time to inform people and incorporate their voices before it is promulgated, it is almost certain that the new constitution will certain to be no other than legitimization of ideologies of three major parties.

The myopic vision of Prachanda, Shushil Koirala, and Jhalanath Khanal is no longer helpful to forge consensus for the timely and sustainable drafting of the constitution. These three so-called key players of the constitution drafting process should be ready to listen to the voices of people from all walks of life. Rather than having futile meetings among them, they should propose and organize a conclusive round-table meeting with Janajatis, dalits, womens, Madhesi, civil societies and so on. This is a more democratic process to finish the constitution drafting and lead the nation to a new era.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Language and social cohesion

Language is very sensitive which may create social disintegration if it is not used and planned properly.  We all know that Paramanda Jha, the first Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nepal took his oath in Hindi on July 23, 2008. The whole nation was brought to a halt for more than a week due to strikes against his action. People chanted slogans saying that he ignored the linguistic identity of the nation by taking the oath in Hindi, the national language of India. Although the Supreme Court declared his oath in Hindi unconstitutional and ordered him to take one in Nepali, he refused to do so. To resolve this issue, the Legislative Parliament passed the seventh amendment to the Interim Constitution on January 28, 2010. The amendment allows the President, Vice President, Prime Minister and other ministers to take the oath of office in their first language. On February 7, 2010, the Vice President took a fresh oath in both Nepali and Maithili, his first language.
Such issues emerge due to lack of clear language policy. It is clear that a society functions cohesively in a country where inclusive multilingual policy is adopted. But conflicts and social disintegration of different nature take place in a country like Nepal where language policy is not inclusive. In a democratically just society all linguistic communities expect their linguistic identity to be addressed and protected. In order to discuss how language issues can be settled down for social cohesion, the 9th Language and Development International Conference was organized in Colombo, Sri Lanka with the theme ‘Language and Social Cohesion’ on 17-19 October, 2011. There were papers from 22 countries that discussed how proper planning of languages foster socio-economic development, educational performance, political stability, and identity (gender, ethnic, and national) of a country and its people. Being a paper presenter I collected some major inputs that can be instrumental for language planning to build a cohesive Nepalese society.
The grand opening ceremony in the presence of the President Mahinda Rajapaksh, ministers and high ranking officials was conducted in three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English. It is the government’s policy that all formal programmes should be conducted in three languages. As it was the international conference, all government officials including the President Rajapaksha addressed the gathering in English.  In his thought-provoking speech, the President mentioned that one of reasons for previous conflict in Sri Lanka was the discriminatory language policy (i.e. Only Sinhala as official language policy) adopted by the country. There were two booths in the conference hall from where all speeches were translated into Sinhala and Tamil that can be tuned into a wireless headphone. The trilingual policy of Sri Lanka is clearly seen in marketplaces, bus station and the city. All sign boards and public notices can be seen in three languages. Both Sinhala and Tamil languages are taught in schools and universities. In various informal discussions I learned that Tamil-speaking children are doing well after the introduction of Tamil in schools. It is also very interesting to learn that Sri Lankan job market prefers trilingual candidates than monolingual ones.
Sri Lankan language policy provides some significant issues to formulate inclusive language policy in Nepal. First, it is clear that Nepal has to prepare a comprehensive language policy. As mentioned above, the issue of oath taking in Hindi by the Vice-President, Paramananda Jha, emerged as there was no clear language policy of the country. Second, the country has to remove the maxim of ‘one language one nation’. Such a narrow nationalism defined only in terms of the Nepali language undermines the indigenous identity of Nepal as a multilingual country. As Tamils agitated against the discriminatory one language policy of the country, different indigenous linguistic communities have been demanding their linguistic rights for about two and half centuries. Although the country seemed to be unified with its one language policy, people from various linguistic communities have been discriminated. Due to lack of proficiency in the Nepali language people from indigenous communities could not access wider socio-economic opportunities. Their children could not continue their education as they could not perform well due to Nepali only medium of instruction in schools. This clearly indicates that there is a need of formulating a feasible language-in-education policy which creates a cohesive atmosphere among children’s home languages and medium of instruction in schools.
Another important implication is that the country has to be cautious while developing language planning policies in its federal structure. As in Sri Lanka, the federal states can decide at least one local language (based on the number of speakers) to be used as an official language along with Nepali as another official and link language. In the case of other minority languages the federal states can devise a policy to introduce them in education and other domains. Considering English as an important international language, its role has to be clearly defined. English can be used while addressing international communities (e.g. conferences, political dealings and business). But the country should manage to translate English into Nepali and other federal languages. Although it is not easy to devise multilingual language policy, it is not impossible if there is strong political will. For this, the country has to ensure the participation of linguistic groups in the process of language policy making. Because the linguistic situation of the country is so adverse and delicate, the top-down approach of language planning (i.e. planning based on the ideas of elites only) may not really address linguistic complexities.
We have not only more than 140 languages but also have a treasure of knowledge constructed through them. All languages have to be preserved. For this the country has to make a long-term plan. One of the important lessons we can learn from Sri Lanka in this regard is the establishment of a separate ministry for the development of national languages. Sri Lanka has the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration which is fully responsible for the promotion of national languages and fostering social cohesion. There is an urgent need of the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration in Nepal as well to address linguistic complexities of the country and to ensure linguistic rights of the people. While promoting national languages the country can preserve a vast treasurer of knowledge on literature, culture, ecology, history, education, society, conflict resolution, religion and so on.  
(The author researches on issues of language planning in multilingual contexts and language-identity connection. His recent article on language-in-education planning in Nepal has been published in the Current Issues in Language Planning, Routledge, London)