The fire over our 'national' language has been stoked once again. In their wisdom, two learned judges of the Supreme Court decided that the verbal oath of Vice President Parmananda Jha in Hindi didn't conform to the 'spirit' of the constitution.
The fact that Jha had signed the Nepali version of the official vow was considered irrelevant. Since judges are the highest interpreters of the supreme law of the land, it would be difficult to question the legal bases of assessing the "spirit" of a fairly explicit document. Jha refused to comply with the order of the court alleging that it was biased.
Attorney General Bharat Bahadur Karki jumped into the debate and contradicted the position of his government. Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal has promised to find a "middle path" acceptable to all. His chief
legal counsel believes that the VP must take a fresh oath.
Meanwhile, there has been no midnight missive from President Ram Baran Yadav so far to nip the inflammatory issue in the bud. It's passion rather than reason that has overtaken a debate that should have been discussed in the Constituent Assembly and the result enshrined in the new constitution.
The verdict of the court was technical but the debate that it has sparked is purely emotional. Almost all Pahadi parties contend that the VP should either re-take his oath or resign. Practical implications of these options are conveniently ignored. No matter whether a fresh swearing-in ceremony is held or he resigns, everything that Jha has done for over a year as VP will stand nullified. According to the "spirit" of the legal tradition, he would then be required to return every paisa to the exchequer that he has drawn by the way of pay and perks. Jha has judged too many legal cases not to recognise the legal trap. He is extremely unlikely to commit political hara-kiri.
The Madhesi parties have rallied around the VP in the belief that they may get a fresh lease of life in the Tarai where Maoists have begun to nibble away at their support base. By sharing power with the UML (a party seen to be stridently anti-Madhesi) the TMDP, Sadbhavana (Mahato) and the Gachhedar faction of MJF have begun to lose ground in the plains. They have to be louder than Upendra Yadav in supporting Jha even if just to save their faces.
The Maoists adopted the sensible way of promoting Abadhi, Bhojpuri and Maithili as languages of Madhesi identity. With Matrika Yadav raising the banner of Hindi, midlevel Maoist leaders in the Tarai suddenly find themselves on the defensive. It's difficult for them to divert the debate towards local languages when the judgment over legality of VP's oath is widely being interpreted as a Pahadi attack on Madhesi 'asmita'- a concept with inflammatory connotations of self-esteem, honour, and dignity all rolled into one. It seems we are once more on the slippery slope of ethnic cleavage.
Ironically, the hatred of Hindi is rarely caused by one's reverence for Nepali. Hindi films, teleserials, songs and magazines are as popular among Pahadis as among Madhesis. More Pahadis have nephews and cousins in the organised sector of India (Army, police, private security agencies, business houses and influential families), where knowledge of Hindi is sine qua non, than Madhesis.
Logically, Pahadis should have been at the forefront of Hindi movement in Nepal: their privileges would be more secure by associating with the regional hegemon. But then language is more about emotion than reason. Private adoration and public distaste for Hindi is but a mere reflection of grudging admiration and resulting resentment that Nepal's petty bourgeois harbour for anything 'Indian'. It's born out of a deep sense of inferiority and helplessness about Big Brother.
Jaswant Singh won the Indian election in Darjeeling on the strength of his dhaka topi and Sharad Singh Bhandari wouldn't dare wear one in his Mahottari constituency in Nepal. But the assumption that a Nepali has to be somehow visibly different from an Indian has such a large following that its likely impact on the Madhesi population is often ignored even by as seasoned a politician as Jhalnath Khanal.
Ethnocentrism is an extremely risky proposition for a country as diverse as Nepal. Fortunately, the two petitioners suing VP Jha for contempt have given the apex court an opportunity to review the case and offer a face saving formula for Jha: he has already agreed to re-take oath of office if 'Nepalis so desire'. This row needs to be resolved amicably to save the dignity of the VP's post and the reputation of the Supreme Court justices. Jingoism is a dangerous game to play in these ethnically charged times.