Last month, the International Labour Organisation organised a media blitz to alert Nepalis of the ills of child labour, giving us, among other things, the sobering information that one in a hundred child workers in the world today is a Nepali. The campaign was a good idea, and the print adverts were nicely done. But why did the ILO national office decide to do it all in English?
An organisation addressing an excruciatingly real national problem, which requires the mass public to be sensitised, decides to impart the message in a tongue that the public cannot understand. Why would the UN agency do something so breath-takingly inappropriate as this?
The labour agency is only one of many to have erred on the side of English. Expatriate development agency managers and their English-speaking Nepali counterparts and programme officers often suffer from the delusion that "If I understand it, then they will too." The inability to fathom the role of Nepali in Nepal is why vacancy announcements for drivers and gardeners are put out in the Occidental tongue, why NGOs ubiquitously seek project proposals and reports only in English, why diplomats are sometimes clueless about political ground realities because they only get a sample translation of papers that are the local staple, and why innumerable manuals are produced on everything from midwifery to animal husbandry-in English.
The absence of the Nepali language in the upper echelons of the agencies, INGOs and even some NGOs skews the pitch for Nepali development because of the unbridgeable semantic distance this creates between the hakims and the masses. Many bidesis, whether diplomat or development-wallah, miss out on the richness of the discourse in the Nepali newspapers, and so believe that there is hardly any debate in the country about, say, the Maobadi. They are forced to party only with the English-speaking Kathmandu elite, and hence gain a fashionably warped view on what's going on. They cannot get to the depth of the sociological churning in a country that is rushing to modernise while jettisoning its cultural moorings, and therefore reach for simplistic two-dimensional models of a 'fatalistic' society.
The dangers of consorting with Nepal's English-speaking brackets over cocktails and at barbecues cannot be overstated. For, while elsewhere in South Asia you can get down to a lower-middle class level in English, here the imperial language will deliver almost exclusively the urban economic elite. Even some of our best scholars cannot communicate in English, leave alone politicians, administrators and journalists. The possibility of having easy conversations and developing friendships with 'locals' is therefore limited to the urban rich. And most of the English-savvy upper-class scions attended school and college outside Nepal (mostly in India). So there is every reason to suspect the accuracy of their pontifications about their own country.
It is easy to understand why our diplomats and development partners never get past the 'kasto chha' and 'dhanyabaad' stage in Nepali 101. The average stint of the average dip or dev is three to four years, so there is hardly the time to master the language enough to be able to break the class barrier. But that is no reason to neglect the role of Nepali language in Nepal, and promote it as a medium for social, economic and cultural advancement.
Because Nepal was never politically colonised, English did not become the lingua franca of the economic and administrative elites, as it did in the rest of the subcontinent. Until 1950 and the departure of the Ranas, Nepali (formerly Khas Kura) itself was largely the language of the expansionary parbatiya groups, which had spread themselves in a sprinkling across the country. With the 'nation building project' of the Panchayat years, spearheaded initially by King Mahendra, the young language rapidly expanded to serve as the governmental tongue and the link language of the population.
Much is wrong with this linguistic evolution, particularly the fact that Nepali gained its present supremacy at the expense of other national languages and dialects. For too long, the Nepali language has been the preserve of the pre-eminent castes and classes who have taken advantage of it to move ahead in administration and various social sectors. For too long Nepali has been producing only literature-poetry and short stories and novellas-when the need now is to promote intellectual discourse through works in the social sciences.
These are problems, but the answer is not to throw the linguistic baby with the bathwater. If one is to look to the future, while the myriad mother tongues of Nepal must be protected and the country's cultural diversity preserved, it is only Nepali which can serve as the cultural springboard on the national plane. If Nepal is the chosen nation-state structure within which to try and deliver prosperity to Nepalis, then our economic dynamics, cultural advance, and social cohesion will have to be supported by the Nepali language.
It could have been Newar, Limbu or Tharu Bhasa, if history had been otherwise. If history had been other-otherwise it could even have been Tibetan, Chinese, English or Hindi. But Nepali it is, and we have got to work with it.
English is an overwhelmingly important language, and it is true we will not progress without accessing the world of ideas and communications that is available through English. Today, it is mainly professionals who have some English, and future Nepali administrators, politicians, journalists, activists, teachers, all must have adequate command of the language if they are to upgrade their thinking and productivity. But for the foreseeable future, Nepali will be the language of communication, governance, planning, activism, the courts, public education and even (except right at the top) business and trade.
As far as social cohesion is concerned, whatever its provenance, Nepali remains the single language for the whole country. Before you turn your nose up at Nepali as the language of the Bahuns, bear in mind that it is in Nepali that the Limbu will speak to the Tharu, the Rai to the Dolpopa, the Yadav to the Gurung, and the Chhetri to the Newar.
A newspaper in Nepali crosses all the caste, ethnic and class barriers among the literate population. While in every other South Asian country, there is a widening divide between the English-speakers and the 'vernacular language' mass, Nepali saves us from this pre-determined tunnel of societal crisis. Here, the same newspaper is read across the spectrum, from the government secretaries to the ministers, the shopkeepers, the academics, and the labouring class. Nepali is a fine tool for social change, it only has to be recognised as such.
International agencies which have power over resources seem to have neglected Nepali in the myopic belief that it is an establishmentarian language, without considering that this can be changed. It is this neglect of Nepali that, to some extent, explains why there is no sense of urgency to rescue public schooling, which has been in free fall for a decade. One reason may be that the medium of instruction is Nepali. While the English-speakers revel in visions of Nepal entering the IT era, no one is really bothered by the fact that the Nepali office clerk or lowly accountant cannot access the data-processing power of the computer where it matters because nobody has bothered to standardise Nepali Devanagari. Nepal is in the midst of a democratising radio revolution (good governance and all that), but most bikase bidesis in town do not know of this. Why? Because the language of FM radio is mostly Nepali. Similarly, no one is concerned that there is next to nothing in the name of children's programming on Nepal Television. Because they do not watch NTV.
All this displays, really, a lack of empathy, and genuine interest in the lives of Nepalis. The next time you see an advertisement, signboard, manual, directions, instructions meant for the public at large-and notice that it is in English-ask yourself whether this does not show disregard. For all Nepalis.