Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Nepal's language riots

Qatar is of course one of the most multicultural places on earth - citizens are only a small minority of the population, and even they include a lot of pre-oil era immigrants from Asia and Africa. Among the largest national groups here in recent years is Nepalis, so it's no wonder that the papers here in Doha have been full of a language controversy that readers elsewhere may not have noticed - the anti-Hindi riots in Nepal.

Apparently, the people of the plains in southern Nepal have ethnic ties to India. They don't speak Hindi natively, but commonly use it as a lingua franca between them. The new vice-president Parmanand Jha comes from this region, and decided to take his oath of office in Hindi (although his native tongue is Maithili). Highlanders took this as a deliberate snub to the official language Nepali, the worse for having not even been in his own language but rather in one primarily associated with India - and a week or so of riots, in which at least 10 people were injured, followed. He issued a sort of apology that calmed things down, but apparently now there are fresh protests from a plains group without Indian ties, the Tharu.

Those who prefer a jargon-filled angle on all this can regard this as an interesting case study in the symbolic weight of language choice in a multilingual context. In this case, they seem to have at least two different diglossias going on: Nepali vs. others in the hills, Hindi vs. others in northern India, and both languages effectively trying to claim the role of the high-prestige language in the plains in between, through competing political parties. Kind of reminds me of North Africa, actually... (And that's without even getting into the role of English.)

For a few links, try:
Hindustan Times

1 comment:

Bryce said...

This is a very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it. Language issues are always a sensitive topic, I agree.

Here is a website in Nepali that you might find as an interesting supplement to this post:

नेपाली wiki browser