Thursday, October 8, 2009

Nepali Speech Community & Its Internal Dynamics

In the Nepali linguistic community, the formation and fragmentation of community/identity and the mediatory role played by language planning/socio-political process is an issue of contemporary concern. From the 1990s onwards, an interesting dynamics within the Nepali community is taking place both in Nepal and India regarding ethnicity within which the issue of language is embedded. The ethnic/clan languages as a symbolic badge of membership and distinctiveness in the multiethnic and multilingual but in the different socio-political realities and the different hidden aspirations and the agenda play a role in asserting identity, democratic values and norms, functions in acquiring official packages for socio-economic betterment.
In Nepal, the inadequacies of the 1990 Constitution along with the other state mechanisms failed to meet the aspirations of the various nationalities both at the cultural level and at the level of accessing resources. It has become a major source of irritant in protecting the rights of the nationalities. The issue of linguistic rights, therefore, is embedded in the minority rights, later under the indigenous peoples' rights in reaction to the United Nations’ call for a Decade of Indigenous People. The language movement, hence, is to ensure justice, preserve and promote linguistic heritage and culture, to ensure a federal structure, to promote national unity and integration, to establish egalitarian society and cordial relationship between different nationalities, to end the linguistic hierarchy and the hegemony of Nepali language. Moreover, to ensure democratic values and norms, and is aimed towards linguistic ecology.
In India, after the Mandalisation, Nepali as a consciousness weakened and consequently, internal cracks began to develop within the Nepalis, a linguistic community which subsumes nationalities of a large number of speakers of the Tibeto-Burman and the Indo-Aryan languages having distinct religious, cultural and linguistic traits. Each member started to assert its identity to benefit from the policy. This quest of asserting different identity led to a genesis of a serious linguistic concern. The different members started to disclaim the Nepali language as the marker of their identity and invoked language to distinguish from each other as the marker of their identity assertion. Consequently, along the linguistic lines, the community has begun to be divided, which further accelerated the division between the septs whose languages were sept-based. All these have happened without establishing first the actual use and functionality of those languages, and solely on the basis of asserting linguistic heritage. Moreover, behind the linguistic concern there is no linguistic motivation for linguistic diversity but primarily used as a tool to create distinct identity vis-à-vis Nepali to avail the benefits of the policy.
The developments in India and Nepal show a constant tug-of-war between nationism vs. nationalism (Fishman’s term 1972) in different socio-political environment, which translates into a case of a dichotomy of revival vs. maintenance. Within the specific socio-economic, political, and demographic and various other contexts revival or maintenance seems to be beneficial to the speakers for whom it is meant. The sweeping revivalism as articulated by the preventive linguists or the extreme linguistic homogenization, are both non-progressives for the linguistic community, when the same is followed without determining the contemporary context, without understanding of praxis and establishing functioning linguistic diversity first. Therefore, the strategy needs a rethinking – the issues of language revival and maintenance are better defined context specifically and in terms of proceeds for the community, to whom scholarly analysts are accountable.

[An abridged version of the paper Nepali Speech Community & Its Internal Dynamics presented at National Conference on Identity and Nationality of the Indian Nepalis: Issues and Perspectives, Gangtok, Sikkim, 2006].

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