In Orwellian Newspeak, Nepali has always been the national language of Nepal. In reality, Newari was the Nepal Bhasa, or the language of Nepal and ‘Nepali’ as we know today was called Gorkhali and is still referred as Gorkhali in some hill villages. Gorkhali was the court language of many minor hill kings in Nepal, most notably Gorkha. After Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Kathmandu valley, Gorkhali became the court language in Kathmandu. Gaige writes,
Although Nepali was the court language of many minor hill kings in the past, it was commonly called Gorkhali after the kings of Gorkha conquered Nepal and this is still a commonly used term in the hill villages [1, pp. 121].
So, how and when did Nepali become the national language of Nepal?
A brief review of historic literature sheds light on the evolution and adoption of Nepali as the official language in courts, government offices and schools. In 1975, Frederick Gaige wrote a book “Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal” that was published by University of California, Berkeley. This book is often considered “the first systematic study of the economically important plains region, based on extensive field research”. In a chapter, “Politics of Language”, Gaige writes,
Some tension has long existed between advocates of Nepali and Newari, dating back to 1769, when the Newari-speaking people of the Valley were conquered by Nepali-speaking people from the western hills. During the Rana period, Newari then called Nepal Bhasa, or language of Nepal, was vigorously suppressed. Since the 1951 revolution, some revival of Newari has occurred in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan, the urban centers of the Valley where Newars are concentrated .
It should not come as no surprise that Newari was suppressed during Rana period. Ranas were warriors, had little penchant for arts or culture and exercised their absolute rule at the expense of other groups. To maintain their hegemony, they suppressed Nepali citizens and kept them out of schools while closely monitoring the royal family and keeping them inside the palace.
The autocratic Rana rule thankfully ended in 1951 and ushered in hopes for creating a new Nepal on the pillars of a plural democracy. Since Nepalis were not allowed to go schools during Rana period, most of the new leaders in post-Rana era had been educated in India. Ironically, they turned out to be staunch nationalists and wanted to create a new Nepal in their own image. In 1956, the National Education Planning Commission (NEPC) published a report, Education in Nepal that made the following recommendation on language policy:
Nepali should be the medium of instruction, exclusively from the third grade on, and as much as possible in the first two grades.
No other languages should be taught, even optionally, in the primary school because: few children will have need for them, they would hinder the teaching of Nepali….
The implications of this policy cannot be overestimated. In Nepal, at least 37 different languages are spoken, as reported by Census Bureau of Nepal in 2011. 24 of these languages have at least 25,000 speakers each and 15 languages have at least 100,000 speakers each. To prevent schools and communities from teaching local language to their students, even optionally at the primary level should raise serious concerns and it did.
In 1956 (same year as language policy), The Nepal Tarai Congress under the leadership of Vedananda Jha had declared three objectives, one of which was “recognition of Hindi as a state language”. Newari advocates also voiced strong opposition to the language policy.
However, the members of the National Education Planning Commission (NEPC) justified their recommendation using seven points, some of which were outright lies. For example, they said,
- The national language will be easier to learn than Hindi. No truly Hindi-speaking people inhabit any part of the country.
- As an official language for a long time, Nepali has been current everywhere and therefore is not difficult for the local people to understand.
- … The different communities of Nepal, easily understand the language…
- Nepali bears a closer affinity with Hindi than any other local language. [3, pp. 62-63]
According to 1952/54 statistics, only 5 percent of the tarai population spoke Nepali or various hill-tribal languages such as Magar, Gurung, or Tamang. Furthermore, 29 percent spoke plains languages such as Maithili, Bhojpuri, or Bengali and it placed 63 percent of speakers into various obscure categories with no recognized language classifications. The fact that a meager 5 percent of Tarai population spoke Nepali refutes arguments #4 and #5. Despite numerous statistical manipulations, Gaige calculated that an estimated 63 percent of the Tarai population spoke Hindi as a second language. This is in stark contrast to 25 to 30 percent who spoke Nepali as a second language. These statistics refute argument #3. Argument #6 has no ground since most plains languages (Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, etc.) bear a closer affinity with Hindi than Nepali does.
So, what did the 50 eminent members of the NEPC mean when they claimed that everyone in Nepal can understand Nepali. Gaige answers this very simply,
When government administrators, scholars, and journalists in Kathmandu assert that Nepali is now understood by most of the people in the tarai, they mean that it is understood by most of the people they have contact with in the tarai: businessmen, students, teachers, office clerks, messengers, and those relatively wealthy and sophisticated villagers who serve as “brokers” or communication links between other villagers and government officials in the district centers [1, pp. 120].
The new nationalist leaders of Nepal were educated in India but still saw the country through their narrow telescopes perched in Kathmandu. The NEPC recommendation forced schools and communities to adopt Nepali language at the expense of their own local language. But it was not the national language, at least not officially.
Nepali became the national language of Nepal after a royal proclamation by late King Mahendra. Just a week before the parliamentary elections in 1959, King Mahendra unilaterally proclaimed a new constitution. One of the last and shortest articles read,
The national language of Nepal shall be Nepali in the Devanagari script .
Through a royal proclamation, a nationalistic King superimposed a homogenic linguistic culture in a country that was/is rich and diverse in linguistics. Despite this and his autocratic rule, the fact that many communities continued to regard ‘the benevolent dictator’ as a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu is one of the greatest successes of Mahendra’s propaganda campaign. The implications of this royal proclamation is far-reaching in many communities of Nepal and shall be discussed in the second part of this article.
- Gaige, Frederick H. Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal. Berkeley: U of California, 1975. Print.
- Matribhumi Weekly, Apr 22, 1965. Quoted in Gaige’s book (pp. 125)
- Nepal, National Planning Commission, Education in Nepal (Kathmandu, 1956), p. 104
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal (Kathmandu, 1959), art. 70