Dialect Dialectic in Nepal

The squabble in Nepal over the vice president’s oath has gotten messier as leaders consider invoking a provision in the interim constitution that allows the cabinet and prime minister to reverse court decisions. The Maoists look like the only winners, however the issue plays out.

When Vice President Paramananda Jha assumed office in July 2008 he signed a written oath in the Nepali language but took his verbal oath in Hindi, his mother tongue. The two languages are similar – Nepali is sometimes described as a dialect of Hindi, though Nepalis do not like that characterization – and Hindi is widely spoken in the southern areas of Nepal that border India.

Last month a supreme court justice invalidated Jha’s oath and ordered him to retake it in Nepali. He and his supporters appealed, and on Monday the full court upheld the original ruling and applied a seven-day time limit for the vice president to comply or resign. That deadline is fast approaching.

It seems on the surface a simple matter for Jha to retake the oath or step down, but the language issue cuts deeply through the society here. Many Nepalis resent cultural and political influence from the country’s giant neighbor, and there were strong protests at the time of the vice president’s swearing in over his choice to take the oath in Hindi.

But ethnic aspirations for greater autonomy and recognition of the dozens of languages in common use in the country have been ruffled by the court decision; a backlash of vigorous protests against it are now daily occurrences. The southerners see the controversy and court ruling as anti-southern bias.

Jha has remained adamant that he will neither resign nor retake the oath. But unlike most highly-polarized political arguments in Nepal, discussions over the issue are centered on finding a solution rather than prevailing over opponents.

A bill to amend the constitution to allow office-holders to take their oaths in either Nepali or their mother tongue is pending and would pass by a wide margin, but Maoist obstruction of the assembly prevents the measure from being brought to a vote. Constitutional and political leaders have been scrambling to find another compromise on the issue, which is complicated by Jha’s assertion that the judiciary is biased against him. (He was a judge until 2007 and has been at odds since then with the supreme court justice who initially invalidated his oath, alleging that that justice blocked Jha’s appointment to the high court.)

The attempts to find a way out of the row reflect the potentially explosive consequences of failure. Political parties representing the Hindi speakers of the south are key to power in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, which is charged with writing a new constitution and also serves as an interim parliament. Angering those parties could bring down the government and further fragment Nepal’s polity.

That would suit Nepal’s Maoists, now in opposition: They have been very vocal about their desire to return to leadership and have been practicing a destructive opposition in the three months since the Maoist prime minister resigned after a row involving his attempt to dismiss the army chief.

And failing to follow the supreme court ruling would weaken the rule of law in the country, already in tatters. Implementing Article 151 to set aside the court ruling would also be a victory for the Maoists, who have been promoting supremacy of the legislature over the courts as one of their main goals for the new constitution.

The prime minister is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Neither the government nor the southern parties want to empower the Maoists, but time and options are running out quickly.

At least everyone is still talking, and the Vice President Jha may yet prove willing to compromise, perhaps in return for quick action on the mother-tongues bill. But that would require Maoist cooperation, which they have held up over their demand to discuss the army-chief decision in the assembly and “correct” it.

They may get what they want if the prime minister decides that giving way over that is less painful than the consequences of failing to reach an agreement on the language issue. But yielding to the Maoist demand will weaken him, as the PM’s own party is split internally over the matter.

Allegations that the Maoists have instigated the vice president’s intransigence and manipulated the situation may be true, because whatever happens will help them but no one else in Nepal.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.