Limbu Language Rights: Interview with Dr. Tumbahang

During my last few weeks in Kathmandu, I sought out people that I thought had interesting opinions on language rights and language education in Nepal, and sat down with them for informal interviews. Here is the first of these interviews, with Dr. Govinda Bahadur Tumbahang, Associate Professor in Linguistics at the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies at Tribhuvan University. In this blog post I mentioned Process of Democratization and Linguistic (Human) Rights in Nepal, which was written by Dr. Tumbahang.

Here is my interview:

I enjoyed your article about Linguistic Human Rights.

I left some interesting things out of that. It began with the annexation of the Limbu Kingdom by Prithvi Narayan Shah. He and his heirs gradually put barriers on Limbu language and culture. Limbus used to sacrifice cows, but they were prohibited to do this by the regime. They were forced to lie to God, to say "We sacrifice this cow unto You" when in fact it was a buffalo or a he-goat that they were sacrificing. This is the Hinduization of culture. At the beginning, Limbu was the language of business dealings and notes, but this was restricted under Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher especially. Then there was the Panchayat policy of one nation, one language, one culture.

Why did the Ranas oppress language?

A ruler wants his own language to prosper. If you put yourself into their shoes, you see that using many languages in official capacity can be very expensive. Also, with many languages come many secret things that the Ranas have difficulty finding out about. The Ranas must bring many nationalities into the mainstream and unify them. 

Which was most targeted by the regime - ethnic languages, religions, or cultures?

First they attacked culture, then language later. The Limbus were forced to celebrate Dashain, and were compelled to sacrifice goats. They had to put their fingertips in goat blood and smear it on the walls of their house. Then spies of the government, disguised as yogis [ascetic holy men], would go around the villages to make sure that this was done. The Athpahariya Rai of Dhankuta refused to celebrate Dashain, even after two of the protesters were hanged. Later on, they began to require that Nepali be used in office places and schools. 

What has been the situation since the People's Revolution of 1990?

Many people have started seeking their identity through speaking out about their language and culture. The situation is congenial. 

The constitution provides the right for people to learn in their mother tongue. In Kathmandu people tried to use Newari in an official capacity, as people in a few other districts did with Maithili, but then this was quashed by the Supreme Court of Nepal. This raised suspicions about the government's dedication to linguistic rights. 

Has the situation changed since the Second People's Revolution?

So far only tall talks untranslated into action. The government has made 15 mother tongue education textbooks, but at the primary level mother tongue language is only taught as a separate subject and not a medium of instruction. There are also not enough mother language teachers.

What is the role of different entities like activists, bureaucrats, and schools in language preservation?

Ethnic organizations are trying to mobilize people to contribute to the cause, to use politics to preserve language and culture. Also some other individuals are doing work.

For example, some organizations like Kumar Lingden's Sanghiya Loktantrik and the Kirat Yaktung Chumlung are fighting for an autonomous Limbu land with the right to self determination. If this happens, Limbu will be the official language and our culture will be preserved. Limbuwan is an issue of identity. I support the Limbuwan state.

What is your research background?

I study the Kiranti languages. I did my PHD on Chhatthare Limbu, and I have written on Athpahariya Rai and Standard Limbu, which is Panthare Limbu.

How did Panthare become the standard? 

This is a very good question. The Limbu Panthare were rulers and scholars, and they wrote literature in Panthare. When radio stations started to broadcast in other languages after 1990, Panthares became radio newscasters. So Panthare has come to occupy a central role whether we like it or not. 

This shows how language and dialect is always a matter of power. The Gorkha rulers had to appease the Limbus in Nepal because there were many Limbus across the Nepalese border in Sikkim that might band against them. So they gave some Rai and Limbu the title of hereditary ruler. They had their own law code for their villages, and they could officiate in all but 5 of the worst crimes.

There are four Limbu dialects, which are all very similar except for Chhatthare, which is my dialect. Chhatthare is quite different, but it is not accepted as a different language because there is strong pressure to keep all Limbus unified. I even did PHD research to show that Chhatthare should be considered a separate language, and when I gave a talk at Arjun's Yaktung Chumlung I was nearly chased out the door. That office is dominated by Panthare speakers, and there is pressure to keep Panthare as a standard.

This actually creates a big problem for mother tongue education, because Limbu classes are all taught in Panthare dialect, which is very difficult for Chhatthare children to understand. This is a major difficulty of mother language education. Although by adulthood most Limbus understand Panthare because it is used as a lingua franca in Limbu communities, it is very difficult for children, who say in the classroom, "this is not our language."

The Rai communities are a very different situation. When they start to talk about a Rai state, they break down on the issues of language and culture. They are in fact many different languages and cultures and tribes - like Bantawa - that are lumped together into the single caste name Rai.