How language reflects social and racial prejudices against Madhesh

Published On: May 22, 2023 09:00 AM NPT By: Sushant Nepali

Sushant Nepali

Sushant Nepali

The author is an advocate currently working with the Team of Sumana Shrestha, Member of the Parliament under the Daayitwa Nepal Public Policy Fellowship Program 2023.

Some words have a common and pleasant origin that reflects a specific culture and has a rich background. However, these words can become offensive when used pejoratively. For instance, words like "Bhaiya" and "Dhoti" are commonly used, but their derogatory usage has negatively impacted people. Hearing or being addressed by such words no longer feels good due to the derogatory connotation they have acquired. Initially, these words were not derogatory, but they become so when used to belittle someone. While they may seem harmless to you, using them in an insulting and disrespectful manner can be offensive.

For instance, the word "dog" when used against a stranger, becomes obviously offensive. So, what makes it offensive? Maybe comparing a supremely intelligent creature with a less intelligent creature like a dog might offend people. But, there are also jocular, ironic, endearing and self-mocking uses which don't undermine the status of a word as a slur. For example, the word "dog" or "bitch" are used among friends to express affection and loyalty deriving from the context that dogs are loyal and lovely creatures. These words are the terms of endearment as long as they are used among friends and in lighthearted situations; they obviously wouldn't accept being described in those terms in public or by non-intimates.

The same word can be either offensive or endearing; what distinguishes it is the manner and the context it is used in. It is evident from the devolution of common words like Bhaiya, Dhoti, Madheshi, among others into derogatory racist remarks.

The capital city Kathmandu is a melting pot of cultures, attracting individuals from all corners of Nepal seeking improved education, employment, and lifestyle. The city also serves as a beacon of hope for the Madheshi population, who has sought refuge in the capital city to seize better opportunities. However, their arrival is often accompanied by the burden of social and racial prejudice that they have to carry with them. The term 'Madheshi' is used for several ethnic groups of people living in the Terai/Madhesh region of Nepal. It has been seen that the people from Madhesh are not treated well by the city's indigenous population and those who are privileged in terms of culture, ethnicity, and language. They often face hate either through words or actions. Recently, the Nepali Comedian Apoorva Kshitiz Singh was put behind bars for cracking a joke about the Newari culture. When he was being arrested, he was subjected to slurs like 'Saley', 'Bhatey', 'Khatey' and also 'Dhoti' which is a specific slur particularly used against Madheshi people. In Nepal, the term "Dhoti '' is mostly used derogatively to ridicule Indians, which has now extended to using it as an insult towards Madheshi individuals. The term 'Dhoti' itself denotes a piece of cloth that is tied around the waist and forms the lower garment of a male, mostly used in the Indian Subcontinent. However, the reason for its offensive use is that the people use it to belittle Madheshi people based on the misguided assumption that they are Indians.

Similarly, the term 'Bhaiya' which means elder brother in Maithili and Hindi, is an endearing term. However, non-Madheshi people have been using it to generalize male Madheshi population, particularly street vendors or daily wage earners. While there is nothing wrong in calling them Bhaiya, the context of its use is problematic. Even young children are taught to address middle-aged Madheshi street vendors as Bhaiya, instead of 'Uncle'. The elderly people also use the term 'Bhaiya' instead of 'Bhai' which sounds more appropriate. This prejudicial generalization of the word is not a desirable thing in my view.

The unpleasant behavior towards Madheshi individuals stems from various factors, including deep-seated prejudices. While not all of them share this perspective, the majority native Nepali Speakers firmly assert that a Nepali citizen must speak, read, and write Nepali as if it is the only language spoken in Nepal. Most people disregard the fact that Nepal is a country with overwhelming diversity. However, the fault is not completely theirs. The state itself has discarded the existence of diversity and imposed the notion of single national identity on its people. In the past, King Mahendra sought to impose a monolithic hill-based Nepali identity and high-caste hill attire like daura suruwal became national symbols of identity. Even today, the situation remains largely unaltered. The government mostly occupied by the Hilly Brahmins and Kshatriyas are stubborn to impose the hill-based Nepali identity and high-caste hill attire like daura suruwal as national symbols of identity. The Decoration Recommendation Procedure and Conferring Guidelines 2079[4] specifically mention cholo, saari, laweda, suruwaal, coat and Bhaadgaule Topi as 'Nepali Dress'. Similarly, the recently introduced Regulation on Professional Conduct of Law Practitioners 2079[5] also specifies Daura Suruwal as the national dress.

Unfortunately, the term 'Madheshi' itself has become a subject of abuse, with various forms of the word being used as slurs, such as 'Madise' or 'Madheshiya'. While some may argue that there is nothing wrong with calling a Madheshi a Madheshi similar to calling a resident of Palpa a Palpali and a resident of Pokhara a Pokhareli, the issue lies not in the word itself but in the manner it is used. Madheshi is a collective identity representing a group of people from different cultures and traditions. Therefore, it is not wrong to refer to someone as a Madheshi, but it is crucial to consider the tone and context in which the term is used to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes and prejudices.

Nepal is a country rich in ethnicity, culture, traditions, and languages and it is important to promote harmony and respect towards all ethnic groups and their culture and language. If the individuals feel hatred and lack of respect in their own country, it can lead to conflict and destruction, as seen in other countries. Everyone deserves dignity and respect from each other.

Using pejorative languages is derogatory and might hurt, insult, or belittle someone. The American civil right activist Maya Angelou once said, "You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance." What she is trying to say is that we must choose our words carefully, for they have great power. Using derogatory terms and slurs, especially those related to race or sex, can have a profound negative impact.

In conclusion, words can be both weapons of destruction and tools of inspiration, and it is within our control to choose how we use them. Words that are apparently innocuous can be offensive and derogatory when they are used pejoratively and in belittling manner. The evolution of common words like Bhaiya, Dhoti, and Madheshi into derogatory racist remarks is one of the prominent examples and it reflects social and racial prejudices towards Madhesh. Such prejudicial assumption is not a desirable thing. The way we speak to ourselves and to others can be empowering and uplifting, or it can be humiliating and derogatory. We must use language with care and intention, recognizing the impact our words can have on those around us.

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