Sunday, 5 December, 2021

The Distorted Censuses

Aashish Mishra

The 12th national census of Nepal is scheduled to begin on June 8 this year. At the risk of romanticising something statistical and bureaucratic, the census has been the one constant of an otherwise tumultuous and unstable Nepali history. Since the first census, or headcount as it was known back then, 110 years ago, two autocratic regimes – Rana and the Panchayat – have fallen, democracy has been twice seized – by King Mahendra in 1960 and King Gyanendra in 2005, two people’s movements have been held, a decade-long violent insurgency happened, seven constitutions have been promulgated and countless governments have been formed. Yet, through all this and more, the census was held, without fail, every 10 years.
Even though the census has always been conducted, it has not always been conducted properly. Something as neutral and objective as numbers and data has been unsurprisingly distorted in the past to fit the ruler’s distorted narrative of the country and the citizens and to implement bogus campaigns of national unity that deny equality and representation to Nepal’s various social, ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups. Yes, the campaign being talked about is the malicious ‘One Nation, One Language’ campaign of the Panchayat era and the ruler being pointed to is Mahendra.
Mahendra, for whatever reason, despised Nepal’s diversity. He viewed it as a weakness that must be eliminated. He wanted to recreate the country in his image, a Hindu, hill-origin, Nepali-speaking image; everything else was wrong in the despotic monarch’s mind. This thought seeped into many Panchayati policies and actions and the census was no different.
The Panchayat governments conducted three censuses and all three rejected the existence of more than a hundred languages spoken in Nepal, deeming them “too insignificant to be recorded.” The government had an unofficial cap on the number of languages that the census could show – no more than 20. Accordingly, while the census of 1952 had recorded 44 independent languages in Nepal, the census of 1961 showed 36. In 1971, that number became 17. In 1981, following a few amendments to the criteria on the request of King Birendra, the census recorded 18 languages.
These “numbers” were then used to justify the expansion of Nepali (one particular kind of Nepali mind you. Not the Nepali of the east, mid-west or the far west, just the Nepali spoken by the hill dwelling people of the central and western Nepal whose dialect most closely resembled, or could be made to resemble, the speech of the royals) throughout the country. The use of other languages was made illegal. People were sent to jail and made to pay hefty fines simply for conversing in their mother tongue. Draconian linguistic policies were introduced and implemented standing on the so-called data that the censuses produced.
Thankfully, after the restoration of democracy, these policies were discontinued and the censuses conducted since have made an effort to document language and identity accurately. Hopefully, these efforts will continue and there will come a day when no group feels left out.
But, at the same time, we must now also look to correct the mistakes made in the past. The data that the censuses recorded are still with us. Let us now analyse them through the present criteria and republish their results in a fairer manner. The people deserve to see just how regressive and repressive the Panchayat regime was and just how much of the nation’s identity it hid.
We cannot change history nor should we seek to. But we should try and correct our mistakes to lessen the damage they caused and show people the true extent of the barbarity of the Panchayat years.