Decoding diversityNepal's national census reaffirms diversity, but stokes controversy and intolerance
Since the release of Nepal’s 2021 census data on ethnicities, languages, and religions earlier this month, Hindu nationalists, royalists and anti-secularists have been raising a fuss because the number of people who say Nepali is their mother tongue and are Hindus has marginally declined from past censuses.
Clearly, it does not seem to matter that Nepali is still the most spoken language in the country and Hindus continue to make up by far the majority of the population of Nepal.
The 2021 census put the number of mother tongues spoken in Nepal at 124, just one more than 123 in 2011. Twelve foreign languages previously included in the 2011 census were grouped in the ‘Others’ category this time, and 13 new languages were added: Bhote, Lowa, Nubri, Baragunwa, Nar-Phu, Ranatharu, Karmarong, Mugali, Tichhurong Poike, Sadri, Done, Mudiyari and Kewarat.
Nepal first listed languages in its census in 1952, when only 44 mother tongues were documented. The number of languages declined dramatically over the next three censuses, and started to increase again from 1991 onwards after the Panchayat era.
The drop in languages from 1961 to 1991 is attributed to the ‘one language, one nation’ assimilation policy of the Panchayat regime as well as a lack of ethno-linguistic awareness during those times.
However, Nepali has remained the lingua franca and the most common language spoken throughout this period.
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All unknown languages and vernaculars had been lumped together as ‘Nepali’ during previous censuses, but in 2011 several dialects of Nepali like Doteli, Baitadeli, Achhami, Bajhangi, Dailekhi, Darchuleli, Jumli, Dadeldhuri and Gadhwali were classified as independent languages. This meant the total number of languages jumped from 92 in the 2001 count to 123 ten years later.
Linguistics expert Yogendra P Yadava, former head of Tribhuvan University's Central Department of Linguistics who authored census reports including the language chapter of the 2014 Population Monograph of Nepal, says that the record of the languages was more accurate in this census because enumerators were able to reach almost every village.
In previous counts, lack of roads or war meant that enumerators just gathered data from the District Administration Offices without going door to door.
“It would not have been possible to record a language like Nar-Phu, which is known by very few outside of the community, if enumerators had not reached every household,” explains Yadava.
However, the number of Nepali speakers has gone up slightly once again for the first time in three decades. While 44.64% of Nepal’s population spoke Nepali as their primary language in 2011, 44.86% recorded Nepali as their mother tongue in 2021.
Nepali remains vibrant, and there has been an increase in those who speak the language at home. Of those counted, 0.34% said their mother tongue was Hindi, while 1,323 were English speakers.
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Faith in numbers
The census recorded 10 religions in 2021, the same number as ten years ago. Hinduism remains the predominant belief system by far, followed by Buddhism and Islam.
In 2021, 81.19% of Nepal’s population identified as Hindu, slightly down from 81.34% a decade ago. Buddhists have also declined slightly from 9.04% to 8.21%, while the Islam, Kirat, and Christian populations have all increased marginally compared to the last census.
Christians make up 1.76% (up from 1.41%) while Muslims constitute 5.09% (compared to 4.38% in 2011).
But Hinduism remaining the majority faith by a large margin has not stopped some groups from spreading alarm about a perceived increase in Muslims and Christians. They have even accused the government of keeping the true numbers down in order to avoid public backlash.
Interestingly, some Christian groups have also raised concerns about the census not being a reflection of their true numbers. Experts and religious groups have weighed in to say there could be a data discrepancy. There is also the possibility that many Christians, fearing reprisal, told enumerators they were Hindu.
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Concerns over data inaccuracy may not be entirely unfounded. While more than 61,000 people did not state their religion in 2011, data from this census shows that every Nepali counted has ticked a religion box. It is surprising that not a single person refused to mention any other faith than the 10 included in the census.
Prior to releasing the detailed report on ethnicities, languages, and religions, the National Statistics Office admitted it had difficulty in classifying caste, religion and language accurately because many respondents claimed to belong to a previously unknown caste and religion.
Deputy chief statistician Hemraj Regmi defended this, saying:“Groups with different surnames within the ethnicity, which were previously considered to be Rai, Limbu, or Magar, have argued that they do not belong to that ethnic group. Others have complained that their language should be mentioned separately, such as Jhapali or Nuwakote.”
Some said that their religion was Kavirpanthi, Musto, and Yakthung instead of identifying themselves as traditional Hindus and Buddhists, Regmi said.
The confusion has provided fertile ground for Hindu supremacist groups as well as those from minority religions to claim that data has been manipulated.
All this also provides grist for populist politicians who want to abolish secularism or to ban the screening of movies under the banner of pseudo-nationalism.
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