Aggregating Identity in Bhutan

Published on Sep 07 2010 // Opinion
By I. P. Adhikari

Recent political changes in Bhutan have given rise to public debates on several issues pertaining to Bhutanese national identity, including the status of its official language, Dzongkha, which otherwise would have been impossible. Questioning the relevance of any Bhutanese symbols under the absolute monarchy was certain to land you in jail. Discussing their usage today is a symbol of the healthy democratic culture that Bhutan is trying to adopt.

Propagation of Dzongkha took place in a closed society under absolute monarchy. Adoption of Dzongkha as the national and official language of the country had not been a consensus decision arrived at by multilingual Bhutanese society. A section of Bhutanese intellectuals had raised questions as to its relevance as the national language since its adoption but this voice became weaker over time. The only answer given to such resistance to the adoption of Dzongkha was that Bhutan must use a single language owing to its geographical and population size. Additionally, kings and their coterie on many occasions have said that Bhutan could not survive its diversity – either in ethnicity or in languages.

It is not the size of a country that matters while selecting national language but its diversity. The Bhutanese population is composed of various linguistic groups dominated by three major ethnic groups – Ngalops, Sarchops and Nepalis, distinguished basically by their linguistic differences. No linguistic survey has yet been conducted but there are estimates that over two dozen languages are being spoken in Bhutan.

Using a single unifying language is not necessarily a problem in itself. The real issue is what methods are used to select it. What were the criteria for selecting Dzongkha as the national as well as official language some four decades ago? Until that day, most official correspondences were in Nepali. Generally, selection of the national language or official language is based on the proportion of population speaking it. It is universal practice that a language spoken by a clear majority of the citizens is granted the honour of national language and/or official language. Dzongkha had not been a language of the majority at the time it was given its current status. It was and is Tshangla lo, the language of the east, that dominates the Bhutanese society. Absence of a written script means that Tshangla lo cannot work as the official language. Of late, some Sarchops are promoting its Romanisation.

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