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Language and politics

Politics has given the biggest push to promote Dzongkha. In the process, we have all gained respect for the art of public speaking and the elegance of the national language.

But for some aspiring politicians the national language is proving to be quite a hurdle in getting their messages across. Voters in some southern and eastern dzongkhags are unable to comprehend the candidates’ messages at common forums, defeating the intent it is organised for.

The election commission’s intent to hold common forums cannot be questioned. It is to inform the electorate so that they can make informed choice and voters would not be inconvenienced to attend multiple meetings. But the essence of the forum is lost when the electorate do not understand what their candidates have to say on issues confronting the people. It is as mandatory to conduct the common forums in Dzongkha as it is for the people to be informed correctly.

Going by the recent developments, Dzongkha is winning. Not the people, at least a section of them. Voters who attended the common forums in Tsirang and Samdrupjongkhar say they listened but did not hear their candidates. Some have already cancelled common forums at the chiwogs. In the last election, some candidates cited language barrier and farming season to cancel the common forums. They reasoned that door-to-door campaigns were more effective to reach the voters. It still remains. Despite the best intent, common forums, according to them become mere formalities when the people are unable to grasp the messages of the parties and the candidates.

The election commission has made commendable efforts to make this election as inclusive as possible. It is taking polling booths to the voters to make them exercise their rights. In the spirit of being free and fair to the people, the commission could consider the candidates’ appeal to speak to the electorate in the local dialect for few minutes at the common forums.

Allowing the candidates to speak to the voters in the dialect they understand should not be understood as undermining the national language. Politicians believe in the power of language to influence thoughts and letting them conduct local campaigns in the dialect the community is fluent at should be seen as a democratic deed. It allows the people to appreciate Bhutan’s linguistic diversity, while respecting the national language.

Despite challenges, the standards of spoken Dzongkha, as a medium of political discourse and state administration, has risen over the years. The requirement to carry out political debates, and the pressure to perform has promoted the national language more than the policies we have implemented. But more needs to be done and the efforts sustained. Bhutanese must ask and reflect on why we falter in our national language when we are competent in learning foreign languages. Our policy makers must ask if their actions and averseness to change to simplify Dzongkha are being counterproductive to their efforts to promote the national language.

As for a national event such as the elections, our efforts to make it an inclusive election must mean that both the national language and the people win. We can’t lose one at the cost of the other.

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