The Language Genie: Put It Back Into The Bottle For The Sake Of National Unity

Vikram Sampath

Jun 23, 2017, 03:52 PM | Updated 03:52 PM IST

Language is an emotive issue worldwide.
Language is an emotive issue worldwide.
  • All these attempts to bring Hindi to the table, by sleight or overt means, would naturally be received with violent reactions and backlashes and that is the last thing we would want at this point in time to weaken the nation’s unity.
  • Bridging this divide will have to wait.
  • A couple of years ago, at a major literature festival held at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, I was placed on a curiously titled panel “Keeping our Languages Alive: Rewards and Challenges,” sharing the stage with two very eminent Hindi language authors/poets. As the moderator opened the discussion, the two authors went on a free-flow about the greatness of Hindi; its manifold forms, its grammatical beauty and a host of other issues – slipping almost involuntary into beautifully lyrical Hindi.

    While I waited for my turn to speak, I noticed from the stage, a vast cross section of the illustrious audience. They were the young, bright women and men who would be steering India’s destiny as it’s true ‘bhagya vidhaatas’ , training as they were for the Civil Services. A majority of this audience were from Southern and North East states for whom this epic harangue in chaste Hindi was literally falling on deaf ears.

    When I finally got my turn to speak, I decided to break into Kannada and said that since my esteemed co-panelists assumed that everyone in the audience automatically understands high-browed literary Hindi, I would also assume that everyone would understand my eloquent speech in Kannada.

    The hitherto confused looking lot among the audience burst into an immediate rapturous applause and by the end of the day, quite unintentionally, I had become the spokesperson for their woes and a hero of sorts, with autograph and selfie requests!

    This unintended and unqualified stardom apart, listening to several of them later that evening over an informal gathering was rather educative. They poured out their woes saying they come from different states of India and from family backgrounds where Hindi is an alien language. Yet, at this premier institute of the country several professors and guest speakers come into the classes and start speaking to them in a language they simply do not follow. Their entreaties for a solution had often gone unaddressed. “Hindi is the language of the majority in this country, so you better learn it or risk your careers at your peril.” would be the oft-heard answer they got from their peers and superiors.

    Quite often, the language genie raises its head in our country leading to strong, emotive responses from different sides of this debate. A few years ago it was the Central Government’s circular offering cash rewards to officers who operate their social networking sites in Hindi alone rather than any other Indian language that upset the applecart. A massive outcry made the government rescind and clarify. Tamil Nadu was recently up in arms over the milestones on National Highways silently deleting local scripts and instead having Hindi on them. The latest in this trail is an innocuous move by the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) having their signboards in Hindi, in addition to Kannada and English that has led to another social media outrage.

    Dismissing the fears and the protests as elitist and so on is to shut our eyes to the history and also the context in which agitations against what is termed as the hegemony of Hindi-imposition take place. The immense trust deficit that the protagonists of the pro-Hindi movement face among several well-meaning fellow nationals needs introspection and a look back into the past.

    Back in the times of the freedom struggle, the need for one common national language as a symbol of the country’s identity that also gave its people a sense of self-esteem was acutely felt by leaders of all political dispositions. During his incarceration at the Kala Pani in the Andamans, Veer Savarkar strongly advocated Hindi and the Devanagari script as a medium of national unity and began the work of Bhasha Shuddhi or cleansing of the language, its diction and pronunciation.

    His book Nagari Lipi Sudhaar could be termed as the pioneer in bringing the contemporary alphabets or Barahkhari into the script. Savarkar advocated a complete abandonment of Urdu and English words and suggested that speakers of all languages in India should start writing their script in Nagari, the one unified linguistic marker of a united country. By Savarkar’s inspiration, Ganesh Raghunath Vaishampayan founded the Hindi Pracharak Sabha in Poona and began a campaign for the propagation of Hindi. This version of Hindi drew almost entirely from Sanskrit, and Savarkar himself contributed several new words to this dictionary (like Mahapour for Mayor, Upamudrit for proof)

    The Indian National Congress and Gandhi, in particular, favoured a more Urdu-influenced version of the language, popularly known as Hindustani. At its Karachi Session in 1925, the Congress decided that Hindustani should be the lingua franca of India. A few years later at the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan in Nagpur, in Gandhi's presence, the resolution was amended to make Hindi-Hindustani as the lingua franca, drawing quite a backlash from the Muslim League leaders. In May 1942, Gandhi advocated a Hindustani Prachar Sabha to assuage ruffled feelings.

    In 1937 when the Madras Presidency under C Rajagopalachari insisted on a compulsory learning of Hindi in the State, the Dravidian movement spearheaded by the Justice Party of E V Ramaswamy (popularly called Periyar) got a major campaign agenda. They vehemently opposed this imposition, and the agitation went on for three years before it was revoked in 1940.

    Even though negative sentiments towards this move by the Congress existed in other non-Hindi speaking provinces such as Bengal, Mysore, Bombay Presidency, Hyderabad and so on, it never assumed the proportions that it did in Madras. This could be because of the lack of a cogent, inspiring and imaginative leadership to spearhead and channelise these sentiments, in the manner that Periyar did. Also several of these provinces had some familiarity with Urdu (Mysore due to the reign of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan and Hyderabad under the Nizam for instance) that petered down the virulence of the sentiment, though the fears and insecurity of Hindi subsuming their rich local languages persisted.

    The issue of adoption of an official or national language of the Indian Republic was hotly debated in the Constituent Assembly that was framing the Constitution. Voicing the opinions of the naysayers, T T Krishnamachari had said: “I disliked it (English) because I was forced to learn Shakespeare and Milton, for which I had no taste at all. If we are going to be compelled to learn Hindi…I would not be willing to do it because of the amount of constraint you put on me.”

    Even as the constituent assembly was deliberating, the government set up the Linguistic Provinces Commission in 1948 that vetoed the idea of provinces to be created on linguistic basis. The J V P Committee under Nehru, Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya recognised the linguistic aspirations but postponed the formation of such states to a later time in the interests of maintaining national unity immediately after the integration of princely states into the Union. Potti Sriramulu’s indefinite fast and death in 1952 demanding a linguistic state of Andhra for the Telugu speakers led to large-scale rioting and unrest.

    The government made an exception, and Andhra Pradesh came into existence on 1 November 1956, opening the floodgates of similar demands by other states as well.

    The States Reorganisation Commission carved out these states solely on the basis of language spoken by a majority in a particular area. In all of these aspirations and identities based on language, the position of Hindi became highly tenuous.

    First of all, which kind of Hindi to promote—the Sanskritised version or the Hindustani one? Should it be made a national language because a vast majority of Indians were conversant with it? How would this be congruous with the formation of states solely on linguistic basis and what would be the relationship between Hindi and these state languages? It was decided that Hindi be adopted as the official language and English as a subsidiary for 15 years. In the interim all efforts were to be made to popularise Hindi and lessen resentment against it, enabling it to become the sole official language by 1965. Hindi was to be made compulsory for all recruitments to All-—India Services.

    But the opposition to Hindi continued, and as Pattom Thanu Pillai, former chief minister of Kerala remarked: “Hindi is as much alien to us South Indians as English is to all Indians." In 1957, fifty Members of Parliament from Non-Hindi speaking states demanded that the constitutional requirement of Hindi taking over English by 1965 should be postponed to 1990. Legislative Assemblies in several non-Hindi speaking states such as Bengal, Assam, Madras passed unanimous resolutions demanding the continuance of English as the official language.

    As the deadline of 1965 was approaching, virulent protests erupted across the Madras, with several lives lost, arson and riots. It was an emotive issue for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) that Hindi imposition was part of the Aryan-Dravidian narrative. Protests broke out in other states too such as Kerala, Mysore, Pondicherry, Bengal and Assam.

    Finally, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s assurance of continuance of English till the time non-Hindi speaking states wanted it, finally calmed the agitators.

    Later Indira Gandhi amended the Official Language Act in 1967 to guarantee the indefinite use of both Hindi and English as official languages to bring about a semblance of calm. Every Bill passed by the Parliament was to have both English, and Hindi versions and the English version would not be removed until the time non-Hindi speaking states wanted it.

    Around 1965, stung by the linguistic backlash, the Government of India constituted the Education Commission (commonly called Kothari Commission) on the recommendation of a National Integration Conference.

    The offshoot was the “Three Language Formula” where non-Hindi speaking states were to be encouraged to learn Hindi, English and the local language, while in Hindi-speaking states one other Indian language other than Hindi and English was to be learnt.

    While the southern states initially accepted this generously and organisations like Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabhas and Mysore Hindi Prachar Sabhas were set up to propagate the language, the same generosity was never reciprocated by the Northern counterparts. This furthered the backlash in Tamil Nadu against what they termed as the ‘brute imposition’ of Hindi just on the ground of majority speakers.

    C N Annadurai put it wryly when he wondered that if numbers were to be the only criteria, the Crow should be our national bird because it is found most abundantly across India!

    The breakdown of the formula led to violent protests on both the sides- Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan; and Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bengal and Andhra Pradesh were up in flames. The non-Hindi speaking states demanded that all the fourteen regional languages mentioned in the Constitution be declared as national languages, with English as a link language. Subsequently, successive union governments acceded to this demand in the interest of national unity, linguistic diversity and harmony.

    Article 343 (1) of the Constitution unequivocally states that the “official languages’ of the Union Government (not the entire country) are Hindi and English and Article 345 authorises the states to adopt their languages as official languages and conduct all government business in them. Non-Hindi speaking states could communicate with the Central Government in Hindi or English as they wished.

    Article 351 provides for a promotion of Hindi and mentions that, “It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India and to secure its enrichment by assimilating without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule, and by drawing, wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages.”

    As of May 2008, the Eight Schedule lists 22 languages (including English) as official languages of the Union of India. Therefore the myth that is often played out that Hindi is our ‘national language’ is just that—a myth! Hindi is merely one of the 22 official languages.

    In states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or Bihar where it is the official state language, the governments can certainly work towards its promotion and propagation, just as the other states which were formed on linguistic basis can promote their own. But the central government is expected to be language neutral, even as it makes attempts to popularise Hindi, since it has to deal with a union of states that speak many tongues. The Central Sahitya Akademi recognises and rewards all the 22 languages equally. Languages like Kannada, Bengali, Marathi, Assamese, Tamil and Gujarati all have the same status as Hindi in the eyes of the law. Hence all these clamours and incentives favouring the use of just one language at the expense of others does not fly in the eyes of law and in the wake of the historical journey of this vexed subject.

    The 2001 census mentions only 41 per cent of the population speaks Hindi and of this about 26 per cent stated it as their mother tongue. The census clubbed languages like Rajasthani and Bhojpuri with Hindi bringing the number up to 41 per cent. In any case, the chaste, Sanskritised sarkari version of Hindi (or for that matter the governmental versions of most of the state languages) that is sought to be promoted is hardly the one that finds resonance with the masses or in popular media like Bollywood.

    The variations in the Hindi spoken in a Haryana or Punjab with say a Bihar with its Bhojpuri influence; a ‘Bambaiya Hindi’ or a Hyderabadi variant, make a monochromatic official Hindi version problematic to even the speakers of the language.

    I must state here that none of all that I have written thus far means I despise Hindi as a language. I used to write poetry in it and even cocked a snook at all my North Indian friends by coming out with top marks in Hindi in the central board exams!

    However, the subtext of this hegemony is what is more disturbing. I do not understand the attitude that many Hindi speakers have (I know I am running the risk of a broad generalisation here)—that they and their language define the ‘mainstream’, and everybody else should fall in line.

    It is this ‘mainstream’ that victimises people from the North East because they "look" different. The ‘mainstream’ dubs all Indians residing south of the Vindhyas as dark-skinned and Idli-sambhar devouring Madrasis. They are the stereotyped butt of everyone's jokes even in popular media such as films and television, since Mehmood played his cameo as the Carnatic music teacher in the evergreen Padosan, pouting an Ayyo or Kya jee in every sentence!

    One might argue that a whole compendium of Santa-Banta jokes on the Sikh community exists too, but the point here is one of attitude and racial prejudice. There are Hindi speakers who have lived in, say Bengaluru, for decades and yet they take pride in the fact that they don't have even a transactional knowledge of Kannada. Kannad gotthilla (I don't know Kannada) is all that they have picked up in their several decades of living there.

    The same lot expects everybody else-from the maid, the auto-drivers to the vegetable vendors and bus conductors to be able to speak to them in Hindi, as they believe it is the ‘national language’. So the poor vegetable vendor, for whom Hindi has perhaps never been part of her culture or upbringing, has to make that extra effort for their sake but not vice versa.

    The same lot would have no qualms in easily adapting in a Berlin or Paris where the writ of German and French respectively runs much more than English. Integrating into local cultures and language is not seen as a problem abroad, but within India, it is seen as parochial and statistics might perhaps largely lay this blame on the doorsteps of Hindi speakers than the non-Hindi speakers.

    It is perhaps this attitude that riles most non-Hindi speakers more when it comes to even minor incidents such as the Metro signboards in Bengaluru. And political parties such as the Dravidian parties, Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) would exploit the emotive issue and also target members of linguistic minorities in their states. While violence against migrant labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in Mumbai by the Shiv Sena and MNS is condemnable, not addressing the cause would be perilous to the country as a whole.

    English today is almost like a skill set. There are Dalit communities that are demanding English education and temples being built for the “English Goddess” as it helps them overcome centuries of prejudice and exploitation and brings them on par, giving job opportunities within and outside India. It is an aspirational language that also keeps one abreast of the latest and best of scientific knowledge and technology, political and philosophical thought.

    One might argue that China, Spain, France, Germany, Russia and the Middle East hold on to their own and yet succeed globally. But in all these countries there is a unitary state language, which sadly is not feasible in a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country like ours.

    Having said all this, has English subsumed and threatened our regional languages? Perhaps, yes; especially in our metropolitan cities. Language is an important identity marker binding us to our roots, our folklore and our history. Although Indians have indigenized English and made it their own, it has resulted in the loss of our connection with our roots. Parents and teachers speak to kids only in English, and they are growing up bereft of their cultural moorings that the mother tongue provides.

    But interestingly this concept of linguistic imperialism runs right down the pyramid. For instance, the oral languages and dialects of Karnataka like Beary, Tulu, Kodava, Konkani, Siddi, Hakki Pikki which are oral languages bereft of scripts, feel terribly threatened by the hegemony of official Kannada, which in turn fears a Hindi, which eventually is intimidated by English!

    Language is an emotive issue worldwide. One of the prime causes for the creation of Bangladesh was because West Pakistan was seen as being anti-Bengali. The Irish have protested against the imposition of English in Ireland. Similar movements championing the local language have been witnessed everywhere, be it Iran, Poland, Russia or Turkey.

    The Central Government’s priority, then, should be to preserve and promote the multitude of Indian languages and the dying dialects, each of which is an indelible marker of our cultural identity. The government must encourage officials who use any Indian language for official communication on social media. The official language of every state needs to find a place in the education system of that state, alongside English and Hindi. Attempts have to be made to enrich the literature and enhance the readership in all Indian languages. Translations between Indian languages without going through the route of English as the link could possibly be a good way to build cultural bridges.

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-repeated suggestion of how children in Kashmir could be encouraged to learn Tamil songs; and Manipuri songs in Gujarat, is a fantastic one that would, over a period, help Indians to recognise and more importantly, respect each other, their traditions, customs, dialects and languages.

    Measures such as these would not only be in line with the letter and spirit of the law but also protect the country’s unity and respect and celebrate its diversity. Till then, all these attempts to bring Hindi to the table, by sleight or overt means, would naturally be received with violent reactions and backlashes and that is the last thing we would want at this point in time to weaken the nation’s unity.

    Dr. Vikram Sampath is an author/historian/political analyst and a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, with an upcoming biography ‘ Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past’.

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