Representative image of a student in a Hindi class in Mumbai (Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • A detailed rebuttal to Sagar’s piece in an English magazine, calling Hindi a ‘casteist language’.

I am not only a native speaker of Hindi but also a Hindi lover and Hindi sahityakara (writer), having authored two books and many articles in Hindi. Recently, I was pointed to Sagar’s bizarre 4,000-word article “Biting My Tongue: What Hindi keeps hidden”, ironically written in English.

The article mixes up issues and makes sweeping generalisations and bold claims — without any proof but based on personal experiences, hearsay, limited knowledge, and out of context reading. Sagar writes that Hindi delayed his understanding of social justice; that this is not an accident, but has something to do with those who created, developed, and spread the language; and that Hindi by default is “casteist, racist and supremacist”.

In this rebuttal, I argue how all these claims are untenable. The article is written in both Hindi and English and I recommend people who can understand Hindi to read the Hindi version.

Individual Experiences Are Not Universal

At the beginning and at many other places in the article, Sagar narrates his personal experiences and draws on them to build his narrative. Sagar seems to think that his personal experiences are the universal truth. The fact is that personal experiences are far from being universal, and for every personal narrative, there are countless other narratives which are very different.

Some of Sagar’s personal experiences highlighted in the article are completely unrelated to Hindi or the narrative he builds about Hindi. I wonder what relation they have to the point he is making in addition to concluding that Sagar was not informed well-enough regarding certain matters.

As an example, Sagar writes that after Rohith Vemula’s suicide in January 2016, he could not find a copy of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste in Bhubaneshwar and a friend had to send it to him from Hyderabad, hinting that the book is difficult to procure. This is surprising, given that Navayana’s edition of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (ISBN 978-8189059637) has been available on Amazon India since March 2014 and has verified purchase reviews from 2016 and even 2015: Sagar could have easily shopped online without any “especial effort” needed.

Many serious claims about Hindi based on his experiences can be countered with other personal experiences. Sagar says he was born into Hindi and brought up in it, grew up in a Dalit ghetto in a small town in Bihar, and was taught Hindi by Brahmin males in primary and high school, one of whom told students that trigonometry was created by Brahmins of Vedic times.

Contrast this with my experience: I was also born into Hindi and brought up in it, I grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in a small town in Gujarat, and both my Hindi and Sanskrit teachers in high school (a Kendriya Vidyalaya) came from the Dalit community. The Hindi teacher held and openly voiced strong Ambedkarite and Dalitist views; criticised Arya sabhyata (which he would say was not a sabhyata or civilisation at all), Hindu epics, and Hindu deities openly in classes; and once even said in a class that Krishna was a kapati (“fraud”) who caused the war of the Mahabharata.

My Sanskrit teacher, in contrast, did not express any such views in class and largely stuck to teaching the syllabus from the NCERT textbooks. A high-school teacher conditioning school students with his/her views is neither limited to Hindi teachers nor to Brahmin teachers.

Bringing up such experiences does not in any way establish a universal narrative.

Sagar says based on his experience that his upbringing in Hindi not only delayed his discovery of Ambedkar but also kept him away from understanding the very concepts of justice and equality. Once again, his personal experience is not universal and is in sharp contrast to my personal experience. At my high school, I studied social studies (Geography, History, Civics, and Economics) in Hindi medium. My social studies textbooks were in Hindi and had sufficient material (at the school level) on justice and equality — French revolution, socialism, communism, Indian Constitution, rights and duties, asprishyata (Hindi word for untouchability), and even the contributions of Ambedkar.

I was correctly taught in my social studies textbooks, written in Hindi, that Ambedkar was the adhyaksha (Chairman) of the praroop samiti (Drafting Committee) of the samvidhaan sabha (Constituent Assembly). Our Hindi teacher would often misleadingly say “Babasaheb ne samvidhaan likha” (“Ambedkar wrote the constitution”), the same misleading statement that Sagar makes twice in his article.

It is a known fact that the Constitution of India is a collective work and the seven-member Drafting Committee put in words what the members of the Constituent Assembly agreed on.

Looking back at my education today, I believe that the textbooks which I read in Hindi at school had neither Brahminical biases nor Ambedkarite ones: they had socialist and Marxist biases. The Hindi textbook I read in one of my high school classes had a full chapter glorifying Karl Marx and his thoughts. It was titled Sabki sampatti, sabka sukh (“Everybody’s wealth/property, everybody’s happiness”).

Ironically, we read this chapter after the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. and the unification of the two Germanys, when, to quote former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, communism had died.

Book Publishing Industry Is Mostly About Money

Sagar cites views of Sultan Singh Gautam, linking the non-availability of Hindi translations of previously unpublished writings and speeches of Ambedkar to unwilling publishers and ‘mischievous’ librarians and vendors (term in quotes mine) who placed books where nobody could find them. This almost borders on a conspiracy theory suggesting, without any proof whatsoever, that publishers, vendors, and librarians all deliberately acted in ways that led to difficulties in publishing the volumes, removing available volumes, and not re-ordering more volumes of translations of Ambedkar’s work.

The conspiracy theory suffers from a complete lack of understanding of how the book publishing industry works. Publishers, distributors, vendors, and libraries are all part of the supply-chain of the book publishing industry which is largely driven not by ideology or values but by commerce. Most commercial publishers are unwilling to take on a new title if they think it will not sell enough copies.

Book distributors, who charge 50 to 55 per cent commissions on the sales price of the book, push only those titles where they can successfully exploit the economies of scale. Except for specialised or niche book stores, book vendors give more attention to those titles that bring in more profits. As for librarians, that they would purposefully place Ambedkar’s works in places where nobody would find them is impossible to believe without evidence.

A valid question to ask if a book vendor or librarian removes or returns a title or does not reorder new editions, or whether there was enough demand and sufficient sales or readership for the title? I have acquired quite a few rare books (including out-of-print books) in Sanskrit in my personal book collection from a wide range of sources: from bookstores in Varanasi, directly from publishers, and even from antique booksellers. I can never find these titles in a regular bookstore in Mumbai or Delhi, or even online on Amazon or Exotic India, for the simple reason that there is not enough demand for these titles.

It would have helped his case if Sagar had presented some data — e.g. number of editions and copies printed, price per copy, profit margins for book vendors, number of copies sold and returned, etc — to get an idea of why vendors or librarians returned the titles or did not reorder titles as claimed. To blame people in the entire publishing industry for ‘conspiring’ against Ambedkar’s books is futile.

No book is “widely published” by a commercial publisher without believing that there is a genuine potential for demand for the title. Today, Rajkamal Prakashan, a well-known commercial Hindi publication house, sells 25 Hindi titles each under the ‘Dalit Sahitya’ and ‘Adivasi Sahitya’ categories on its website. The publisher prominently lists ‘Adivasi Sahitya’ as one of the three categories on its homepage, the other two being ‘Autobiography’ and ‘Collected Works’.

This is clear evidence of both demand for and supply of Dalit and Adivasi literature in Hindi, showing that there is no such industry-wide conspiracy in the world of Hindi publishing as alleged.

Modern Feminist And Dalitist Magazines In Hindi

It is no secret that the market for pulp fiction, tabloids, and magazines in Hindi (as in many other languages) is much larger than that of non-fiction books. One of the highest selling Hindi books in modern times was Vardi Vaala Gunda, a work of pulp fiction (called Lugdi Sahitya in Hindi). Sagar should look into readership and/or circulation numbers of women’s and Dalits’ magazines in Hindi before concluding that Hindi carries the voice of caste-dominant men alone. Three Hindi women’s magazines — Meri Saheli (readership of 47 lakh) , Sarita (30 lakhs), and Griha Shobha (28 lakh) — rank among the top 20 most read magazines in India as per the Indian Readership Survey of Q1 2019.

Some articles in the fortnightly Sarita are openly anti-Hindu: one of its recent editions carried an article blaming Hindu shastras for rapes in India. Many years ago, I had heard of the Dalitist Hindi monthly Ambedkar Today. One of its 2010 issues was very controversial for using the highly offensive term ‘beti***d’ (“daughter-f***er”) for a Hindu deity in print.

Dalit Dastak, a modern Dalitist Hindi magazine, recorded a circulation of 26,000 in the year 2016. While one may say the circulation of Dalit Dastak is much smaller than those of the women’s magazines mentioned earlier, it is to be noted that Dalit Dastak is comparatively a much younger magazine. The YouTube channel of Dalit Dastak has around 5 lakh subscribers, 15 times higher than the YouTube channel of Meri Saheli.

The numbers show that there is enough demand for the Hindi print and video content of Dalit Dastak and similar publishers of Dalit literature in Hindi.

Savarna Hindu Men Do Not Own Hindi

Sagar claims that the big names of Hindi writing were dominant-caste men and that the dominant castes saw Sanskritised Hindi as a tool to further their dominance over society. And then he adds, as if toeing the Pollockian line, that “Sanskrit, of course, had earlier served exactly that use.” In saying this, Sagar displays a lack of advanced knowledge of both Sanskrit and Hindi literary traditions and works. Sanskrit was as much owned by the Buddhists (like Ashvaghosha and Amarasimha) and Jains (like Mallinatha Suri and Hemachandra Suri) as by Brahmins.

Similarly, Hindi is as much of women, Marxists, backward classes, Dalits, and Adivasis as it is of the ‘savarna’ Hindu men. Two of the biggest names in twentieth-century Hindi writing were Mahadevi Verma and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan — both women. In my school, I read Krishna Sobti, a Punjabi woman who was celebrated for writing on unconventional themes in Hindi in the 1960s.

Rahul Sankrityayan and Namvar Singh, both big names in Hindi literature, may have been born savarna men, but were avowed Marxists who did not believe in caste. Rajendra Yadav, who ranked among the most well-known editors in Hindi, and is considered the pioneer of the Nayi Kahani era in Hindi literature, came from the backward (OBC) class. There have been influential, if not as well-known, Dalit and Dalitist Hindi writers also.

Two names that come to mind from early twentieth-century are Swami Achhootanand and Chandrika Prasad ‘Jigyasu’. Swami Achhootanand was born a Dalit. While Sagar says his (Sagar’s) ‘awakening’ did not come in Hindi even in the twenty-first century, the ‘awakening’ of Achhootanand happened in Hindi alone in late nineteenth and early twentieth century, courtesy the works of Kabir and Raidas in medieval Hindi.

Achhootanand was notably with the Arya Samaj for some time, the same Arya Samaj whose founder Dayananda Saraswati and whose later writers made major contributions towards popularising Sanskritised Hindi with an ideology which does not believe in caste by birth. Both Achhootanand and Chandrika Prasad ‘Jigyasu’, who published many Hindi books in 1930s, are recognised as pioneering Dalit voices in Hindi literature by modern authors.

In Dalit Politics in Contemporary India, Sambaiah Gundimeda writes that Jigyasu “contributed immensely to the growth of Dalit consciousness in UP.” In modern times, Om Prakash Valmiki is a well-known Hindi Dalit author whose eight titles are published and sold by Rajkamal Prakashan.

Use Of Hindi For Caste Abuse

Sagar writes about the “caste abuses” that Hindi offers. Indeed, casteist and racist slurs are present in Hindi, like other major Indian languages. This does not make Hindi a casteist language just like the presence of racist terms in English does not make English a racist language. Furthermore, use of Hindi to ‘abuse’ castes is not a one-way street: Hindi is and has been used to abuse the savarna castes also. In his book Ramrajya aur Marksvad (1959, People’s Publishing House, p. 56), Rahul Sankrityayan mentioned a Hindi slogan raised by a section of the oppressed classes in the 1950s —“brahman chhatri laala, teenon ka moonh kaala, teenon ko deshnikaala” (“Brahmins, Kshastriyas and Banias —blacken the faces of all three, exile all three from the country”). In more recent times, one of the Hindi slogans raised in the Dalit politics of UP was “tilak taraju aur talvaar, inko maaro joote chaar” which translates as “Tilak (=Brahmins), weighing scale (=Banias) and sword (=Kshastriyas)— hit them all with shoes”.

Even more recently, a Bahujan Samajwadi Party leader from Deoria wrote in Hindi on Facebook that the very word ‘brahmana’ means “suaron ka jhund” (“a herd of pigs”).

Pant Was A Poet, Not A Revolutionary Leader

Sagar cites the view of Shahnawaz Alam on the Hindi poet Sumitranandan Pant and then ‘dismisses’ Pant as a Brahmin who never experienced the life of a Dalit, suggesting that Pant could have never understood or voiced the feelings of Dalits. Sagar not only seems to misunderstand what a poet is, he also seems to have not read Pant himself.

Hindi has a maxim, “jahaan na pahunche ravi, vahaan pahunche kavi”. It translates as “a poet reaches even where the sun does not” and means that there is nothing a poet cannot think of or cannot understand, especially in the context of human emotions (rasas). This holds true not only of Hindi, but of also other languages in the Indian literary tradition. An author or poet is called rasajna (Hindi pronunciation ‘rasagya’) or “one who knows rasas in Sanskrit. A good poet is also a sahridaya, or “a person with a [good] heart”, who can vicariously experience and express the emotions and feelings of others. A poet need not fight a battle himself or herself to write verses overflowing with ‘vira rasa’ or heroism — Bhushan (the court poet of Shivaji) and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan (who wrote Jhansi Ki Rani) were not battlefield warriors, but they expressed the heroic emotion better than most warriors of their time. Similarly, a great poet like Pant need not live the life of a Dalit to be able to understand and voice their feelings.

In fact, Pant has touched on freedom from casteism in his own style here and there in his writings. In the very first poem Svapna-pat (“the screen of dreams”) in his compilation Gramya (“of the village”), Pant writes —

jati varna ki, shreni varga ki, tod bhittiyan durdhar,

yug-yug ke bandigrih se maanavta nikli baahar

(Tearing down the strong walls of caste, varna, category, and class, humanity has come out from an age-old prison.)

Other examples from Pant’s works can be discussed, but Pant cannot be summarily dismissed as unsympathetic to Dalits just because he was born a Brahmin — any such conclusion cannot be arrived at without studying his works.

Misreading Premchand

Sagar has not even spared Premchand in his essay. Sagar claims that Premchand’s Thakur Ka Kuan does nothing to explain systematic oppression or inspire the wronged to fight back. Such criticism is misguided. Thakur Ka Kuan is a very short work of fiction with less than 1,100 words (in contrast, Samuel Moore’s English translation of the Communist Manifesto has more than 13,000 words). It is unreasonable to expect Premchand to “explain oppression” or “inspire people to fight” in a short story of 1,100 words.

What Premchand does successfully in the story is to show a mirror to the society by means of ‘karuna rasa’ (the emotion of pathos). Premchand offers trenchant criticism of the Brahmin, Thakur, and Sahu (Banias) characters and male characters in general through the thoughts of Gangi and the dialogue between the two women at the well. From the Thakur stealing a sheep to the Pandit gambling throughout the year, to the Sahu selling adulterated ghee to these people eyeing Gangi lecherously, Premchand powerfully highlights all this in his inimitable conciseness. The story may not offer explanations or call for a fightback, but there is no doubt that “Thakur Ka Kuan” is a work against casteism.

Sagar then faults Premchand for perpetuating a dominant-caste view of Dalits as “alcoholic, incompetent, lazy, greedy” in Kafan. This view is based on a gross misreading of “Kafan”. Firstly, the delinquent Ghisu and Madhav are not the only Dalit characters in the story. Premchand presents another Dalit Budhiya (Madhav’s wife) as the dutiful wife and daughter-in-law who put some order (“vyavastha ki neenv”) in the family of the shameless (“begairat”) Ghisu and Madhav.

Secondly, characters of other castes are not spared either in “Kafan”: Ghisu asks at the end, “If she (Budhiya) will not go to ‘Vaikuntha’ then who will? Will these pot-bellied people who rob the poor with both hands and bathe in the Ganga to wash their sins and offer water in temples go to ‘Vaikuntha’?” Premchand did not perpetuate a dominant-caste view of Dalits in “Kafan”, just like he did not perpetuate a Dalit view of dominant castes in “Thakur Ka Kuan”, rather he painted an ugly and moving picture of a society where he saw social ills (caste discrimination, delinquency, or untimely drinking) across castes.

Finally, Sagar misleadingly mentions that Premchand writes “yeh to inki prakriti thi”, which translates as “this was their nature”, to describe Ghisu and Madhav drinking away from the money obtained for Budhiya’s funeral (which occurs at the end of the story). The said line occurs in a completely different context towards the beginning of the story when Premchand says “agar dono sadhu hote to unhein santosh aur dhairya ke liye samyam aur niyam ki bilkul zaroorat na hoti, yeh to inki prakriti thi”, which translates as “if both [Ghisu and Madhav] were sadhus, they would not have needed self-restraint and rules for satisfaction and patience; this was but their nature”. Premchand uses the line in an ironical way to convey that Ghisu and Madhav were so satisfied and patient by nature (i.e. they were over-satisfied and over-patient) that they did not feel it necessary to work hard or do anything for themselves.

‘Kala Chor’: Much Ado About Nothing

Sagar cites Shailesh Kumar Diwakar’s views who thinks Hindi is “by default, casteist, racist, and supremacist.” The example cited in support is the children’s song “Nani teri morni ko mor le gaye, baaki jo bacha tha kaale chor le gaye” which Sagar translates as “Grandma, the peacocks stole your peahen, and the black thieves took the rest.” Diwakar claims that the reference to ‘kale chor’ (“black thieves”) is racist as the thieves “had to be black”. This claim is childish at best. ‘Kala chor’ is an idiom (a ‘muhavara’), and idioms are not supposed to be taken literally in Hindi (as in any other language). The word ‘kala’ in the idiom ‘kala chor’ does not refer to the skin colour but rather to the surreptitiousness of a thief. This is supported by multiple Hindi dictionaries.

As per Shyamsundar Das’ ‘Hindi Shabdasagara dictionary, ‘kala chor’ means (1) “a big thief, one who cannot be caught easily” or (2) “a most evil person, a base person”. As per Platts’ dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English, ‘kala chor’ means (1) “a great thief” (2) “an unknown person” (3) “a dark horse”. As per Hardev Bahri’s Hindi-English Dictionary, ‘kala chor’ means “terrible thief”.

Finally, as per Mahendra Chaturvedi’s Hindi-English Dictionary, ‘kala chor’ means “unknown/untraced person”. The short-story Duniya ka Sabse Anmol Ratna by Premchand has a character ‘kala chor’, and Premchand does not refer to skin complexion once in the story. For Hindi-speakers Diwakar and Sagar, to read race in a well-known Hindi idiom, which actually means “a great or difficult-to-catch thief”, “an unknown person”, or “an evil person”, is most surprising.

Even if the duo wants to take the idiom literally, there are many examples of songs where ‘kala’ in the sense of “dark-complexioned” is used in a positive sense. The Hindu god Krishna is called ‘kala’ endearingly in many Hindi bhajans. A popular bhajan by Anup Jalota goes “wo kala ek bansuriwala sudh bisra gaya mori re, makhanchor jo nandkishor jo kar gayo man ki chori re”. My translation: “That dark one, a flautist, made me unconscious, the butter-stealing son of Nanda stole my heart.” The bhajan even has the word ‘chor’ in ‘makhanchor’. Finally, the Hindi movie ‘Ayee Milan Ki Raat’ had a Hindi song “kala shah kala” (adapted from a Punjabi folksong) in which a female says she prefers a dark-complexioned man over fair-complexioned ones who were called ‘man ke kale’ (“dark deep inside”).

Battleground Hindi?

As per the 2001 Census of India, Hindi was spoken by 53.6 per cent of India’s population as a first, second, or third language (an additional 5.74 per cent spoke Urdu as a first, second, or third language). The corresponding numbers from 2011 census are not known to me, but in the last 18 years, the proportion of Indians speaking Hindi would have only increased. Today, this number could be anywhere between 55 per cent to 60 per cent (or even more). Hindi is increasingly uniting more and more people in the country, and this is probably the reason that some people are resenting Hindi.

To say that a language spoken by more than half of the country is casteist or racist is ludicrous at best.

For a long time, Sanskrit has been labelled by a section of academics with vested interests as oppressive. Most of this anti-Sanskrit propagandic literature has been (and continues to be) in English and has served as a tool to turn a section of Indians against another. Labelling Hindi as “casteist, racist and supremacist”, Sagar’s article could be a precursor to many such writings on Hindi that may come from the Indian left-liberal lobby. Any such writings will be gleefully lapped up by a section of media and academia in the West to portray Hindi, after Hinduism and Sanskrit, as oppressive and casteist.

Such an anti-Hindi agenda will serve as a similar tool for the same purpose — to turn Indians against themselves. This needs to be countered — in Hindi and in other languages.

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