The Death Of Hindi - Part 2: How Nehru Tried To Strip Hindi Of Its Sanskritic Roots

The Death Of Hindi - Part 2: How Nehru Tried To Strip Hindi Of Its Sanskritic RootsGandhi, Nehru, and Harivansh Rai Bachchan 
Snapshot
  • Imagine the plight of English if the kings of England had actively discouraged the study of Latin and barred the use of Latin terms into English. The language would have asphyxiated and never developed to its potential.

    But something similar happened with Hindi in independent India. The language was never allowed to borrow words from Sanskrit. As a result, it became incongruous with modern Indian economy and society.

This article is a part of the four-part series titled Death of Hindi. Read part one here.

Modern Hindi till mid-nineteenth century did not even have a standardised grammar, syntax, or vocabulary. It was not the languages of courts, administration, or education. The whole of north India was a jumble of different dialects, literary registers, and speeches.

But then something remarkable happened.

Thousands of our young men from towns and village, in a bid to create a common lingua franca, took up the development of Khari Boli Hindi as a national cause. Literary associations, publishing houses and educational institutes were founded to develop and spread the use of standardised Hindi.

Writing in Hindi became a matter of ‘lokhit’, a ‘seva’ to the people and the nation. There was an explosion in the publishing of Hindi journals, periodicals, newspapers, and text book writing.

During the 1880s the courts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Central Provinces adopted Hindi as the language of the lower courts.

By 1930s, Hindi, which till a few decades ago did not have a standardised form, was producing literature that could match the best in the world. During those heady days, Hindi would produce literary colossus such as Maithilisaran Gupta, Suryakanth Tripathi ‘Nirala’, Balkrishna Sharma ‘Navin’ , Dhanpat Rai ‘Premchand’, and Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ among many others. Some of them wrote in abject poverty but with a firm belief that their literary toil will not only play a part in Indian independence but also result in the cultural and civilisational renewal of this ancient land.

Mahatma Gandhi’s Unprecedented Intervention For Hindi

Meanwhile, in the political sphere, it became clear to our founding fathers that an Indian language would have to replace English as the language of administration. The need for an Indian language was eloquently formulated by Nehru, “no nation can become great on the basis of a foreign language. Why? Because a foreign language can never be the language of the people... However good, however important, English may be, we cannot tolerate that there should be an English knowing elite and a large mass of our people not knowing English. Therefore, we must have our own language.”

An Indian language was required that could wield the nation together and act as glue to national unity. Given the sheer geographic spread of Hindi and the number of speakers, it was natural that our founding fathers chose Hindi as the language that would provide India with that unity.

In 1918, Mahatma Gandhi gave a call, “Until all public activities take place in Hindi the country cannot progress. Until Congress conducts all its activities in the rashtrabhasa we shall not obtain Swarajya.”

Gandhi was among the first to suggest the plan of spreading Hindi to the southern part of India. He raised large sums of money for Hindi propagation work and sent volunteers from his ashram including his younger son, Devdas Gandhi, as Hindi pracharaks to the south!

Gandhi was a native Gujarati speaker and he wrote in Gujarati. More than anybody else he understood the need for mother tongue as the natural language of expression and thought. His insistence on learning Hindi, therefore, was not an imposition but an act of national solidarity. Hindi was to be learnt only as a second language by non-Hindi speakers not because it had some special literary merit but for the sake of having a common lingua franca that will forge the whole nation together. Gandhi’s call galvanised the country, more than 600,000 youths from south India voluntarily learnt Hindi in classes organised by the Hindi Pracharni Sabha. National leaders cutting across regions including Tilak, Patel and Rajagopalachari were in favour of Hindi as a common link language. Rabindranath Tagore, a votary of Hindi, rued that he had to communicate with Gandhi in a non-Indian language.

The Clash Between Hindi And Urdu

However, the Hindi that Gandhi envisioned was the colloquial speech of the bazaar and villages, often called Hindustani, written in both Devanagari and Persian script. During the communally charged atmosphere of pre-partition days, this was a compromise that Gandhi made between the proponents of Hindi and Urdu.

After Partition, the case for Urdu or its less literary cousin Hindustani was weak. Urdu was associated with the creation of Pakistan. The Congress party passed a resolution accepting Hindi and Devanagari as the national language and script respectively.

However, the non-inclusion of Urdu or Hindustani was unacceptable to Nehru. K M Munshi, an erstwhile member of Nehru cabinet, wrote, “There was a storm in the meeting, Nehru was very unhappy.” In the language debates of the Constituent Assembly, Nehru insisted that the Hindi of India must also have a “streak of Urdu or a mixture of Hindustani.”

The Hindi of our day to day language is already suffused with Persian words, to demand further Persian in the guise of Urdu seemed inexplicable to our founding fathers. This contradiction was captured by K M Munshi, “at the bazaar level, the language (Hindi and Urdu) was one but as soon as it was made the higher expression of thought or richness, there would be no Hindustani – it would either be Sanskritized Hindi or Persianised Urdu.”

The Constituent Assembly after much discussion and debates, unanimously decided that the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script and English would be phased out over a period of 15 years. Further, Hindi must be enriched by assimilating “forms, styles and expression used in Hindustani and in any other languages of India.” And most importantly, Hindi “wherever necessary or desirable” would draw its vocabulary “primarily on Sanskrit”.

Despite this expansive definition, Nehru and our then minister of education, Maulana Azad, were not convinced and this was about to prove fatal for the future of Hindi. Just when Hindi achieved its greatest victory, things started to go wrong, horribly wrong.

But before we continue the story of Hindi, it should be noted that the states of India were free to choose its state language and every effort was to be made by the states to enrich and propagate its own languages. Our founding fathers were aware that given the historical evolution of our languages, they do not compete against each other but rather mutually co-exist in an interdependent and interconnected linguistic ecosystem (more on this in Part four).

As an aside, Dr B R Ambedkar, a lifelong supporter of Sanskrit, was not in favour of having different state languages for administration. He wanted one common Indian language for both states and union!

Nehru’s Attempt To Strip Hindi Of Its Sanskritic Roots

To transition the official language from English to Hindi, Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan was appointed “Officer on Special Duty (Hindi)”. Dr Bachchan described the atmosphere of his office in his autobiography,

All the conversation around me was taking place in English, and if you closed your eyes it might have been a cocktail party in Oxford or Cambridge. Hindi and its new vocabulary was an object of mockery for most English-speaking officer… Anglophone sahibs regarded Hindi as nothing more than a means of communicating with servants and chaprasis.

Dr Bachchan’s task, as a doctorate in English from Cambridge and a famous Hindi poet, was to develop the administrative vocabulary of Hindi. However, his work was hamstrung by Nehru’s insistence on the usage of conversational Hindi.

“I aimed for the simplicity and accessibility that Panditji had ordered but was rather alarmed by his demand for a colloquial style of language because our conversational Hindi was mostly restricted to domestic context and cinema dialogues; we had little practice of using Hindi to discuss serious topics like international relations, economic problems, art or literature….To demand translations from English in the language of the marketplace was an injustice to Hindi. At the same time, when Hindi tried to emulate the level of English, it was accused of obscurity and precious Sanskritization.”
Nehru on the usage of conversational Hindi

In Nehruvian India, Sanskrit was actively discouraged due to its association with Hinduism.

Such was Nehru’s aversion to Sanskrit influence on Hindi, which when Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan translated the English speech of Dr Radhakrishnan to be read out in the House of Parliament, Nehru chided him, “the complexity of your pure Hindi has made the language obscure.” Dr Bachhan argued that he only tried to match the tone of Radhakrishnan’s original. Nehru exasperatedly said, “Do you realize who is to read the speech? Dr Zakir Hussein – and he won’t be able to pronounce some of the words you have used.”

In a rare show of impertinence, Dr Bachchan shot back, “Panditji, a language cannot be changed to suit the convenience of some individual’s pronunciation.”

Well, you could only have so much authority in front of Nehru. The speech was translated again by Urdu translators, and when this “more or less Urduised version” was sent to Nehru, it met his approval.

Hindi has often been accused of Sanskritisation, obscurity and other such terms by Nehru and his ilk. This charge needs to be dealt with. To a kid who has only learnt “A for Apple and B for Boy” even the meaning of “twinkle twinkle little star” would be obscure.

Similarly, to Nehru who had fluency only in colloquial Hindi, even the preliminary forms of literary Hindi would be obscure. Nehru was unaware of the literary strides made by the Hindi language. He created a scandal when in front of the finest Hindi writers and poets, he remarked that Hindi literature has only produced “courtly literature” so far.

To this affront the famous Hindi litterateur, Nirala, wrote, “The people who remained silent after listening to Panditji’s adbhut (bizarre) speech must have done so out of civility.”

English, despite being a Germanic language, derives a majority of its vocabulary from Latin. Imagine the plight of English if the kings of England had actively discouraged the study of Latin and barred the use of Latin terms into English. The language would have asphyxiated and never developed to its potential.

Similarly, Sanskrit was the umbilical cord that nourished all the languages of India. It provided them its “richness, expressiveness, dignity and rhythm.”

Without the use of Sanskrit, it is impossible to express complex thoughts or write literature in any of the Indian languages. Just when Hindi was about to take its place as a language of administration, economics, and sciences, its Sanskritic roots were cut.

The tree of Hindi was never allowed to grow.

Nehru even went a step further. He was convinced that there exists a language which is a cross between pure Hindi and pure Urdu or if it didn’t exist then it could even be invented. Just two years before his death, he commissioned a dictionary of 5000 Hindustani words which he thought would form the basis of a new hybrid language. He died too soon; the dictionaries were never sold out providing “fodder for the ants in some godown.”

To Nehru’s antipathy towards Hindi, Nirala had lamented, “Hindi writers are common people, fending off the blows of life with one hand while trying to write with another. Besides when they write they see great men like you working against them...When I started to write I had to face a lot of opposition; now that I am somewhat established, I find you opposing me in other ways.”

With our bureaucrats still clinging on to English privilege, with Nehru still trying to ‘secularise’ Hindi, with Maulana Azad as education minister doing exactly nothing to promote Hindi, with the proponents of Hindi movement quickly side lined from Congress, the days of Hindi were numbered.

With the first protest by the rabble rousers of secessionist Dravidian ideology, all charade of implementing Hindi was given up. English which was supposed to be phased out over a period of 15 years was now kept indefinitely as the co-official language of the Union and was allowed to flourish at the expense of other Indian languages.

And so, died the cherished dreams of our founding fathers - Gandhi, Ambedkar, Munshi, Tandon, Patel - who wanted to secure national integration through linguistic unity.

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