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Cover Story: Language Imperialism

Linguistic imperialism: BJP pronouncements on promoting Hindi spark outrage

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
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At a protest by pro-Kannada activists against the imposition of Hindi in banks and Central government offices, in Bengaluru on September 14, 2021. In recent years, Karnataka and the North-Eastern region have seen strident protests against the Centre’s attempts to establish Hindi as the primary language of communication.

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Dravidar Kazhagam members were arrested on their way to tar Hindi signages at the Egmore railway station in protest against the Central government’s efforts to impose Hindi, in Chennai on April 30 this year.

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School students form the phrase ‘Hindi Hai Hum’ (‘We are Hindi’) in Hindi letters during Hindi Diwas celebrations, in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, on September 14, 2013.

The BJP’s periodic pronouncements on making Hindi the single national language are proof of its inability to understand that India’s enormous linguistic diversity is key to building a common cultural heritage.

On April 7, while presiding over the 37 th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee, which involved the ratifying of the eleventh volume of the committee’s report, Home Minister Amit Shah made three broad points. While the first was an innocuous one relating to the implementation of the committee’s recommendations, the second referred to the need to impart Hindi as a language to students up to class IX and to pay more attention to Hindi teaching examinations.

The third and most important point was a message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who he said had stressed the need to use Hindi in running the government, as it would increase the language’s importance. Amit Shah said that the time had come to make the official language an important part of the unity of the country, adding that “when citizens of States speak other languages, communicate with each other, it should be in the language of India”.

The only hitch in this approach is that Hindi is neither the only official or spoken language of India nor is it the country’s lingua franca. Yet, these issues did not figure on the committee’s agenda for discussion as, clearly, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) government’s primary objective is to please its constituency in the Hindi heartland, which is integral to its political fortunes.

The Home Minister further said that Hindi should be accepted as an alternative to English and not to local languages. Unless Hindi was made flexible by accepting words from other local languages, it will not be propagated, he added. It was clear that he was attempting to label English as a foreign language and promote Hindi, which is, in the eyes of the BJP, presumably the most native of all languages in the sub-continent.

To bolster his argument, Shah said that 70 per cent of the Cabinet’s agenda was now being prepared in Hindi and that 22,000 Hindi teachers had been recruited in the eight north-eastern States. He added that nine tribal communities in the north-eastern region had adopted Devanagari as the script for their dialects and that all eight States had committed to make Hindi compulsory in schools up to Class X.

North-eastern response

Ironically, organisations in the north-eastern States did not respond enthusiastically to Shah’s statements. It was widely perceived that the government ought to have been more sensitive, given the background of the six-year-long agitation in Assam against “foreigners” in the 1980s and its bloody aftermath, which culminated in the Assam Accord.

According to media reports, the Asom Sahitya Sabha in Assam and the Meitei Erol Eyek Loinashillon Apunba Lup (MEELAL) in Manipur urged the Centre to reconsider its decision to make Hindi compulsory up to Class X. Office bearers of MEELAL were quoted as saying that the BJP’s ‘one nation, one language, one religion’ ideology cannot be implemented across the country, especially in Manipur.

The Asom Sahitya Sabha categorically stated that the Centre’s move held a “bleak future” for Assamese and other indigenous languages and urged the government to develop Assamese and other indigenous languages instead.

The North East Students’ Organisation and parties such as the Assam Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal also voiced similar objections. In Tripura, media reports referred to protests by 56 tribal organisations who were fearful that their script would be replaced by Devanagari. Organisations in Mizoram and Meghalaya too expressed similar apprehensions.

But it wasn’t only north-eastern outfits that reacted strongly to the Home Minister’s proposal. There were strong reverberations from the southern States and West Bengal too.

Southern backlash

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said on Twitter that the government was “making the same mistake again” and that it would not succeed. He added: “Does Amit Shah think that Hindi State is enough and Indian States are not needed? A single language will not help the cause of unity. It will wreck the nation’s integrity. The BJP top brass was continuously working towards causing damage to India’s pluralism.”

In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidar Kazhagam led K. Veeramani took out protests against the Minister’s statement. In Pondicherry, there was a furore when the JIPMER [Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research] administration issued a circular that all official communication and records would henceforth be in Hindi. After the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, registered a strong protest, the governor gave an assurance that there would be no Hindi imposition and that Tamil would continue to be given priority.

Also read: Hindi card for a Hindu Rashtra

In Karnataka, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah tweeted angrily, asserting his ‘Kannadiga’ identity. He said: “Hindi is not our national language and we will never let it be. Imposing Hindi is a sign of coercive federalism rather than co-operative federalism. The BJP is trying to unleash its agenda of ‘cultural terrorism’ against non-Hindi speaking States.”

In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress leadership also reacted strongly to the statement. Its leaders tweeted that it was “against the Constitution” and “against the tenets of federalism” and that Amit Shah’s agenda of “one nation, one language, one religion” would not be fulfilled.

Earlier provocations

In 2019 too, when Amit Shah made similar remarks on making Hindi the national language on the occasion of Hindi Diwas , there had been protests across the country, including by prominent academicians and litterateurs in the north-east. Shah had tweeted then in Hindi saying that while India was a country with many ( vibhinna ) languages and each was important in its own right, it was important for the country to have one language that would put India on the global stage. According to him, if there was one language that could unite the country, it was Hindi, the most commonly spoken tongue.

Soon after his observations, protests broke out in Tamil Nadu. He later clarified that he did not mean that Hindi should be the national language, but no one was fooled. Another Hindi-related controversy erupted in 2017 when English was replaced by Hindi on signboards and milestones on National Highways and Metro stations in the south. Both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka registered strong protests with the Central government. The same year, Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu referred to Hindi as the national language in a meeting in Ahmedabad, evoking strong reactions. On May 27, 2014, the Home Ministry had issued a circular asking all Ministries, departments, public sector units, and banks to give prominence to Hindi in official social media accounts. Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had strongly criticised the move, stating: “Giving priority to Hindi will be construed as a first step towards an attempt at creating differences among non-Hindi speaking people and making them second-class citizens.”

According to reports, when Kiren Rijiju, who was Minister of State for Home then, insisted on promoting Hindi in all official communications on the grounds that it was an official language, Home Minister Rajnath Singh stepped in to cool tempers to say his Ministry viewed all languages as important.

The obsession with promoting Hindi, even in places like the North-Eastern region, is baffling. Rather than retain and promote ethnic scripts, dialects, and local languages, the converting of the scripts to Devanagari appears to be an effort to eliminate the very existence of these indigenous languages apart from undermining the cultural and linguistic diversity of tribal communities there. Many observers suspect that the motive behind this linguistic fiat might be to push a Sanskritised version of Hindi, at the cost even of colloquial Hindi and of course of other languages.

While the ideological drive might be clear, it is worth wondering why a party that has tasted electoral success in 2022 in four out of five States push such an agenda, especially when one of the States it’s won is Uttar Pradesh, the heart of the Hindi heartland.

Linguistic consciousness

The only rationale that suggests itself could be the perceived need to create a linguistic consciousness in the Hindi belt where none exists, unlike linguistically organised States such as Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, and to use this to create a political consciousness in favour of the BJP. A linguistic-nationalistic identity has not been able to take shape in the heartland because of the multiplicity of dialects and despite the fact that various languages have been unfairly subsumed under Hindi.

In his book , written in 1973, Prakash Karat, former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), noted that the five Hindi-speaking States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana did not undergo any movement for linguistic reorganisation or a distinct nationality process in the 19th century.

At that time, it was impossible to implement a standardised version of Hindi, given its geographical spread, overlapping of caste groups, lack of language boundaries, and multiplicity of dialects and languages in the region. It is quite possible that the BJP, in the current context, is trying to create a political consciousness and constituency around this, having achieved reasonable success in its experiments with social engineering.

While there is a historical background to the debate on official languages versus national languages dating back to the Constituent Assembly itself, the emphasis on Hindi being treated as a national language has accentuated since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was sworn in a second term in 2014 and then again in 2019. From 2014 onwards, BJP leaders have been selectively emphasising the need to promote Hindi in their flawed framework of “one nation, one language, one religion”.

Alok Rai, author of Hindi Nationalism and grandson of Premchand, one of the tallest figures of Hindi literature, said: “The lure of a kind of Herderesque European nationalism of ‘one nation-one language’ has continued to play a role both before Indian Independence and after. There was no clarity even in the Constituent Assembly debates on what this national language should be. One way to look at it is the paradoxical way in which the idea of ‘one nation-one language’ has been consistently, in different ways, the primary threat or one of the major threats to the unity of the country.”

Rai pointed out that the longing to “unite the nation on the basis of language” was something that had actually brought the nation closest to fragmenting it. “The Constituent Assembly almost broke up because of Hindi. The issue was then deferred for 15 years. In the 14th year, the proponents of Hindi as a national language started saying, “Our time has come”. But there were violent protests in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. There is a kind of superficial continuity, but an underlying specificity to each of these manifestations—whether it be the Constituent Assembly debates where the question of language had to be repeatedly deferred by Dr Rajendra Prasad to prevent the breakdown of the Constituent Assembly itself or the rise of Tamil nationalism as a response to the perceived threat of Hindi imposition.”

On the question of why the BJP raises the issue repeatedly, he said that even though they the party did not have any chance of getting away with it, it was one way to polarise the country, and create a North-South divide. “Hindi then becomes a vehicle of a threat to nationalism even though it is presented as a great enabler of that national unity. The BJP presents itself as if it is good for the nation. But what is apparent is that they are aware that they need to consolidate themselves in the Hindi belt. The idea of Hindi as a rashtrabhasha [language of the country] plays very well here. One can remind them endlessly that there are 15 ‘rashtrabhashas’. The entire eighth schedule consists of ‘rashtrabhashas’.”

He pointed out that the internal politics of Hindi had been about privileging one variant of Hindi—a Sanskritised brahmanical Hindi—over other variants such as Braj, Maithili, and Bhojpuri, which have their own rich cultural traditions. “Hindi has always been used to push a political agenda. It is worth observing that no person of worth in language, writers, or poets have supported this sclerotic official brahmanical Hindi.”

Constituent Assembly Debates

Rama Kant Agnihotri, formerly with the Department of Linguistics in University of Delhi, and currently professor emeritus at Vidya Bhawan Society in Udaipur, also points out that the issue of Hindi as national language dates back at least to the Constituent Assembly Debates, if not earlier. “Those who spoke Telugu said that theirs was among one of the oldest languages and also more scientific than others and hence should be considered as a suitable candidate for national language. Supporters of Sanskrit, Bangla, Tamil, and English made the same claim. Proponents of Hindi, like Purushottam Das Tandon [a leading champion of Hindi in the Constituent Assembly], went from door to door, saying desh ke liye itna to karo (do at least this for the nation). It was after a great debate that it was decided that Hindi would be an official language, but not the national language of the union.”

As Agnihotri pointed out, Hindi has already made considerable headway through films, jobs, travel and so on; there was no need to push it as a national language. “Hindi has reached even the North-east and Tamil Nadu, but not because the RSS had anything to do with it. But if it is sought to be imposed on other regional languages, there is no reason why they should accept this imposition. It is ironical that in spite of all their commitment to the cause, the entire system has not been able to ensure that a class XII child can understand, for example, an editorial in a Hindi newspaper.”

Agnihotri stressed that the idea that a nation was equal to a flag, a race, a language or a religion is not healthy.

Language families

Agnihotri points out that there are five major language families and the government itself has identified 1,652 languages. “These languages often flow into each other. As Prof. P.B. Pandit, the celebrated linguist, used to say, variability in linguistic behaviour facilitates communication rather than obstruct it. Two people sitting in a train from Delhi to Kanyakumari are still able to communicate, translanguaging without inhibitions.”

The other interesting aspect is to see how many languages have been subsumed by Hindi. Awadhi, Maghai, Bhojpuri and Maithili are just a few. According to Agnihotri, as per Census 2011, at least 57 languages have been subsumed under Hindi. “In 1961, when 1,652 languages were identified, politicians were worried about the Hindi heartland. Where did the Hindi heartland lie, they asked. That expansive list of 1,652 languages was reduced to 108 in 1971, and many languages have been subsumed under Hindi or some other category since then.”

The question then, is this: Where is the kind of standard, scholarly Hindi being promoted spoken? “Except for some streets of Allahabad or Meerut, nowhere do people speak this Hindi. It is the language of the elite. Hindi is not the language of the majority. It is the language of power. It is not the Hindustani of Mahatma Gandhi. The whole concept of a pure and standard language is itself flawed. One can’t speak a single sentence in Hindi and claim it is pure Hindi. For example, in a sentence like “main roz subah naha kar school jata hoon”, subah and roz are Urdu (originally Perso-Arabic) words and ‘school’ is English. In any case, what is the structural difference between Hindi and Urdu? None.” Kuldeep Kumar, senior journalist, poet and writer, who has written on the controversy of language imposition, recalled what Maulana Abul Kalam Azad said in a letter to Purushottam Das Tandon. He wrote: “The Union of North and South has been made possible through the medium of English. If today we give up English, then this linguistic relationship will cease to exist.”

Specious claims

It is clear that no standardised form of Hindi exists. To insist that one exists and foist it on the entire country claiming it will forge unity is specious. Keeping the cauldron boiling with identity issues, be it religious or linguistic, distracts people from real issues. In that sense, it suits everyone, including those who are reacting to the BJP’s linguistic prescriptions.

In a country as multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-sartorial and multi-culinary as India, where multilingualism is increasingly becoming the norm, it is impossible to conceive of one language to the exclusion of all others. Even if the government wants to replace English with local languages and Hindi, it is a fact that English is not the lingua franca for the majority; Indians use a pastiche of languages in communication.

Also read: The myth of ‘Hindi heartland’

In the seminal ‘People of India’ project, edited by the late Kumar Suresh Singh, the volume on ‘Languages and Scripts’ makes the interesting observation that an increase in bilingualism was observed in the three Censuses of 1961, 1971, and 1981. There is no reason to believe that this upward trend has not continued.

The BJP’s “Hindi as rashtrabhasha” line could strike a chord among the electorate in States such as Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat that go to the polls this year. In 2023, Assembly elections are due in three Hindi heartland States: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, and in the North-Eastern States of Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, and Mizoram.

If the momentum around Hindi receives a reasonably good response in some of these Hindi-speaking States, the party might push the agenda and sustain it till the general elections in 2024.

It is worth noting what the introduction to ‘Language and Scripts’ says: “The enormous magnitude of diversity, both social and linguistic, has never been an impediment to social and linguistic development; in fact it has helped in the development of a unified, underlying linguistic substratum of a common cultural heritage.”

This is what the BJP and its leadership need to note.

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