Controversy

Hindi card for a Hindu Rashtra

Print edition : October 11, 2019

Home Minister Amit Shah speaking during the “Hindi Divas Samaroh” in New Delhi on September 14. Photo: PTI

Mahatma Gandhi with Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. Keeping the Gandhian idea of the linguistic reorganisation of Provincial Congress Committees in mind in the 1920s, the Dhar Commission and the JVP (Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya) Committee were formed to recommend whether the new republic should embrace the principle of one state, one language or not. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Telugu leader Potti Sriramulu. His hunger strike demanding the creation of Andhra Pradesh on the basis of the Telugu language shook Nehru to such an extent that he relented to the demands for reorganisation of States. Photo: the hindu archives

January 1965: Anti-Hindi agitation by college students in Madras (now Chennai). Photo: THE HINDU archives

The ideology of Akhand Bharat sees the multiple diversities, whether linguistic, cultural or social, as threats to achieving the goal of a Hindu Rashtra. Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel were not in favour of one language as a national language.

THE phrase “one nation, one language” used by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Hindi Diwas in New Delhi on September 14, contradicts the very idea of India as a nation, and its unique linguistic-cultural diversity. His plea for Hindi to be made into a natural mother tongue or a common language of India has raised anxieties and concerns about the fate of hundreds of languages and dialects spoken throughout the country.

Citing Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel to support his ideas of linguistic uniformity is contrary to historical facts and visions of these two nationalist leaders who, despite their serious differences, were not in favour of making one language the national language of the country. Gandhi was much pained to see the intense communalisation over the language question, particularly with respect to Hindi and Urdu, since the beginning of the 20th century. His vision of Hindustani as a lingua franca of the country in due course of time was meant to bridge the linguistic-cultural and social divisions in the country. Patel was hardly involved in the controversies over the language issue, though his political/architectural design about the integration of princely states and provinces immediately after Independence had affected the then existing ethno-linguistic regional boundaries and borders of the country. The 19th century European idea of one language, one culture and one nation did not work owing to its inherent inhuman, authoritarian and undemocratic ethos. The Indian nationalists were aware of the violence and genocidal effects of associating language/race/culture evident in post-War division of Europe, and hence negated the idea of one nation, one language.

The apogee of communal divide during the decades of 1920 to 1940s captured in the slogan of Hindi/Hindu/Hindustan and Urdu/Muslim/Pakistan uttered by an eminent Hindi writer Pratap Narayan Mishra, a close associate of another Hindi stalwart, Bhartendu Harishchandra, was used to augment the hatred and violence based on the interlinking of language and religion, which provided the bases of Hindu and Muslim nationalisms leading to the partition of the country. The members of the Constituent Assembly of India spent a great deal of time on the emotive issue of language and its role in national reconstruction. The debate and discussion in the Constituent Assembly is a testimony to the fact that the language issue, as B.R. Ambedkar said, was the most difficult and time consuming.

The arguments for and against the role of Indian languages and, particularly, over Hindi vs other Indian languages divided the house. The controversy over the Nagari script as the common/national script leading to the well-known Munshi-Ayyangar formula (named after K.M. Munshi and Gopalsamy Ayyangar, both members of the Constituent Assembly) suggested how the language question was resolved with a certain degree of administrative reasoning. These debates inform us how languages are identified with cultures, knowledge systems, histories, myths, folklores, traditions, and, above all, human behaviour of thousands of years. The making of the Eighth Schedule and the language provisions under Part 17 of the Indian Constitution tell us the story of how languages were given state protection and patronage in a federal democracy.

However, the relationship between language and the Indian state took a curious turn with the demands for States to be reorganised linguistically soon after Independence. Keeping the Gandhian idea of the linguistic reorganisation of the Provincial Congress Committees in mind in the 1920s, the Dhar Commission and the JVP (Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya) Committee were formed to reflect and recommend whether the new republic should embrace the principle of one state, one language or not. Nehru was most critical of such a rationalisation and said that it would breed provincialism and narrow-mindedness among people divided on the basis of language in a plural country like India.

Despite his consistent refusal to agree to this idea, the hunger strike of Potti Sriramulu, a Telugu leader and activist demanding the creation of Andhra Pradesh on the basis of the Telugu language, shook Nehru to an extent that he relented to the demands of reorganisation of States by setting up the States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) in 1953, and the subsequent formation of 14 States on the recommendations of the SRC.

The existing States and their territorial identities underwent internal changes with deep anxieties and fears among people about the dominance of one regional language over many others in each of these States, and the creation of linguistic minorities overnight with the changes affected by the internal redrawing of the States. The dominant regional language identified with its numerical majority of speakers became the language of education, employment and administration in the State. The idea of homeland to some languages became a reality, leaving many others without their territorial identity confined to one State. The fate of linguistic minorities since then has remained uncertain and uncared for. Hindi emerged, in this game, as a language of northern India cutting across several States—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh—claiming to be the majoritarian language spoken by the largest number of people. The linguistic-majoritarian chauvinism of Hindi began to find new means to assert its presence in the Census registers, gazetteers and several other language surveys and reports by clubbing together a large number of dialects and speech varieties under its own name.

The Hindi hegemony of the north was apparent when the language agitations of 1963 in the State of Tamil Nadu made Nehru retain English as an associate official language of the Union indefinitely. Since then, Hindi has remained an official language (Raj Bhasha) of the Indian state but not a national language (Rashtra Bhasha). With the status of a State language, Hindi, as compared with other languages, has gained and surged ahead in the domains of information technology, tourism, hospitality, business and inter-State mobility. The 22 languages listed in the Eighth Schedule have remained important mostly in their home or neighbouring States.

Nowhere in the Constitution is Hindi listed as the national language. Since the adoption of the Constitution, the Central government has conferred on it the status of an official language ensuring its pre-eminence in the domains of inter-governmental communication, education, administration, information, and the cultural industry of film, music and art. That the post-Partition trauma should not affect the foundational unity of the country has been the dominant concern of nationalist elites and leaders since then.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party (RSS-BJP) combine has always pushed the agenda of Sanskritised Hindi/Hindu nationalism whenever it has come to power at the Centre. The ideology of Akhand Bharat (unified/united India) sees the multiple diversities—whether linguistic, cultural and social—as threats to achieving the goal of a Hindu Rashtra. The second consecutive term of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been much more focussed and systematic in trying to standardise and possibly erase the treasurable cultural pluralities. It is ironical that in the year of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, we are witnessing such exclusionary and militant nationalistic agenda of the ruling BJP. Instead, we should celebrate our exceptional cultural pluralism, the syncretism of Kabir and Malik Muhammad Jayasi, the secularism and enlightenment-progressivism of Nehru and Ambedkar, and Gandhi’s call for learning a new language in every three months.

New scientific research has shown that multiple linguistic-cognitive skills and capabilities are fundamental to the production of creative knowledge systems of various sorts. The idea of human agency, Charles Taylor says, is inherently linguistically determined. Karl Marx called language a productive labour which cannot be subsumed under the technicalities and sovereign power of the state. In times of transnationalism, global capitalism, post- nation-statism, it is futile and regressive to think of knowing and working through one common language. Multilingualism is a shared historical treasure, which must be included in our educational structures, pedagogical practices, economic activities of trade and commerce, in print and electronic communication, and in our numerous everyday social and cultural activities. Human beings are not robots artificially designed to achieve certain set targets. To become the cosmopolitan citizen of contemporary times, learning and living in any language of the world is a fundamental human right—a right that protects the values of human dignity and freedom. Let the languages of everyone be treated with an equal degree of respect and power of creative communication.

In a democratic country, giving primacy to one language is to disrobe its citizens of their linguistic capital of various sorts such as the freedom of expression, of dissent, of idioms and metaphors, of poetic life that one would feel more at home in one’s own language.

Languages allow us the means of recognition, of representation and resource generation, all of which are not simple commodities but values and choices of a life. The idea of the nation is more in terms of an abstraction, of a sense of belongingness, of organic communion that citizens identify with in their day-to-day living. It is not in terms of forced compliance, obedience, and silent subjecthood to the dictates of an authoritarian state aiming at creating an uncritical mass of people ready to accept and follow the new rules of subjection every day.

Asha Sarangi is a professor and chair of the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi.

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