The myth of ‘Hindi heartland’

Print edition : January 28, 2022

Union Home Minister Amit Shah releasing a book during the Hindi Divas Samaroh 2021 in New Delhi on September 14, 2021. Photo: PTI

March 8, 1992: Activists of the Maithili Sangharsh Abhiyan protest against the decision of Bihar government to abolish Maithili Language from the Bihar Public Service Commission. Photo: The Hindu photo archives

December 13, 1964: (From right) Chief Ministers K.B. Sahay (Bihar), D.P. Mishra (Madhya Pradesh), Balwantrai Mehta (Gujarat), M. Bhaktavatsalam (Madras), G.M. Sadiq (Kashmir), and (far left) Ram Kishan (Punjab) at a meeting in New Delhi to endorse the Centre’s language policy. Photo: The Hindu photo archives

A file photograph showing activists of the Bundelkhand Akikrit Party staging a demonstration demanding statehood for Bundelkhand, in New Delhi on December 29, 2009. Photo: The Hindu photo archives

A case for reconstituting the fictitious geographical construct of the ‘Hindi heartland’ by creating newer States on the basis of the cultural-linguistic identities of non-Hindi speakers in that region and making the nation a better-articulated structure that reflects its linguistic plurality.

INDIA presents a unique linguistic situation. One-third of the world’s 6,000-odd languages are spoken in India. These languages fall into several genetically and geographically diverse families. The Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman groups of languages create, in M.B. Emeneau’s words, “India as a linguistic area” based on centuries of coexistence. Languages across families share certain genetic and structural features to form the identity of a linguistic area. Strangely, Hindi, a modern Indo-Aryan language, emerges as ‘presumably’ one of the most widely spoken languages in the country. In fact, Hindi did not exist before the beginning of the 18th century.

Speakers of various languages (Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Maithili, to name a few), which are much older than Hindi, find themselves at the margins as Hindi appears to occupy centre stage in this complex linguistic environment. Speakers of Kashmiri, Punjabi, Haryanvi, Gujarati, Marathi, Konkani, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Odia, Bangla, Assamese, Manipuri, Mizo, and Angami, to name a few, find themselves as different minorities when they compare themselves with speakers of Hindi.

The question is: who are the speakers of Hindi in India? The most common answer is that they are the people of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Do the people of these States speak Hindi, or only Hindi? In fact, their languages are Maithili, Magahi (in Bihar), Bhojpuri (in Bihar and Uttar Praesh), Awadhi, Bundeli (in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh), Bagheli, Malawi, Gond (in Madhya Pradesh), Mewari, Marwari (in Rajasthan), and many more. Moreover, speakers of these languages are broadly counted as speakers of Hindi for a variety of reasons. Each one of these languages has several million speakers. More importantly, each one of these is much older than Hindi. Ironically, these languages are known as dialects of Hindi. The attempt to merge their identities has covert implications but overt political consequences. The attempt to paint the States where these languages are spoken as Hindi-speaking states is tantamount to superimposing Hindi on them.

Stripped of linguistic identities

The concept of ‘Hindi heartland’ is a myth. Hindi as a lingua franca in these States stripped them of their linguistic identities. Speakers of numerous languages of Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh are generally counted as speakers of Hindi. A comparative look at the number of speakers of different Indian languages reveals that most of the speakers of Kashmiri, Punjabi, Haryanvi, Gujarati, Marathi, Konkani, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Odia, Bangla, Assamese, Manipuri, Mizo, Angami, and so on, are marginalised and have become linguistic minorities.

Indeed, seeing as Hindi speakers those who speak Maithili, Magahi, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Bundeli, Bagheli, Malawi, Gond, Mewari, Marwari, and many more languages, means that those people have lost the cultural-linguistic identity that connects them with their land. The superimposition of Hindi as the defining linguistic identity of India has impacted the speakers of various languages irreparably. In addition, Hindi creates a notional threat to speakers of other languages who, by their languages, are connected with their cultural-linguistic identity and their respective home areas.

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A realistic solution to the problems created by this fictitious geographical construct called ‘Hindi heartland’ will put an end to its misleading and even damaging consequences. Exposing the myth of a Hindi heartland will require reconstituting the territories within that domain through a strong political approach and constitutional amendments.

That will give India a new look make the Union stronger. The suggested reconstitution of the States involved must be done by naming them in such a way as to identify them with the respective languages they speak. The new States can be named, in keeping with the main language spoken in each one of them—Mithila (Maithili), Magadh (Magahi), Bhojpur (Bhojpuri), Awadh (Awadhi), Bundelkhand (Bundeli and Bagheli), Mewar (Mewari), Marwar (Marwari), Malawah (Malawi and Gond).

This will be consistent with many of the existing procedures whereby States of India are named— Jammu and Kashmir (Kashmiri), Punjab (Punjabi), Haryana (Haryanvi), Maharashtra (Marathi), Goa (Konkani), Karnataka (Kannada), Kerala (Malayalam), Tamil Nadu (Tamil), Telangana and Andhra Pradesh (Telugu), Odisha (Odia), West Bengal (Bangla), Assam (Assamese), Manipur (Manipuri), Mizoram (Mizo), and Nagaland (Angami).

Magahi and Mewari, for example, will be explicitly associated with the names of the places from where they originated, the ancient Magadh Empire and the famous and historic Mewar respectively. This applies to all the languages mentioned above. This will be similar to the situation in which Tamil or Bangla are the names of languages and indicators of the distinct but never frozen or rigidly exclusive identities of the peoples of Tamil Nadu and Bengal.

This change will further confirm and strengthen India’s commitment to cultural plurality and diversity under constitutional guarantees and requirements.

A word of caution is necessary. This proposal has challenges, too. Can there be a State for every single language? The Union must have a widely acceptable policy. This will require wider consultations and reconciliations. It is not to argue that every language must have its own State. It does not rule out the possibility of the continued existence other minority languages in these newly constituted States. We will have languages such as Bajjika and Angika in Mithila along with Maithili. This could well be an emerging picture of all the other States, too. Along with Haryanvi, Gujarati, and Marathi, several other languages are spoken in Haryana, Gujarat, and Maharashtra respectively.

The crucial outcome, nevertheless, would be the disappearance of the notion of a Hindi heartland, which is untenable. The alternative proposal here does not follow from the idea of smaller States for better governance and other benefits, but it will meet several long-standing regional demands. The reconstitution of the so-called Hindi-speaking States and decomposition of the Hindi heartland will benefit Hindi as a language. Hindi was identified as an official language of the Union by the Constituent Assembly. Clearly, the framers of the Constitution of India did not approve of the idea of Hindi representing the cultural-linguistic identity of India as a nation. However, given the presence of the artificial idea of a Hindi heartland, Hindi appears to be a language superimposed on the speakers of the other languages of the Union. This happened at some cost to the local and regional (cultural-linguistic) identity of the languages spoken in the geographical area today known as the Hindi heartland.

It also makes speakers of many languages uncomfortable about identifying with Hindi as an official language. And that happens only because Hindi is projected as the marker of identity for the speakers of the numerous languages in the fictitious Hindi heartland. If Hindi is not forced to be seen as a marker of identity of India, probably speakers of other languages will not find it unacceptable. Instead, it will almost certainly be far more widely acceptable as a lingua franca. This alternative proposal is predicated on the idea of recognising the plurality of the Union.

Hindi as nobody’s language

To re-emphasise, this proposal dissociates Hindi from its currently presumed or currently imposed status as the language of the speakers in the purported Hindi heartland, which it clearly is not. This, in turn, makes Hindi potentially a more powerful and acceptable official language in the functional domains of language use, so much so that Hindi may become as powerful a lingua franca as English in India. I reiterate, this can only happen when Hindi is allowed to become nobody’s language. In other words, recognising Hindi as nobody’s language can make Hindi everybody’s (official) language. Eventually, this will respect the underlying thinking of the Constituent Assembly. The framers of the Constitution conceptualised Hindi and English as the first and the associate official languages of India.

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Political implications

This proposal has political implications. Decomposition of the ‘Hindi heartland’ by further reorganisation of the States enhances the possibility of a Tamil-, or a Malayalam-, or a Marathi-, or a Bangla-speaking Prime Minister for the country. The political class of the Union does not have to depend on the approval of the so-called Hindi heartland above all other regions. In other words, a strong political figure from any part of the Union does not have to worry about his/her acceptability in the purported Hindi-speaking territories. That will create wider opportunities for governance and linguistic-cultural justice for the millions of non-Hindi speakers who have, in effect, lost their identities.

The idea of decomposition of the ‘Hindi heartland’ by creating newer States must be widely supported and demanded primarily by those who do not live in the ‘Hindi heartland’. This demand from outside that purported region facilitating linguistic-cultural regional identities will be more widely accepted by the people of those putative new States. This will be a unique movement for the nation. A Constitutional amendment to this effect will make the nation a stronger, better-articulated structure that represents its linguistic plurality than the current one.

Rajesh Kumar is Professor of Linguistics, Indian Institute of Technology Madras.