Political Line newsletter by Varghese K George

Political Line | War on English: turning aspirational politics on its head  

(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu  . You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)

Language Policy

The language debate in India is raging, appropriately for a country of such diversity, in several languages. What actually is the language policy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Narendra Modi government? It wants to promote Hindi and it also wants to promote regional languages — how does that work?

English should be replaced with Hindi, as the link language of the country, according to Home Minister Amit Shah. Prime Minister Narendra Modi believes that all regional languages form the soul of India, a point that he reiterated in the specific context of Tamil, during his visit to Tamil Nadu this week. Mr. Modi also cited the emphasis on regional languages in the National Education Policy.

So in essence, what is being proposed is not merely promotion of Hindi, but a rejection or replacement of English. This is not a new idea — this plan had existed in India’s nationalist politics for long and used to be pronounced in the rhetoric of Hindutva organisations and socialists. But we had thought liberalisation and India’s semi-official policy of exporting workers to the global market had made English language skills desirable and rewarding.

Far from discouraging English, politicians who are in sync with the middle class sentiment on the issue are promoting it. In Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy wants to replace Telugu with English on the grounds that it will empower the poorest. In Tamil Nadu, the State government promotes English too. The Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh used to call for a ban on the use of English language in India but its 2022 manifesto promised a State education policy to “focus on English education as the language of economic betterment, supplemented by local languages. The BJP government in Gujarat recently decided to start English language education from Class I; currently it begins from Class IV.

The rise of Hindutva politics under Mr. Modi had found immense support among the English-speaking middle class and the Indian diaspora in developed countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. The English media in India, and foreign publications, had hailed him as a man who would integrate India closer with the world through more liberalisation and economic reforms. Mr. Modi represented ‘aspirational politics,’ it was widely viewed.   

The new war on English coincides with a rupture of Hindutva politics from the middle class, and its increasing rootedness in the rural, lower income, backward caste and Dalit milieu. The question that the middle class, globalised, tech savvy supporters of Hindutva now confronts is whether they would give up English and accept Hindi as the link language along with the regional mother tongue if it is not Hindi. Can we dream our global Hindutva dreams in the vernacular now?

Places of Worship Act

The Gyanvapi Mosque after its survey by a commission, in Varanasi.

The Gyanvapi Mosque after its survey by a commission, in Varanasi. | Photo Credit: PTI

The notion that a 1991 Act that purportedly preserves the status of all places of worship as they stood on August 15, 1947 is final and unassailable has been widespread, particularly after the Supreme Court of Indian cited it in its Ayodhya judgment to underscore the secular nature of the state. As it turns out, the 1991 Act is being challenged and undermined, in the judiciary all the way up to the Supreme Court. Going by the sentiments being expressed by the courts, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s claim that the 1991 Act does not apply in Kashi and Mathura cases could ultimately find judicial acceptance. Nothing is sacred.

Two terrorism tales

JKLF Leader Yasin Malik. File

JKLF Leader Yasin Malik. File | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

The conviction and punishment of Kashmiri separatist Yasin Malik by a Delhi court and the release from prison of Perarivalan, convicted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, by the apex court recently were telling. The state, judiciary, and public opinion often work in a loop, reinforcing one another.   

Mr. Malik’s conviction and sentencing was celebrated by the mainstream media, though it was also a tad disappointed that he was not given the death sentence. The same set of anchors and channels had a different attitude towards the release of Perarivalan -- no anchor was outraged, nobody sought more stringent punishment for him. In Tamil Nadu, the release was welcomed as a victory of federalism.  These two judicial decisions that came in close succession were instructive of how crime and punishment work. Even the Supreme Court’s intervention in the Gyanvapi dispute — Hindu groups claim it is a temple — was to ‘balance’ the opposing sides.

Modi vs KCR; Modi with Stalin

Prime Minister  Narendra Modi and Chief Minister M.K. Stalin.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister M.K. Stalin. | Photo Credit: R. Ragu

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s southern tour this week, to Hyderabad and Chennai, was politically loaded. In Hyderabad, he attacked Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao for capturing all power for his family, and being trapped in superstitions. While Mr. Modi was attacking him on home turf, KCR was in Karnataka, canvassing support for an anti-Modi front of regional parties ahead of the 2024 general elections.

I mentioned Mr. Modi’s speech in Chennai in the discussion on Hindi vs English above. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, who shared the dais with the Prime Minister, demanded that Tamil must get equal place as Hindi as the official language of the Union and language of court at the Madras High Court. He also requested the Prime Minister to facilitate the implementation of a State law that seeks to exempt Tamil Nadu from the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medical education. The DMK and the State have taken a view that NEET undermines the development model being pursued by Tamil Nadu, which they call the Dravidian Model. The Chief Minister also sought the immediate release of GST payments that are pending, and increase in the Centre’s share in welfare schemes that are jointly funded by the Centre and the States.  

Raj Thackeray and the limits of regional Hindutva

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) party chief Raj Thackeray. File.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) party chief Raj Thackeray. File. | Photo Credit: AP

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray is in a typical bind. He is realising that championing Maratha interests and Hindu interests at the same time cannot be easy. He is trying to make life difficult for cousin and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray by raising all kinds of polarising demands – a Uniform Civil Code, a law on population control, renaming Aurangabad as ‘Sambhajinagar (after Shivaji’s son, Chhatrapati Sambhaji). But his efforts to burnish his Hindutva resume by a visit to Ayodhya have been stalled by a threat by Brij Bhushan Singh, a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, where the holy town is located. Mr. Singh wants an apology from Mr. Thackeray for mistreating north Indians in the past, before he visits Ayodhya. For now, Mr. Thackeray has decided to postpone his visit to Ayodhya.

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Printable version | May 30, 2022 9:52:18 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/war-on-english-turning-aspirational-politics-on-its-head/article65469542.ece