It is time to let sleeping dogmas lie: on ‘Hindi imposition’

‘Another salvo’

‘Another salvo’ | Photo Credit: K. Manikandan

The Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement recently, saying that Hindi should replace English as the “link language” and that the Government’s work will increasingly be in Hindi, has set the proverbial cat among the Southern pigeons. The “Hindi-Hindutva-Hindustan” ideology that he represents has historically been impatient with the notion of Indian multilingualism, which it sees as a babel undermining national unity rather than the proud showcase of diversity that our constitutional nationalism celebrates. It has been a long-standing policy plank of the Hindutva movement that Hindi, the language of the northern and central Indian States, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sunk its deepest roots, should be the ‘national language’ of India. BJP MPs have frequently risen in the national parliament to demand that their preference be made law.

Part of ‘Hindi promotion’

Mr. Shah’s is only the latest salvo of several efforts by the Modi government to promote Hindi. These include: the imposition of Hindi names on Central government programmes and schemes (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, and the like) instead of translations or ‘neutral’ English labels; a ‘parliamentary committee’s proposal to make the use of Hindi mandatory for MPs and Union Ministers; making Hindi a compulsory subject for Central Board of Secondary Education schools across the country; re-lettering milestones on national highways in Hindi instead of English’; the use of Hindi in airport announcements; the Central government issuing media advertisements in Hindi, and launching ‘promotional campaigns exclusively in the Hindi script’, even when the words used may be from different Indian languages; and the practice of renaming well-known occasions or festivities only in Hindi or Sanskrit, such as Teacher’s Day as Guru Purnima.

The latest controversy has revealed two essential truths about our country. The first is that, whatever the Hindi chauvinists might say, we do not have one “national language” in India, but several. The second is that zealots have an unfortunate tendency to provoke a battle they will lose — at a time when they were quietly winning the war.

Missing the point

Hindi is the mother tongue of some 50% of our population; the percentage has been growing thanks to the spectacular failure of population control in much of North India. It is not, however, the mother tongue of the rest of us. When Hindi speakers emotionally decry the use of an alien language imposed on the country by British colonialists and demand that Hindi be used because it speaks for “the soul of India”, or when they declare that “Hindi is our mother, English is a stranger”, they are missing the point twice over. First, because no Tamil or Bengali will accept that Hindi is the language of her soul, and second because injecting anti-English xenophobia into the argument is utterly irrelevant to the issue at stake.

As Rajaji sagely cautioned the Hindi chauvinists of his era, the opposition to English is counterproductive: ‘Xenophobia is an outmoded form of patriotism. It is a sign of immaturity to feel shame in using a world language in our high affairs. Over and over again the inescapable injustice of imposing Hindi is sought to be covered by a cry against the foreign character of English. …Is not just and fair dealing by all the geographically distributed people of this great country as important at least as national pride?’ Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, too, had expressed the view that the utility of a single language nationwide in the administration and the justice system required the continuation of English as a matter of practical convenience.

Rajaji also gave short shrift to the argument that Hindi was a language of the Indian masses while English was used only by the deracinated elites: ‘When the Hindi protagonists are speaking of the masses they are obviously thinking of the masses of the Hindi area only; they ignore the masses in non-Hindi India who are no less in number.’ Nationalism, he feared, was being used to conceal the naked self-interest of the Hindi-speakers of the north: ‘Love of oneself may easily masquerade as love of language, and love of language as love of country. Let us not deceive ourselves or others with chauvinistic slogans.’

But deluding ourselves is a favoured pastime in New Delhi. The issue is quite simple: all Indians need to deal with the government. We need government services, information and support; we need to understand easily what our government is saying to us or demanding of us. When the government does so in our mother tongue, it is easier for us. But when it does so in someone else’s mother tongue with which we are less familiar than our neighbour, our incomprehension is intensified by resentment. Why should Shukla be spoken to by the Government of India in the language that comes easiest to him, but not Subramaniam?

The de facto solution to this question has been a practical one: use Hindi where it is understood, but use English everywhere, since it places all Indians from all parts of our country at an equal disadvantage. English does not express Subramaniam’s soul any more than it does Shukla’s, but it serves a functional purpose for both, and what is more, it helps Subramaniam to understand the same thing as Shukla.

Ideally, of course, every Central government document, tax form or tweet should be in every one of India’s languages. Since that is not possible in practice — because we would have to do everything in 23 versions (22 and English) — we have chosen to have two official languages, English and Hindi. State governments complement these by producing official material in the language of their States. That leaves everyone more or less happy.

It is about efficiency

The Government’s requirement that Hindi be privileged in official work actually militates against the interests of efficiency. Obliging a Keralite bureaucrat in Delhi to read and write file notations in Hindi to be submitted to a superior officer from Odisha makes no sense, since neither man would be using a language with which he is at ease. Obliging both to digest a complex argument by a U.P.-ite subordinate writing in his mother tongue is unfair to both. Both may write atrocious English, for that matter, but it is the language in which they are equal, and it serves to get the work done. Language is a vehicle, not a destination. In government, it is a means, not an end. The Hindi-wallahs fail to appreciate that, since promoting Hindi, for them, is an end in itself.

In the five decades since the promulgation of the ‘three-language formula’, implementation has largely failed across the country, for two divergent reasons. At an ideological level, in States such as Tamil Nadu, the question of being required to learn a northern language such as Hindi has always been contentious, with anti-Hindi agitations a recurring episode in the State since 1937. In the northern States, there is simply no demand for learning a southern language, and so no northern State has seriously implemented the three-language formula.

Vehicle of entertainment

The irony is that the Hindi chauvinists should realise they were winning the war. The prevalence of Hindi is far greater across India today than it was half a century ago. This is not because of Mr. Shah’s (or even the Vice-President, M. Venkaiah Naidu’s) imprecations or the assiduous efforts of the Parliamentary Committee on the Promotion of Hindi. It is, quite simply, because of Bollywood, which has brought a demotic conversational Hindi into every Indian home. South Indians and north-easterners alike are developing something of an ease and familiarity with Hindi because it is a language in which they are entertained. In time, this alone could have made Hindi truly the national language.

But it would become so only because Indians freely and voluntarily adopt it, not because some Hindi chauvinist in Delhi thrusts his language down the throats of the unwilling. The fact is, its vocabulary, gender rules and locutions do not come instinctively to everyone: native speakers of languages such as Malayalam that do not use gender can understand why a woman must be feminine but are genuinely mystified as to why a table should be feminine too. If you have grown up with Hindi at home, it is a matter of instinct for you that it should be “ desh ki haalat acchi hain” rather than “ desh ka haalat bura hain”, but for the rest of us, there is no logical reason to see anything feminine about the national condition.

Fear of an agenda

Imposition is rarely a good policy in a democracy. But the real fear is far more fundamental: that the advocacy of Hindi is merely the thin end of a more dangerous wedge — the ideological agenda of those in power who believe in a nationalism of ‘one language, one religion, one nation’. This is anathema to those Indians who grew up and believe in a diverse, inclusive India whose languages are all equally authentic. The Hindutva brigade’s attempts to impose cultural uniformity in India will be resisted staunchly by the rest of us; the opposition to Hindi is based on our fear that such cultural uniformity is really what the advocacy of this language is all about.

Still, if we watch enough Bollywood movies, we will pick some Hindi up one day. Just do not tell us that we must, or else. Language should be an instrument of opportunity, not of oppression.

The quest for uniformity is always a sign of insecurity, and the BJP’s majoritarianism has gone to the point where it threatens to undermine the very social fabric that has held the country together since Independence.

It is time to let sleeping dogmas lie.

Shashi Tharoor, MP (Congress party) for Thiruvananthapuram, is the Sahitya Akademi-winning author of 23 books, both fiction and non-fiction, including, most recently, ‘Pride, Prejudice & Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor’

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2022 10:14:58 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/it-is-time-to-let-sleeping-dogmas-lie/article65312129.ece