Misreading the language spectrum

The present government’s freely displayed unease with constitutional institutions is directly related to its inadequate understanding of the linguistic civilisation that India has been

Published - August 15, 2022 04:05 am IST

Inauguration, in New Delhi, of a Tamil class for Hindi-speaking members of Parliament. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and T. T. Krishnamachari are in the picture.

Inauguration, in New Delhi, of a Tamil class for Hindi-speaking members of Parliament. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and T. T. Krishnamachari are in the picture. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

While deciding on the language question in India, the Constituent Assembly had clearly recognised that the unity of India could get adversely affected if the language policy got slanted towards the imposition of any single language over others. The creation of the Eighth Schedule, initially with 14 languages included in it, is testimony to the deep understanding that the Constituent Assembly had of the mutuality of language diversity and the Indian Republic. The number of languages included in the Eighth Schedule went up to 22, but its conceptual framework based on India’s federal structure had never been deliberately violated until recently.

The present regime, driven by the ideology of Hindi-Hindu-Rashtra, has been sending disturbing signals of its desire to ‘impose’ a unilateral linguistic character on other linguistic populations in India. This desire pertains not just to the imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi speakers, but also to an unreasonable promotion of Sanskrit, which is pivotal to its brand of nationalism. The linguistic, cultural and education policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government have almost brought the architecture of the Constitution under question.

False assumptions about Hindi

There is a widespread misconception about the place of Hindi in India's linguistic spectrum. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages. It is also the language with the highest number of speakers as per data from successive censuses. However, it is also true that Hindi is not the natural language of a majority of States and Union Territories in India, including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Pondicherry in the south; Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west; Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir in the northwest; Orissa and West Bengal in the east; Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya and Assam in the northeast. Hindi is believed to be the only or main language in States such as Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — but a closer look at their linguistic composition shows that they all have their own native regional languages and Hindi functions there as a shared pan-State language. Often, as Hindi becomes the second language for communication with people residing in these States or travelling through them, the impression about it being the primary language of these States gets reinforced. Yet, it is an impression not grounded in factual accuracy.

On Hindi and Sanskrit

The 2011 Census — which is still the latest — had stated a total of 19,569 ‘raw returns’ (read, non-doctored claims) of mother tongues. Of these, close to 17,000 were rejected outright, and another 1,474 were dumped because not enough scholarly corroboration for them existed. Only 1,369, almost 7% of the total claims, were admitted as ‘classified mother tongues’. Rather than placing them as languages, they were grouped under 121 headings. These 121 were declared as the languages of India. The data for Hindi were conspicuously bolstered — shown at 52-plus crore — by adding to its core figure of speakers the speakers of nearly 50 other languages. These included Bhojpuri, claimed by over five crore, many languages in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Bihar, claimed by close to a total six crore persons. At the same time, 17 of the 22 scheduled languages were reported by the census as showing a downward trend in their rate of growth in comparison to the previous decade. The statistical management acquires a deep meaning when seen together with public statements by the BJP’s top brass about the promotion of Hindi, the stringency with which Hindi is being pushed into the administrative functioning of Central/national organisations even in non-Hindi areas and the change of signage on highways, trains and public places.

The case of Sanskrit is somewhat different. While it does not have a large number of speakers to its credit at present, and indeed it did not have the necessary numbers in support for most of its long history, it happens to be the linguistic mother for Hindi. Besides, the sacred books of Hindus are in Sanskrit. Therefore, though it does not have the numbers, it enjoys an undisputed psychological preeminence for people who consider themselves as Hindus. These include people who speak Hindi as well as speakers of many other Indian languages. Thus the number of those who consider Sanskrit a ‘sacred’ language is much higher than the number of Hindi speakers.

When preparations for the 2021 Census had started, one noticed a rather unusual open appeal spread through social media. It said that if your language has any words derived from Sanskrit in it, please mention Sanskrit as your second mother tongue. An emotional and communal argument was added to the appeal. It was, if people (Hindus, by implication) did not do so, government funding for ‘foreign languages’ (by implication Persian and Urdu, a completely false premise) would be much higher than funding for Sanskrit. There is no need to say that there is no language, including among the Dravidian languages, that does not have word borrowings from Sanskrit. It is a practice of the Census to include even the ‘second language’ claimed by people in the tally of the ‘total number of speakers’. The last Census showed some 24,000 Indians out of a total 121 crore claiming Sanskrit as their ‘mother tongue’.

Several untenable claims have been made in recent years by votaries of a Hindu Rashtra towards the need for revival of the Sanskrit language. When one claims that Sanskrit has all the knowledge in the world, as a thinking person with at least some knowledge of the world’s history of ideas and respect for knowledge wherever it has sprung up in the world, I feel uneasy accepting the claim. Any given language cannot be made relevant. Either it is, or it is not relevant. A language remains relevant if people conduct their labour, their commerce and their intellectual and social exchanges using it. A language in which people acquire knowledge and develop it further remains relevant. Yet, one needs no Census to know that the proportion of the population which can use Sanskrit competently is negligible in India.

Majoritarian nationalism

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s idea of building a fanaticised Hindu Rashtra has no space for a multilingual nation. In its understanding of nationalism, a single, large majority is the primary constituent of the nation and all others, linguistic, cultural, ethnic and religious minorities, are ‘non-national’ or ‘anti-national’, convenient targets for mobilising the majority. The idea of a nation made of Hindus, with their sacred transactions in Sanskrit and practical transactions in Hindi, is by implication a stark dismissal of all other indigenous languages. This idea of nationalism has in the past castigated the English media and the forms of knowledge that came to India as a kind of historical calamity imposed on India, polluting the ‘great traditions of knowledge produced in Sanskrit’.

All of these assumptions fly in the face of the deep thought and wise reflections that have gone into the making of India’s Constitution. The present government’s freely displayed unease with constitutional institutions has a direct relation to its inadequate understanding of the linguistic civilisation that India has been. ‘Realism’ and ‘ideology-driven politics’ probably make a pair of antonymous terms. When a myopic ideology gets the better of realism in policy matters, immense harm can result to culture and society and a nation starts going back to the past rather than progressing to the future.

G.N. Devy is Chair, People’s Linguistic Survey of India

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