The victory of pluralism

Union Home Minister Amit Shah looks on during the Hindi Divas Samaroh in New Delhi on September 14, 2019.   | Photo Credit: PTI

As a nation with thousands of dialects and more than a hundred widely spoken languages, out of which 22 have official language status, India’s linguistic richness adds beauty to its pluralistic culture. Those who enjoy political power are duty-bound to understand the history of these languages and the role they played in the making of modern India. India’s language policy was hotly debated by the Constituent Assembly too.

While for the most part India’s political leadership has been cautious not to confer the mantle of ‘unifying factor’ to any particular language, that political wisdom seems to be fading in these changed times. Consider the case of the Home Minister handling the language issue in a manner that some have called irresponsible. Within a short span of time he made two statements on this sensitive subject. First, on September 14, he said that only Hindi can unify India. Then, on September 18, he distanced himself from that remark, saying that he was only requesting the people to treat Hindi as the second language.

This retreat was a victory of the people. It proclaimed once again the greatness of India’s multilingual, pluralistic culture. When the people rallied together to defend the real unifying factor of the country, which is unity in diversity, attempts at pseudo-unification had to stand down. The Home Minister might have hoped that after the Central government’s decision to end the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir, and publication of the final list of the National Registry of Citizens, the BJP could win over the hearts of voters simply by using Hindi in this manner. But that did not pan out owing to popular resistance.

In taking back his remarks, the Home Minister accused others of “doing politics”. However, his remarks must be situated within the context of the Sangh Parivar’s politics. The Parivar stands for ‘one nation, one culture, one language’. This school of thought is rooted in the early teachings of the Parivar’s ideologues. In the book, Bunch of Thoughts, M.S. Golwalkar, former chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), wrote about giving priority to Hindi. The concept of one language and the politics that emerges from it run contrary to India’s cultural ethos. It will weaken the unity of the country. That is why people all over India spontaneously challenged the Home Minister’s position last month. They correctly understood it as an attempt by the RSS and the BJP to impose Hindi on the nation.

No one denies the significant role played by Hindi in the making of a new India. Its contribution to literature and culture is also unquestionable. But to credit it as the only unifying factor is a questionable stand. It undermines the importance and self-respect of all other Indian languages, which also have contributed to India’s unity and progress. When such a move comes from a government controlled by an ideology of majoritarianism, it becomes more dangerous. It reminds people of the RSS slogan, ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’. Could the Home Minister’s words be construed by his supporters as a call to depict all other languages as anti-national? After the frenzy over Ayodhya and Jammu and Kashmir, this might well be a dog whistle to declare a new offensive against all other languages, in the name of Hindi.

An attempt to divert?

Then there is the question of whether the Home Minister’s comments were accidental. Is it possible that it might have been a conscious step to divert attention from real issues? Workers are still out of employment, more than a month since those words were spoken, as factories continue to shut. The unemployment rate is the highest in 45 years. India’s economy grew at its slowest pace in over six years in the June quarter. The right-wing ‘nationalist’ government at the Centre is knocking at the doors of foreign capital for rescue. If the Home Minister was trying to escape from the people’s wrath by raising the shield of Hindi, that plan appears to have backfired.

Binoy Viswam is the Secretary of the Communist Party of India, National Council and leader of the party in Parliament

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Printable version | Nov 18, 2020 5:47:38 PM |

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