ONE YEAR AFTER Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya considered the claims of various provinces for reorganisation along linguistic lines. The Linguistic Provinces Committee was an eyeopener as Nehru recalled later: “[The inquiry] has been in some ways an eyeopener for us. The work of 60 years of the Indian National Congress was standing before us, face-to-face with centuries-old India of narrow loyalties, petty jealousies and ignorant prejudices engaged in mortal conflict and we were simply horrified to see how thin was the ice upon which we were skating. Some of the ablest men in the country came before us and confidently and emphatically stated that their language in this country stood for and represented culture, race, history, individuality, and finally a sub-nation.”
Barely a decade later, India’s internal map had changed drastically and major parts of the country were restructured along linguistic lines. This wave of creating linguistic provinces came to an end with the creation of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand early this century. But the divisive politics around language has not died until today.
Last Saturday, a furious storm broke out after Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s address on the occasion of Hindi Day, meant for celebrating the national language. Within no time, politicians of all stripes ‘condemned’ Shah for trying to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speaking states. The spectre of old times and unhappy memories around linguistic politics re-emerged once again.
The reality was, of course, rather different. In a tweet that day, Shah said that, ‘The many languages and dialects of India are our greatest strength. There is, however, one language of our country—meant to prevent our country from being overwhelmed by foreign languages—and for that reason our constitution-makers unanimously decided to accept Hindi as the official language.’ That, however, did not prevent charges of ‘imposing Hindi’ from flying thick and fast.
There are two ways to look at this kind of politics of ‘imposing Hindi’. At one level, the issue is one of genuine insecurity on the part of non-Hindi speakers about their culture and identity, based on language. Here, there is a strange gap between those who make these claims and the status of India’s many dying languages and the dwindling numbers of those who speak these languages. Most “imposition of Hindi” chants come from Tamil and Bengali-speaking politicians who lead communities that are gigantic by any measure. It is also a fact that these languages are ensconced in spatially compact and relatively large units in India. The sense of insecurity in this case is baffling. The real concern ought to be with the speakers of languages, like Gondi and other linguistic minorities, where the number of those speaking them is falling below the threshold required for the survival of the language. Here, in contrast to the people who are protesting against Shah, there is silence.
On another plane, however, there is a somewhat contemporary ring to these alleged fears and the politics behind them. Since 2014, virtually all parts of India have come under the sway of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These include regions that were once in the grip of identity politics that owed much to the melding of linguistic and ethnic identities. Assam is the exemplar of such politics. But since 2014, the axis of identity there has shifted radically away from language, permitting the BJP to become a dominant political party. This has spelled the deep freeze of caste, and to a lesser extent, regionalism, as political ideas for now. That leaves very little space for opposition politicians to find viable ideas. Language, for its deep resonance, is one such idea. Siddaramaiah’s Karnataka or the DMK in Tamil Nadu provide sufficient evidence for these developments.
Most “imposition of Hindi” chants come from Tamil and Bengali-speaking politicians who lead communities that are gigantic by any measure. It is also a fact that these languages are ensconced in spatially compact units in India. The sense of insecurity in this case is baffling
Share this on
There are, of course, other processes at work beyond any alleged official imposition of Hindi which are making the national language popular. Since 1991, when economic liberalisation began, the private sector has had the option of taking investment decisions independently of government permission to a great extent. If one looks at the major economic clusters in the country, they are around Mumbai (Maharashtra), Delhi, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. With the exception of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the other three regions—from where the bulk of India’s taxes is collected—have a fair degree of Hindi penetration. That is largely due to the silent spread for economic and cultural intermingling. This acceptability has only grown over time. Technology, cinema, migration and a host of other factors have ‘conspired’ to enhance the acceptability of Hindi. In the long run, this spells bad news for those who continue to work caste and language combinations as workhorses of their politics.
That, however, lies in the future. In the current time things, like Shah’s speech and tweets, have given ammunition to the intellectual backers of those who allegedly worry about Indian democracy. One favourite trope here is that non-Hindi-speaking regions, like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, contribute a vast amount to India’s tax kitty and are hence ‘subsidising’ Hindi-speaking backward regions of the country. Apart from the fact that this is incorrect (a huge amount of Central money is expended in non-Hindi-speaking special category states that do not have a sufficient revenue base), this is one more shibboleth that is used to somehow build the case for ‘balancing’ the increasingly centralised nature of the Government in India. There are good reasons for respecting federalism—such as its importance in providing local public goods—but using federalism and its intellectual tropes like the ‘hegemony’ of Hindi do a great disservice to the idea of federalism. For the majority of the country—including the vast number of non-Hindi speakers—this comes close to encouraging fissiparous tendencies. The word fissiparous is old-fashioned but the fear it highlights is contemporary.
There is, however, a case for caution in trying to promote Hindi officially. For one, it won’t serve any worthwhile purpose, such as appreciating the literature of that language or making it an acceptable medium of communication. That process is best left to ‘natural’ devices that promote its spread, such as technology and migration. For another, India has plenty of potential problems around national unity and territorial integrity. Linguistic sub-nationalism is a dying idea and there should not be the slightest encouragement to it on the basis of some perception of injustice to any region or community in India. Though, to be fair, Shah never hinted at imposing Hindi; he merely said that it should be a choice for those who want to learn a second language beyond their mother tongue. In saying so, he did nothing wrong. After all, Hindi is the national language. The animus towards it has a far more sinister underlying sentiment and not some vague idea of ‘Hindi imperialism.’ Anyone who visits government schools and meets parents of children studying there can find out how desperately they want their children to learn English as that is perceived as the vehicle for upward mobility. It is a travesty that more than 70 years after overthrowing our colonial overlords, their language remains an essential thread in India. The national language deserves better instead of the periodic barbs of its alleged imposition.