Politics and the English language

India in election mode is a world gone crazy. All is magnified by enervating and threatening sounds: joy, anger, blind trust and obduracy. India in election mode is a world gone crazy. All is magnified by enervating and threatening sounds: joy, anger, blind trust and obduracy.

Like millions of fellow voters I have been watching the exclusive TV interviews given by heavyweight leaders, first to India’s major English channels and later, almost grudgingly, to the print media and Hindi channels.

India in election mode is a world gone crazy. All is magnified by enervating and threatening sounds: joy, anger, blind trust and obduracy.

There is even a certain subtext to the choice of English over regional languages, and vice versa. Recent interviews given by three major political rivals from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra to the English channels have been run for days on the small screen and triggered headlines nationally. All leaders had chosen anchors known for their aggressive, no holds barred stance, but began by ensuring that they, not the anchors, came through as the alpha male.

Then came the linguistic spin. The leaders began replying in Hindi to questions being posed in English, till the hapless anchors also switched languages and began speaking in Hindi. It was only after this that the leaders gave interviews to the print media and Hindi channels. One such Hindi daily with a large circulation in the crucial states of Bihar and UP had the rare pleasure of getting an online interview, while its sister English dailies were overlooked. Subverting the usual pattern, they then chose to publish the great leader’s thoughts in an English translation.

What is happening, one wonders. Is the charisma of English, the language of India’s power pack, no longer what it was? Has a belated realisation struck the political class that a large number of Indian voters do not understand English? And the majority are located in the Hindi belt? Are those who can charm the masses and whip up a cultural xenophobia using debatable data and a few colloquial witticisms going to walk away with a major chunk of votes, never mind their past and present affiliations?

Fact is, whenever the old system begins to collapse in India, the official language of the ruling class also loses authority. The earliest official language to lose clout thus was Sanskrit, used only by the upper castes and upper classes. When Buddhism became the state religion, Sanskrit was unceremoniously ousted by Pali, Paishachi, Apbhransha. After the decline of Buddhism and the fracturing of the great Mauryan empire, Pali too lost out. Then, Islamic rule brought in courtly Persian and anointed it as the official language. Like Sanskrit before it, Persian was largely an aspirational medium, accessible only to the upwardly mobile and ambitious members of the Indian nobility (read upper caste Hindu males) . Ultimately, when India became part of the British Empire, the Queen’s English sent Persian packing from the courts and ruled the land through communications issued in English and translated for the common folk in official versions of Urdu and Hindi.

The sudden spurts in the growth of India’s regional languages is proof that whenever the central power begins to collapse — taking with it its formal court language — there is a short hiatus when the marginalised languages will suddenly acquire a life and produce brilliant literature: the poetry and prose of Gunadhya, Akka Mahadevi, Kabir, Gyaneshwar, Mir, Nazir Akbarabadi, Nirala, Mahadevi Varma and Firaq Gorakhpuri. Faced with gut-wrenching change, humankind needs mother tongues like it needs comfort food. But creative periods are never too long. Once new power takes over, it brings in another language, limited edition.

An under-reported fact: Hindi and Urdu, two languages that helped leaders to reach out to the masses and promoted as future official languages, were effectively barred from assuming that role in both India and Pakistan post-Independence. The leaders announced that use of only these two from among the many that peoples spoke may enrage those who did not accept their dominance. English remained as the de facto official language. Under a strange compromise, Hindi and Urdu were anointed with great political fanfare as the teaching medium for poorly run government schools and madrasas. The power pack continued to send its progeny to English-medium private schools. These languages, like the Khajuraho temples, became symbols of mass culture and sustained by state-funded akademies run at the top by English-speaking bureaucrats. A pyrrhic victory until 2014.

Exhausted by battling against misrule and divisive ideologies, while the under-informed and confused millions wait, new promises arrive swiftly on the wings of regional languages and begin to invoke false images of violence and crushing cultural slights suffered in the past. Contradictions arrive late. Their representatives want time to reveal the entire past and subtly nuanced truths in English. But time is perennially in short supply on super prime-time TV. Can the haltingly articulated defence of secularism by those unused to debating the issue in the regional languages convince the crowds sold to the Manichaean vision in stark black and white where they stand in a permanently adversarial relationship with Dilli?

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and chairperson of Prasar Bharati