In November 2016, in the midst of demonetisation, new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes were released. Among other elements that differentiated the notes, there was a new peculiarity: for the first time in India’s post-Independence history, the rupee notes carried Devanagari numerals. Critics emerged holding the central government responsible for giving privilege to one particular language over others. Certain scholars, critical of the new addition, labeled it as BJP’s attempt to have Sanskrit as the dominating language.
In March 2017, another new development took place: milestones on national highways in Tamil Nadu suddenly changed from English to Hindi.
Furious, DMK working president M K Stalin called out the BJP-led central government: “This is bringing Hindi hegemony through the backdoor in Tamil Nadu,” and accused the government of “thrusting” both Hindi and Sanskrit onto the people since it got elected in 2014.
In the same month, President Pranab Mukherjee gave a nod (http://bit.ly/2pReow2) to the central government’s suggestion that all ministers (including the President) must give their speeches in Hindi. In the same list of recommendations, the government had also suggested that “In order to end the dominance of English, such schools should not be given recognition by the Government which do not impart education in Hindi or mother tongue”. This, the President refused to accept. Of late however, it does seem as though the government is trying to use Hindi as a language to unify the country.
A nation’s identity is rooted in language, which glues the people together. However, what happens to the minorities then, who have their own set of traditions, culture and language? One school of thought believes that such communities should adopt the language used by the majority. In his book, Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language, author Norman Berdichevsky discussed this idea in context to the Arab minority living in Israel. According to him, Israel would be able to forge a strong, integrated identity if the Arabs embraced and adopted Hebrew as their primary language like the Israeli Jews (who are a majority). Could this be replicated in India? One cannot be too certain.
In Marxism and Problems of Linguistics, Joseph V. Stalin discussed the advantages as well as the complications of nations using language as a binding agent. While he said that, “Language has been created precisely in order to serve society as a whole, as a means of intercourse between people…serving members of society equally, irrespective of their class status,” he also forewarned. According to him, when a language departed from its “position of being a language common to the whole people” and gave preference only to “some one social group to the detriment other social groups of the society” then, it would lose its virtue and cease to be “a means of intercourse between the people of the society”. It would become “the jargon of some social group”.
Language, therefore, cannot be imposed on people, particularly for political means. Imposition spawns resistance. There are several instances in history that serve as evidence. In the 1960s, many non-Hindi states refused to accept Hindi as India’s sole official language. Tamil Nadu was rife with the anti-Hindi imposition movements, where DMK leader, Annadurai called out the need for a separate Dravidian state where Tamil would be the official language which would unite the Tamil people.
Same was the case in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). “Language became the pivotal point upon which the identity of the people of Bangladesh crystallised,” wrote historian Geeti Sen in her paper, On Language and Identity. While West Pakistan embraced Urdu as its national language, it imposed its ‘one nation one language’ ideology upon Bengali East Pakistan as well. Sen wrote, “The confirmation of Urdu as the state language of Pakistan, as against the plea for Bengali, is recorded in the statement made by Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951—linking the issue of language to religion.”
Khan, considered to be one of the leading founding fathers of Pakistan, underscored the importance of Urdu being the unifying language of Pakistan. He said, “Pakistan is a Muslim State and it must have as its lingua franca the language of the Muslim nation… It is necessary for a nation to have one language, and that language can be Urdu and no other language.”
As a response, Bengalis came out and fought. “Fissures erupted like molten lava in new writings and Bengali poetry that fought against the imposition of this tyranny,” Sen explained. In the midst of this, the Language Movement (1952) emerged, a symbolical political protest that fought for the recognition of Bengali as East Pakistan’s official language.
To impose a single language upon people who speak different languages then, is culturally unreasonable. In context to India, it would establish a hierarchical system of communication.
If Hindi becomes the dominating language, those who are well-versed in the language, would be able to lead, direct, control and manipulate the mode of communication, and by extension, the predominant narrative. Sitaram Yechury, in his speech on Language as Unifying Force (2010), took history as an example. He said that while language can be used as a “binding agent”, there are events in history that testify that language has been used “as a vehicle to promote chauvinism and divisions.”
In the light of recent events, it seems that India is capable of the same blunder and that’s something we need to be aware of.