Money is a language most people easily understand these days. A currency note is a great source of information about language in India. Anybody nursing ideas about ‘one’ India, and that ‘one’ being just Hindi, should look at the number of languages denominations are listed in — there are at least 15 languages, all at par, and all as ‘official’ as official can be.
When Delhi Police Commissioner B S Bassi decided this month to direct his force to carry out all official work in Hindi — “our mother language as well as national language” — he forgot there is very little “mother” language about Hindi for a speaker of Bengali or Telugu, the second and third most widely spoken languages in India. Bassi’s boss, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, has advised government employees to sign their names in Hindi.
Why would the Home Ministry, which is supposed to deal with things like policing, firearms and security, take such interest in the Rajbhasha?
The fact is the language question almost tore India apart after 1947, and it soon became an important inter-state — and therefore, a Home Ministry — matter. A reluctant Jawaharlal Nehru was forced to set up a commission, and India got its linguistic states. The peace dividend that followed gave more confidence to Indians to discuss the complex language question with some equanimity, and made the administration of the country easier.
In the 1990s, Mulayam Singh Yadav, then Chief Minister and inheritor of the Hindi crusaders’ mantle in Uttar Pradesh, re-sensitised everyone to the language question. He complained about a letter that had come from E K Nayanar, his counterpart in Kerala, in Malayalam, which he had not been able to read. When asked, Nayanar explained that he had got a letter from UP in Hindi, so respecting the sentiment, he had replied in his mother-tongue!
The episode served as a crash course to many who had believed that Hindi was the “national” lanugage. Imposing that, at least in the Hindi belt, was par for the course — but how dare a Hindi speaker be forced to have to read in another Indian language?
For all the antipathy towards the English and their language, the jettisoning of English was not conceived of as the end of Empire approached — even though language was a sore issue in the Constituent Assembly debates, with the Hindi speakers insisting it may be made the ‘National Language’. Quite simply, it never was — and is not so now.
India does not have a ‘national’ language; it has 22 ‘official’ languages — Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu — listed in alphabetical order, and constituting the Eighth Schedule.
The first challenge was to have a workable official language for the Centre, so it was decreed that Hindi in the Devanagri script would be that, along with international numerals. And for 15 years at least, English would also be used. However, there were concerns about “creeping” Hindi-isation, and unsubtle attempts to impose Hindi by the numerically predominant North Indian political elite. The call of “One Nation, One Language, One Religion”, encapsulated in “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”, resulted, in the 1960s, in deep anxieties and anti-Hindi riots, leading to self-immolations in the South, especially in Tamil Nadu. After Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri too tried to get de facto recognition for Hindi as the “national” language, but protests continued — and the fires had to be doused by making it clear that there would be several official languages, and English would continue for until as long it was needed.
The Official Language Rules of 1976 underwent three amendments, and laid down how the Centre was to communicate with different states. So, there is a detailed prescription about how to write to states in “Region A” (Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and the Union Territories of Delhi and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands), “Region B” (Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab, and the UTs of Chandigarh, Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and “Region C” (states and UTs other than all those mentioned above). However, Tamil Nadu is exempted from even this Act.
Later winds of change, and a sense of comparative advantage vis-à-vis China in the world of outsourcing, made English a must-have to secure jobs in several states that were at the forefront of the anti-English agitation of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The dying down of the anti-English sentiment was accompanied by the easing up of the anti-Hindi sentiment too, some argued. It is often said that the Hindi film industry has established the ‘dominance’ of Hindi in India, despite resentments and tangled issues about the love for the mother tongue. But maybe that only mirrors the fact that after much deliberation and to-and-fro on the language question, there was a sense that these are now settled questions, and national energies could be utilised elsewhere.
In case more affirmation is required, look no further than the Gujarat High Court — which made it clear in January 2010 that India did not have a national language. A PIL was filed by Suresh Kachhadia, wanting the court to ask the Centre to compulsorily tell all manufacturers to print product details in Hindi, as it was the national language. The court dismissed the petition, reiterating that Hindi was an official language along with 21 others, and not the national language.
Hindiwalas keen to increase numbers must try to persuade with better lines, lyrics, film and song. Simply saying Hindi is ‘compulsory’ may just put people off, apart from being bad in law.