Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

Speakeasy: Speaking in Tongues

Lessons from history on the dangers of language politics

hindi, hindi imposition, hindi government, indian express What the rest of India objects to is not Hindi, but its imposition by the machinery of the state. (Photo: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

The three Rs of the colonial era are back in our midst — Reading, ’Riting and ’Rithmetic. Piyush Goyal has expressed his impatience with numbers, despite the gravity of the financial situation. Sitting beside him, Hardeep Puri could afford to maintain an ascetically austere outlook because Albert Einstein, who stood accused of not doing his math in the field equations, is not around to contest the matter. Case closed, and for the rest of us, it was just good fun. But what followed was serious business. Amit Shah played up Hindi Diwas to bring, yet again, the political cauldron of Hindi imposition to the boil. Yet again, it is working. The South is angry, and Twitter satire from that region has spiked as decisively as the Sensex is falling. And a few vocal Muslims hold that Hindi must undergo shuddhikaran (purification) before it is fit to be a majoritarian national language. It must be stripped of “videshi” loanwords from the Middle East and Central Asia, like dil and khayal. To clarify, “videshi” is the term traditionally used in Hindi etymology for loanwords. They include borrowings from English like “current”. There is no need to agitate over this.

But there’s nothing like language to set people off in our region. Politicians who stir the pot should read the statutory warnings. When Islamabad neglected to do that, it lost East Pakistan. Bangladesh is probably the only country to have been created by a movement driven by linguistic identity, and given voice by a poet of the language, Shamsur Rahman. Here at home, the founding fathers prudently delimited states on a linguistic basis. Language is a faster glue than any other marker of identity, and recognises historical ties. Maithili was not upset to find itself in the same box as Magahi, while Kannada instinctively knew that it had nothing in common with Braj Bhasha, except distant history.

But North and South were quite happy to get along so long as politics left the question of a national language alone. From the era of the freedom movement, generations in the South were raised on a solid diet of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in translation. It wasn’t a two-way street, because Bengali was regarded as a power language at the time, but no one seemed to mind. The freedom struggle was an even faster glue than language.

The trouble began with Independence. A cartoon by Sankar dated 1948 is doing the rounds on social media. It depicts a child representing the non-Hindi speaking areas, tied up and being force-fed bottles of “Hindi tonic” through a funnel. His tormentors are labelled “UP”, “Bihar” and “Govind Das”, the Hindi author and activist for national language status, and MP from Jabalpur. Incidentally, Jabalpur was also home to the writer Beohar Rajendra Simha, on whose birthday Hindi Diwas is now celebrated. He was close to Das, who took the debate over Hindi’s status to Parliament.

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What the rest of India objects to is not Hindi, but its imposition by the machinery of the state. The days when Tamil Nadu practised a zero tolerance policy, when a tourist asking for directions to Marina Beach in Hindi would be ignored as surely as the French ignored tourists asking for directions in English, are long gone. The French are no longer casually rude, and many private schools in Tamil Nadu offer Hindi courses. It’s a useful language to know. How else would the Tamils understand Bollywood, and appreciate the readiness with which it is “inspired” by their cinema?

But a national language is of greatest practical use for national parties. They no longer have to make up a new slogan for every state in its own language, nor do they have to print their manifesto in 22 languages, with a fresh error in every language. Besides, language is the carrier of culture. If culture is homogenised across India, a master set of messages, connected to universally understood cultural references, could be transmitted nationally (that’s precisely why the Ramayana has been politically useful). Even Amazon would be envious of such economies of scale.

Empires understood this very well, and the three Rs imparted in 19th century English schools were selected to create plug-and-play clerks who were perfectly fungible across imperial colonies. Transfer a clerk from Gujarat to Guyana, and he would work just as well. That policy from long ago has made English the default world language today, but imperial initiatives generally don’t flourish in democracies. Here, self-assertion comes first. Even when it is the assertion that Einstein wrote the field equations without the benefit of math. At least no one claimed they were written in Hindi.


Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.

First published on: 22-09-2019 at 06:01:55 am
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