“Ñan ninne snehikkunnu”, says the wife to her migrant husband who has remitted her some money. To know what this means you will have to look at the PhonePe advertisement that came out in 2018. It is still available on YouTube. What the advertisement does indicate is that north Indian, Hindi speakers, are just as adept at learning a language other than Hindi given the right incentive to do so. The wife in this advertisement probably learnt Malyalam on her own in order to communicate with her husband privately, even in the presence of her mother in-law.
Then there is the unseemly spectacle of the annual language war which starts on every Hindi Diwas. Soon it transforms into a discussion on the essential characteristics of nation and nationhood. Fortunately, nowadays, like a viral fever, the agitation dies down on its own after a few days.
It all starts with the department of Hindi in the Central government, which has been given the responsibility of spreading Hindi across the country. It recruits only those who have done an MA in Hindi. It is officially called “Rajbhasha Vibhag” and is under the control of the home ministry. You would recall that English too is a rajbhasha of India but there is no department to promote it. No effort is made to recruit MAs in English to help out in drafting laws, rules, regulations and directives from the government in a comprehensible language.
In the absence of an English rajbhasha vibhag, the language of the laws of India remains incomprehensible, even to those who draft it. The intention behind the law may be good but, frequently, it requires the wisdom of the honourable courts of justice to make sense of whatever was written in the law. The latest such example concerns the historic law, written in English, which the Parliament discussed in August, to partially modify Article 370. It was full of horrific spelling and grammatical mistakes. It took almost a month for the government to issue a corrected version of the law which Parliament had passed.
Central government offices, in non-Hindi areas, also have a “Hindi” officer, once again an MA in Hindi, whose sole task is to promote the Hindi language within that office. In many such offices, where the Hindi officer is a bit conscientious, there is also a Hindi board, alongside the one which announces the name, address and phone number of the officer to contact in case of corruption complaints. The corruption board is some sort of a quasi statutory thing because of directions from the Central Vigilance Commissioner. The Hindi board is more of a voluntary effort. The offices of the Panjab University, for example, have no such Hindi board.
The Rashtrabhasha department in the Central government initiates the process of promoting Hindi a few days before Hindi Diwas. No one notices its efforts and there is no visible consequence of its efforts or at least none that has been researched or documented. On Hindi Diwas that follows, someone makes what they consider an uplifting remark in the context of Hindi. This year it was the turn of Union Home Minister Amit Shah to make that remark. Earlier P Chidambaram, P V Narasimha Rao, R Venkataraman and other home ministers have made similar remarks. The only reason why they do so is that the department falls under their charge. Mostly, the remark is ignored by everyone, especially when the minister is a south Indian, connected with a Dravidian language.
Then there are times when the remark is followed by furore all over the country. In the mid-1960s, when Gulzarilal Nanda was the home minister, it even resulted in riots in many parts of the country when he announced, in 1965, the departure of the English language from government and the arrival of Hindi as the official language of governance in India. The opening scenes of the first film in which Amitabh Bachchan stars, Saat Hindustani, feature one such riot. The anti-Hindi riots in south Indian cities used to be paralleled by anti-English riots in the markets of Bihar, UP and Madhya Pradesh. The eagerness to burn property was common to both sets of rioters. There was no reported desire to learn any language.
Fortunately, nowadays the acrimony that Hindi Diwas generates is limited to some slogan shouting and once in a while, as it happened at Patiala, a few Hindi acolytes being asked to apologise for having heaped insults on non-Hindi languages. In the Patiala episode, it was said that Punjabi was insulted.
A few weeks later, everyone forgets about Hindi. Those who wish to use it, use it; those who wish to ignore it, ignore it. No one really cares one way or the other. A language, after all, is a device for communication between people. This is a point that we need to remember, always. As in the case of the Phonepe advertisement, and in the context of the annual war that erupts in India because someone in the government promises to impose Hindi on everyone else, the point is simply this: There has to be a strong reason to learn a language. Otherwise, no one other than the learned types are willing to waste time learning a new language. In the past, a common Indian was said to know at least three languages. Most Indians, even today, do. Mahatma Gandhi knew five. Narasimha Rao, knew as many as 10 languages.
As for the language of Bharat Sarkar, whether it uses Hindi or English, there is an urgent need for it to appoint a “Simple Language Commission”. No rule, law, directive should be issued by the government unless it is written in a simple, commonsensical language with no convolutions and legalese, one that even a 10th-pass can comprehend, which by the way is 90 per cent of the all the workers in the organised and unorganised sector in India.
The writer is professor of history, Panjab University, Chandigarh
— This article first appeared in the September 30, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Much ado about language’