Unlike in the past when the Hindi Divas would go by rather uneventfully, the day got special attention this year. Tweeting in Hindi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said: “Today, if one language can do the work of uniting the country, then it is the most spoken language, Hindi. There is so much influence of English on us that we cannot talk in Hindi without its help.” The minister also said that people should realise that if languages are lost to foreign influence, “we will be severed from our culture”.
Do we then assume that after 72 years of independence, the country is not united enough? What is it that divides India that the country needs a unifying factor that can only be a language? And does that language have to be Hindi?
For a country that often ascribes all its ills to colonialism, it is strange that India needs to subscribe to a very European notion — one country, one language. The idea that a language represents a nation is one of colonialism’s gifts to us. The complex process of modern nation building in colonial countries involved questions of cultural unity. How could a country claim historical and cultural continuity, stretching back to centuries, other than through language, especially its written form? Language and literature held the key to this project of cultural continuity from a unique and great past. Almost all European nations had such projects, which they bequeathed to the nations they colonised. Despite having several languages and dialectal differences, European nations adopted their national languages through an elitist and exclusionary project. Today, this idea of linguistic unity is being contested from several quarters, including by immigrants from India. There are, of course, exceptions like Switzerland which has been a relatively stable country for long without ever having a single national language.
It is ironic that our animosity towards English makes us blind to the fact that English gave us the idea of a singular nation: One nation, one language. At no time in the history of the Subcontinent was there a need to showcase national unity through one language or one culture until after colonialism.
The imposition of Mandarin, Russian or Urdu have rarely fulfilled all the aims of those who initiated such projects. Does Urdu unify Pakistan? All totalitarian regimes — communist, militarist, right-wing or even social-welfarist — seem to share an anxiety about plurality. For, that could lead to questions being asked from the powers that be. Plurality is chaos, while a unitary entity is controllable. Given this, should Hindi sustain the burden of the country’s history, its people, and their contesting cultures? And can it do so?
To quote Shah again: “To preserve our ancient philosophy, our culture and the memory of our freedom struggle, it’s important that we strengthen our local languages and that there is at least one language, Hindi, that the nation knows.” What is our ancient philosophy and culture is matter for another debate. But is Hindi the carrier of such a history?
What exactly is “Hindi”? Modern standard Hindi evolved from the interaction of early speakers of Khari Boli with speakers of different languages from the northern part of the Subcontinent and elsewhere. Although the current push is for a standardised and Sanskritised Hindi, spoken Hindi has largely been influenced by Persian — and then English, among other languages. The history of Hindi is much more recent than many languages of India, say Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and so on.
Why does such a recent and diverse history become so important today? What is so threatening about English? Is this only a sense of culture, a belonging, or does it also denote certain socio-economic and political asymmetries? Hindi, in relation to English, does denote several asymmetries. But then, so does Hindi in relation to more than 780 other Indian languages, especially a Sanskritised Hindi that cannot, and probably will not, get rid of its associations with caste. That is why most marginalised castes and indigenous communities of India prefer English, a language devoid of caste memory and a language that provides mobility.
While diversity is in itself important, we need to also talk about the knowledge systems that are steeped in every spoken language — one that has its own history, literature (oral or written), relationship with the local economy, with people’s lives, the way they understand the world around them and the relationships with other languages around them. As American linguist, Nancy Dorian writes: “A good many people, especially those who speak unthreatened languages, are likely to have trouble imagining that they themselves could ever be brought to the point of giving up on their own ancestral language and encouraging their children to use some other language instead”.
A multitude of languages means resistance, empowerment, many life-worlds, many knowledge systems and mobility. That is why all totalitarian regimes seek to erase such multitudes. Forget resistance, how can people speak in another tongue as fluently as a native speaker whose language also happens to be the national language? The first step towards autocracy is erasure of tongues, erasure of speech.
If English, as the cultural studies scholar Madhava Prasad argues, is a bane for a modern democracy — since a majority of Indians do not have access to it — can Hindi be a boon for democracy? Given the present government’s policies — on education, language, pretty much everything — it is difficult to find democratic intent in its promotion of Hindi.
Tony Joseph, drawing from recent work in genetics, archaeology, and linguistics, points to how the Harappan Civilisation precedes the Sanskritic/Vedic culture. This means Sanskrit was never the language of Harappan Civilisation. There are pointers towards the undeciphered language of the Harappan Civilisation as being proto-Dravidian. Do we then declare the Dravidian language group — or one Dravidian language — as the national language? I vote for my language, Kodava.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 20, 2019 under the title ‘The Hindi scare’. The writer is currently a Fulbright Fellow at Queens College, City University of New York. She teaches comparative literature at the University of Hyderabad.