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India is a nation without a national language. Let’s embrace this

Rita Kothari writes: India has a unique history of being a nation without a national language, a position not of lack or absence, but of a different model. The rest of the world stands to learn from this model; we don’t need to imitate the one-language-one-nation model.

Written by Rita Kothari |
Updated: April 14, 2022 5:30:30 pm
The spectre of Hindi emerges in India every few years and quite often, the reactions are to the state rather than to Hindi itself — the state and a particular version of Hindi. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The Hindi imbroglio is back. We have been here before, not once but many times. In 2014, the newly-elected government’s diktat to its officers to use Hindi in official correspondence and on social media is now forgotten. The frequent move to be swadeshi and have an indigenous national language has been based upon a videshi (foreign) idea of nationalism in which nations cannot be imagined without a national language.

The spectre of Hindi emerges in India every few years and quite often, the reactions are to the state rather than to Hindi itself — the state and a particular version of Hindi. There is very little resistance to bolchaal ki (colloquial) Hindi, especially when made out of necessity and not inherent imperialism. Left to their own resources, the people of India manage to communicate across linguistic divides. It is when they are besieged that they ferociously proclaim the superiority of their languages.

Meanwhile, where has Hindi been all these years? Hindi had, after an abortive attempt to be the rashtra bhasha (national language), limped along as a raj bhasha (official language). Government institutions continue to pay ceremonial tribute to Hindi. Staff and employees are made to fill up forms confirming or denying their proficiency in the language. It’s a different matter that even filling up this form requires more than proficiency in sarkari (official/bureaucratic) Hindi. Dormant departments of Hindi translation continue to invent words that Hindi had hitherto not known. The difference this time is that Home Minister Amit Shah specifically mentions the Northeastern states — a region that was earlier beyond the BJP’s ambit. The honourable minister’s statement is made in a “reasonable” voice, almost as if it were natural that Hindi is the most used language in Parliament. Or that the unity of the country and communication in the country are two identical things. Both English and Hindi work as vehicular languages, sometimes one and sometimes the other. Life in India does not come to a standstill for lack of an official language, or even a national language. We know that on some days it is not about language, but about the power it represents, while on some days, language is business-as-usual. Language, in this case, is the symbol also of competing federal and centrist powers.

Upon thinking about the home minister’s recent announcement to make Hindi compulsory in all Northeastern states and the pushback from certain quarters, which was communicated widely on social media, I was reminded of the year 1949. We must remember that language is both an aid and an aim. As such, the constituent assembly debates on language did turn out to be the longest and were extremely charged. They betray deep sentiments attached to language, but also put on display the instability of what we term as a particular language, in this case, Hindi. Verses from writers we would consider as being in Braj, Urdu and Punjabi are quoted to buttress the cause of Hindi, while questions of whether legislation is kanoon or vidhaan are asked to show how difficult a proposition Hindi is. Presiding as the chair of the constituent assembly debate on language, then-president Rajendra Prasad said on September 14, 1949: “Whatever has to be said should be said in moderate language so that it might appeal to reason and there should be no appeal to feeling or passion in a matter like this.”

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What is the most appropriate language to talk about language, one may ask? Was Dr Prasad anticipating a surge of passion when he said this? It is interesting how norms about expressing views on language convey the potential of language itself as a weapon. Perhaps, for the moment, we may even forget the pedantic word “appropriate” and ask a simple question: Can we debate the home minister’s declaration in one language? No, we can’t. Can we do it without becoming emotional? The answer is no, again. Does that mean we don’t manage to communicate that this is an imposition, with different ramifications for different people? What is interesting is how language seems so incidental and insignificant on some days, and acquires the intensity of a life-and-death situation on others. The first public immolation in independent India was on the issue of language. The home minister, like many of his predecessors, ignores the fact that language is not simply about communication. From his point of view, he has advanced what seems to him a more flexible approach, which is that Hindi needs to take words from “local” languages so that it is not set up against “mother tongues.” This is also a move to diffuse the fear of an incomprehensible and turgid sarkari Hindi which did a historic disservice to the language.

However, mother tongues that remain confined to homes become dialects, whilst those that go to baithaks (meetings) and parliaments have a powerful future. Hindi is being chosen by Shah as a language of power, and taking some words from Garo or Khasi is not going to change the fact that it is a language of imposition. Slogans declaring that Hindi’s competition is with English, not with other Indian languages, are empty precisely because we know that 70 per cent of the documents in Parliament (by Shah’s own admission) are in Hindi.

Finally, it is important (because such are the times we live in) to clarify that Hindi is one of my favourite languages. Most Sindhis have grown up speaking Hindi fluently in India, for they found their own language difficult or awkward. The point is not about Hindi as a language, but Hindi and its state-sanctioned register as symbols of who gets to define the nation and its terms today. India has a unique history of being a nation without a national language, a position not of lack or absence, but of a different model. The rest of the world stands to learn from this model; we don’t need to imitate the one-language-one-nation model.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 14, 2022 under the title ‘Speaking for ourselves’. The writer is professor of English at Ashoka University

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