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Tongue tied

Modi government must address and undo the impression that it is driving a Hindi domination project

By: Express News Service |
June 21, 2014 12:11:26 am

In its first few weeks, the BJP government appears to have needled federal equations with its emphasis on Hindi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointedly spoke in Hindi to the SAARC leaders invited for his swearing-in, and on his first foreign visit. While that may be a matter of personal preference, the government has also told officials to prioritise Hindi on social media. The Union home ministry, noting that the department of official languages had not been adequately promoting Hindi, called for special committees to encourage Hindi in all 640 Indian districts. Predictably, it has set off Tamil Nadu’s J. Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi, both of whom have bristled at this seeming imposition of Hindi. Despite Rajnath Singh’s clarification that all Indian languages should be promoted, the impression is that his government is pushing Hindi as first among equals, disturbing decades of official consensus on living with linguistic diversity and choosing English as a link across India, though official documents are also available in Hindi.

From a party whose forebears used Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan as a rallying cry, this attempt to elevate Hindi above other regional languages is bound to reawaken tensions that have long receded. The language wars of the 1960s that erupted with the decision to make Hindi the official language of India and phase out English, ended only when the policy was tacitly rolled back. English continues to be the language of parliamentary texts, court proceedings and administrative business, along with Hindi for official documents in Hindi-speaking states. For decades, there has been an equilibrium between English, Hindi and other regional languages, and an acceptance of the fact that many languages, religions and cultures have equal claim on India. By now, language has ceased to be an inflaming question of identity — even Hindi chauvinists have come around to seeing that English provides educational and employment opportunities, and Tamil speakers have softened in their opposition to Hindi. In such a context, it is the BJP’s prescriptive tone on the use of Hindi that has now scratched open the old grievances.

The home ministry must proactively assuage those who are concerned about the Hindi-domination project. It must remember that the majority of India is not comfortable in Hindi, much less its Sanskritised official version. Instead of mandating one tongue, it should encourage a pragmatic view of language and facilitate the thriving of India’s many languages and dialects. The mother tongue, the intimate language of home, is the ideal medium of early instruction, and English remains the most nationally accepted and globally popular language. Hindi is often learnt to transact with others, to work, read, watch films, converse, but only as a free choice, not a diktat from Delhi.

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