First, a flashback: The millennials might not have heard about the British comedy television series Mind Your Language but in it Albert Moses immortalised the character of Ranjeet Singh, an Indian Sikh trying to learn a smattering of English to get by in the United Kingdom. While his catchphrase “a thousand apologies” became popular, few knew that Moses is of Sri Lankan origin who is fluent in Sinhalese but played the character of a Punjabi speaking Indian Sikh who wants to master Queen’s English. In a way, Moses reminds me of myself: A Malayali by birth who spent all his life in the Hindi heartland but is more at home conversing in English than Hindi or Malayalam.
In case you are wondering where this is headed, two recent developments have brought to the fore how language was and remains a contentious issue. On 14 September, speaking on the occasion of Hindi Divas at a function presided over by President Pranab Mukherjee, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh urged government officials to sign in Hindi. (Incidentally, Mr Mukherjee had once famously remarked that his chances of becoming the PM were slim because he was not fluent in Hindi.) On 8 September, the Supreme Court of Pakistan told the government there to implement Urdu as the country’s official language.
Both events have generated a heated debate in their respective countries. Many have dubbed the imposition of Hindi or Urdu, as the case may be, as an affront to their linguistic identities and akin to setting the clock back at a time when English, shorn of its colonial origin, is the lingua franca of the world today. However, the similarity in the stridence of opinion on either side of the India-Pakistan borders against Hindi and Urdu, ends there. According to the 2001 Census, over 40 percent of Indians mentioned Hindi as their mother tongue. In contrast, less than 10 percent of the people of Pakistan are well-versed in Urdu; whereas over 40 percent speak Punjabi. To that extent, Hindi might have a stronger claim for being the official language in India than Urdu in Pakistan!
This is not the first time the Modi government has attracted criticism for promoting Hindi. Last year, soon after it came to power, the ministry of home affairs’ proposal to encourage the use of Hindi on the social media and for official work had been roundly condemned by Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa. She wrote in a letter to Modi that it was against the letter and spirit of the Official Languages Act, 1963, and that the “highly sensitive issue” of language had caused “disquiet” among the people of Tamil Nadu “who are very proud of and passionate about their linguistic heritage”. Jayalalithaa would know because it was the issue of Tamil versus Hindi which catapulted DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi to power in 1967 just as Pakistan learnt it at its own expense in 1971 when language was one of the triggers for its eventual break-up.
At a time when who you are (caste), who you pray to (or not), what you eat (meat in general or beef in particular), what you wear ( jeans) and what you do (remember the Kiss of Love protests in Kerala or moral policing in Mumbai?) are threatening the very idea of India as we have known it, the Modi government would do well not to expend political capital on its idea of a homogenous India consisting of one religion, one culture or one language. Perhaps it is instructive to recall what the late Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao said in an Independence Day address: “In our country we have problems that bring the people together and there are also problems which divide the people. [Is it not possible that] we declare a moratorium on raising such problems which divide us[?]” And, since Modi himself has spoken about a 10-year moratorium on caste and communal violence from the ramparts of the Red Fort last year, it behoves of him to, to quote Rao again, “put aside new contentious problems”.
While pushing for an official language status for Hindi at the United Nations should be welcome, Parliament should make a start by giving all its members the privilege of speaking in any Scheduled Language, be it Bodo, Maithili, Kashmiri or Santhali, at any time without having to give the mandatory 30-minute notice. Also, simultaneous translation from English and Hindi to all the Scheduled Languages and vice versa should be made available in Parliament. There should not be a repeat of the 2007 incident when an AIADMK member V Maitreyan could not speak in Tamil because translation service was not available. The European Commission claims to have one of the largest translation services in the world with a permanent staff of 1,750 linguists and 600 support staff. If the 28-member European Union with 24 official and working languages can do it, why not the largest democracy that is India? At the very least, it will generate much-needed employment for India’s youth.