Linguistic jingoism stokes parochial fires

Illustration: Dinesh Mayanglambam
Illustration: Dinesh Mayanglambam

Call it snobbish bigotry or blatant majoritarianism. It has taken the Narendra Modi establishment less than a month to raise the hackles of a huge number of people by making noises about the desirability of having ‘Ek Rajya, Ek Bhasha’ in the country. The suggestion as of now is supposed to concern the social media, but it has already raised sniggers among a whole lot of people.

After all, it is not just the saffron brigade, but a majority of erstwhile socialists and heartland leaders who have been longtime proponents of just this kind of diktat, which they somehow confuse with the cause of nationalism. The Mulayams and the Sharad Yadavs have traditionally been bullish about the Rajbhasha, and their mindset corresponds with that of the saffron camp on the issue.

It is a theme on which Union Home Minister (and BJP president) Rajnath Singh had raised considerable commotion when he said almost exactly a year ago that the English language had caused maximum damage to the body politic, and the idea should be to enforce the suzerainty of Hindi in the land. And now, he has taken it upon himself to proactively project Hindi as the preferred pan-Indian language, provoking the wily M Karunanidhi to warn that “the language battlefields are not yet dry”! Not to be left behind, J Jayalalithaa has added that the Rajnath intervention to project Hindi had caused “deep disquiet” in her state.

The issue has a highly fractious and debatable hark back. During the heyday of the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu several decades ago, Dravidian strongman CN Annadurai, who effortlessly used to pack a lot of punch in his trademark polemic, came up with an unforgettable analogy. When told that Hindi was the spoken language of some 40 percent of Indians, Anna is said to have retorted: If we go by that logic, then the crow and not the peacock should be the national bird of India!

Not everybody is capable of such vivid evocation, but one can be sure that if the pro-Hindi zealots are allowed their writ, an equally strong reaction is bound to take place not just in the south but in several other parts of the country as well. In Naveen Patnaik’s Odisha, there is already an inkling of trouble brewing up on the issue, and the Northeast too is likely to be set needlessly aflame if the linguistic credo is rigorously enforced. Linguistic fanaticism is not exclusive to the diehards on either side of the deep divide and one can envision a grim fallout of the whole thing.

Unless those who rule the Delhi Durbar mind their language, they would be pushing the country into yet another retrograde hark back to the days when the south boiled and Jawaharlal Nehru had to forcefully intercede to prevent the linguistic balkanisation of the country.

There are two, or perhaps even more, rather disproportionately compelling lines to the argument for and against the writ of a pan-Indian language. On an all-India basis, for every nine readers of Indian languages, there is just one, solitary, English reader of newspapers. According to figures put out by a writeup carried in a business daily, it varies by state in a manner where there are 23 non-English to 1 English reader in Uttar Pradesh, 5 to 1 in Maharashtra, 6 to 1 in West Bengal and 8 to 1 in Tamil Nadu. The closest ratio in the whole country is in Delhi, where it is 1:1. Languages other than English are preferred in the top eight metros, and there is a preponderance of Indian language viewers as far as television is concerned.

But taken in its cultural and epistemological paradigm, the ‘one nation, one language’ suggestion is extremely vexed. Simplistic notions about the relative superiority of one language vis-à-vis the other, which exist so predominantly in the political class, are nothing but falsehoods and fabrications.

Mulayam Singh Yadav was not being particularly ingenuous when he said in February this year that there was a pervasive imperialism perpetuated by the Anglicised elite as far as recruitment and success parameters in top professions like the burgeoning IT sector are concerned. Mulayam was all fire and brimstone when he thundered that nations that used their mother tongue were certainly more powerful than the others who did not do so. One doubts whether he would have proffered the same argument had he been speaking in the deep south or some other non-Hindi speaking stretch in the country.

There is a huge dichotomy to be seen in what the majority of intermediate caste leaders preach and what they practise in their real avatars. Several of them send their progeny to the most elitist of schools and also abroad for higher education even as they preach a dogmatic ‘swadeshi’ line for political and rhetorical purposes. What they say for mass consumption is certainly not the preferred option when it comes to their own.

In Tamil Nadu, starting from the late 1930s down to the mid-1960s, the Dravidian movement authored a unique and distinct brand equity for itself by opposing the imposition of a pan-Indian language from New Delhi, while strategically alternating the narrative by simultaneously opposing Sanskrit as well, which they quite correctly perceived to be the language of the Brahminical elite. Their tactics paid huge dividends.

In other states like Maharashtra, a strong Dalit movement also ranged itself against Sanskrit, which they likened to a tool of caste oppression. The misgivings on this score are susceptible to being revived when lawmakers too prefer Sanskrit while taking their oaths and suchlike. It is quite like the albatross that the Muslims have to bear for the erroneous popular impression that they are identified with the Urdu language; the Rajinder Sachar Committee pointed out in empirical detail how the association of Urdu with the community has been a real drag on its development.

The nation’s leadership had to strike a very delicate balance in the 1960s, what with Nehru having to contend with the likes of Gobind Ballabh Pant, who was a strong votary of pushing Hindi as Rajbhasha. When Nehru assured the southern flank that no language will be imposed on the regions, Pant is said to have remarked that ‘Panditji’ had undone in two minutes what he had struggled to achieve all through his life!

There were elements in the Congress, given its umbrella party profile, which were deeply antagonistic to, and suspicious of, the English language. The redoubtable TT Krishnamachari had told the Constituent Assembly that moves to push ‘Hindi imperialism’ would be strongly resisted, and so it was with those who rode to power on the back of the language stir.

American academic Robert Hardgrave Jr has written that the anti-Hindi stir in the 1960s was not so much a question of language as it was one of relative power between the north and the south. In the contemporary context, as pointed out by some observers, the issue boils down to the ‘power’ the English language elite is supposed to have vis-à-vis those who do not have very high levels of proficiency in the language.

Be that as it may, Rajnath Singh has consciously or otherwise signalled the reopening of such wounds of the past, which had taken a long time to heal in history. The decision to give incentives to those within the bureaucracy who promote the use of Hindi as the Rajbhasha may work, but it should not be pushed too hard if a backlash of the kind that rocked the south more than five decades ago is not to be repeated.


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