Language embodies the culture of the place and even then it fails, at least in India.
The rush to correct the entirely insensitive and senseless move to indulge in identity politics through a recommendation on making Hindi a must as a part of a three-language requirement at the “foundational stage”, albeit in the “draft” National Education Policy, is a notable victory for the idea of diversity as a non-negotiable characteristic of the Republic in India. The mischief was in the thought.
Language embodies the culture of the place and even then it fails, at least in India. There are so many languages that each state contains within the larger culture of the place that it dangerous to meddle in matters best left as they are.
The Kasturirangan Draft, now corrected by Prakash Javadekar, though to what extent is still unclear, was a red rag that the BJP deliberately waved at the states, and at one remove, the regional parties that are so fiercely protective of their turf. The policy prescription on language was immediately seen as a move to subvert diversity by inducing homogeneity through the ways in which future generations think about themselves, their culture and their identity is a manipulation that is coercive in its intent.
The resistance by sub-nationalism — the DMK’s M.K. Stalin called it “the Centre’s greed”, while Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena said “Hindi is not our mother tongue, do not enforce it on us and incite us” — to the idea of an overbearing nationalism was an effective fightback. The human resources development minister issued a correction, but that was after the BJP, seduced by hubris, described half-a-dozen political parties from Tamil Nadu, the Janata Dal (Secular), the MNS and of course West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, as “Breaking India forces peddling false narratives”. No matter that the words were out of the mouth of a brand-new MP, Tejashwi Surya from Bengaluru South.
The BJP should have known that some issues, language being one of them, is an IED just waiting to explode; the mother tongue, as a marker of identity, has been a politically explosive issue for at least 55 years. Mouthing platitudes like “Ek Bharat, Sreshtha Bharat” in its own defence as respectful of the multilingual diversity of India is a response that reveals the limitations of the BJP’s imagination about the complexity that is India.
The fracas, even if it is dismissed as minor, needs to be located within the larger context of the BJP’s intentions and what it seeks to achieve by its revisions. The issue ought to be flagged as just the first move in a much bigger confrontation of differing interpretations of nation, nationhood and nationalism. It was and is a signal of how federalism will be at the top of the BJP’s playlist for reconstructing the institutions to reflect its politics and its ideology.
Education has been and it continues to be a major area of political intervention, and despite the correction to the draft of the NEP, the fact of the matter remains, that the responsibility for educating India is a shared one, between the Centre and the states. It is not a simple matter of the language of instruction; it is about teaching young Indians to recognise and respect other languages and so value and defend diversity.
The PIL by the RSS on textbook revisions in Rajasthan reflects the likely trajectory of the impending confrontation. The revision of schoolbooks has been a hot political issue for decades and there is nothing unexpected in that the BJP-Sangh Parivar is continuing its efforts at putting in place an interpretation of facts and events that are deemed as corrections. The reasons vary on why these corrections are controversial; because what is unverifiable for some is deemed as scientific truth by others. There are questions about who is a national hero, and who is the national hero who was left out by the Congress or the “Left, liberal intellectuals,” as part of a political agenda.
The BJP-Sangh Parivar, it seems, has a strategy in place; of driving a homogenisation, unitary agenda from the top even as it takes up smaller confrontations at the state level. The languages taught in school is an example of how the strategy will continue to drive public attention in the direction of the BJP’s choosing. And the outcome is likely to be polarising. The hashtag “HindiIsNottheNationalLanguage” on Twitter is how the polarisation is currently trending.
The BJP has ignited a controversy. In it, Hindi is positioned as the language of national unity versus other languages reflecting disunity; Hindi takes on the role of the great equaliser which makes other languages unequal.
The division into binaries has a political purpose. The fact that the political consensus on linguistic states and language teaching in the states has worked without too much controversy for so long has a value. The consensus was achieved at great political cost. Some states gave priority to teaching English as well, and some did not. Some states did not teach other local languages, which remains an unresolved problem of imposing a language and a culture and identity on smaller language and identity groups. Given the backlog of injustices perpetrated for the sake of governance against smaller linguistic groups and identities, why did the BJP need to rake up an old problem on how many languages should be taught to students in India?
As of now, Hindi is not even the link language; it is the alternative to the link language, which continues to be English. Every government application form, including forms issued by banks, are in two languages; one of them is English. It is an imperfect solution, but it works.
There are many problems with India’s education system which need to be fixed on a priority basis, like the learning gap so that students of Class 8 can actually read and comprehend what is in the syllabus, or acquiring capabilities that allow them to succeed in the changing demands of a globalised workplace. India also needs to face the consequences of reckless privatisation of education and the deliberate impoverisation of publicly funded education, which have created inequalities of access and injustices as well.
By choosing to stir up and divide the nation over language and by extension identity, the BJP is testing the political waters. Its corrections or clarification on the language policy for schools may have been swift, but is it really likely to stop playing polarising games?