Language connects and unites, but it could also be a major cause of conflict and disintegration.
On Hindi Divas, when Union home minister and BJP president Amit Shah gave an impassioned speech about the “need of our country to have one language, so that foreign languages don’t find a place”, one wonders why he use ‘languages’ in plural! Other than English, no other foreign language seems to be much in use that poses any “threat” to the “preservation of (India’s) culture”. Being a Bengali, I can only hope that he was not pointing fingers at Bangla as this is one of our languages that is the national language of another country (Bangladesh), two others being Tamil (Sri Lanka) and Nepali (Nepal).
In a worldview that exalts vegetarianism, the meat-eating, fish-loving Bengalis are perhaps perceived to be at the fringes of “Hindutva”. Mr Shah has already declared his intention to hold an Assam-type NRC exercise in West Bengal and chief minister Mamata Banerjee, in her ingenious way, has already challenged it. One can only hope that in their zeal to teach Ms Banerjee and the irreverent Bengalis a lesson, the Modi-Shah duo do not decide to declare Bangla, the language of Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, as a foreign language! Six years ago, one would have laughed at oneself for even harbouring such a thought, but today is different. In the “New India”, “Modi hai to mumkin hai!’ Nothing is impossible under the Modi raj!
Language connects and unites, but it could also be a major cause of conflict and disintegration. Languages are most intimately related to ones’ identity. The politics of language and ethnic/cultural identity has been predominant in the Indian subcontinent for long. It split Pakistan into two, and heralded the birth of a new nation — Bangladesh. It was a prime example of how having a common religion is not sufficient to hold a country together; and how differences over language, ethnicity and other cultural complexities, if not handled deftly, could divide a nation, ultimately splitting it. The attempt by the Pakistani government to impose Urdu as its sole national language created huge unrest in the Bengali-speaking former East Pakistan. The “Bhasha Andolan” that started on February 21 triggered the assertion of Bengali national identity as a political movement that was the forerunner of the subsequent nationalist movement and the Bangladesh war of independence against Pakistan.
In a multi-lingual, multi-cultural country like India, language plays a key role in the reassertion and reconstruction of identities, underscoring political dynamics. The North-South divide over Hindi goes back to pre-Independence times. The late 1930s and 1940s saw violent protests in the region over a move to make Hindi compulsory in 125 schools of the Madras presidency. The anti-Hindi agitation in the 1960s led by DMK brought it to power in 1967. Since then, opposition to the compulsory teaching of Hindi has been a core policy of almost all Dravidian parties. The attempt to impose Hindi on the non-Hindi-speaking population of the South is seen as an attack on Dravidian identity and an attempt to enforce North Indian hegemony over the South. At present, India has two official languages — Hindi and English — and 22 other languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Each state has the right to adopt its regional language as the official language of the state, and conduct its business in that language.
The sensitivity of various linguistic groups and it being a potential source of conflict was very much in the mind of the makers of the Constitution of India. Though Hindi was the favoured language to be adopted as an official language (not due to its superiority over other languages, but the fact that it was spoken by a large number of people), the debates of the Constituent Assembly show that the aggressiveness of some over-zealous proponents of Hindi was not taken kindly, and many members pointed it out. Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Jan Sangh, which was the BJP’s predecessor, favoured Hindi but urged that the language and its penetration should happen gradually and naturally, not through official coercion. He also warned that unwarranted aggressiveness on the part of the proponents of Hindi was likely to cause more harm to their cause. He said: “If the protagonists of Hindi will pardon me for saying so, had they not been perhaps so aggressive in their demands and enforcement of Hindi, they
would have got whatever they wanted, perhaps more than what they expected, by the spontaneous and willing cooperation of the entire population of India.”
He also took a dig at those who spoke with the hope that some day in India there would be one, and only one, language. “Some of my friends spoke eloquently that a day might come when India shall have one language, and one language only. Frankly speaking, I do not share that view… Today it stands to the glory of India that we have so many languages from the north to the south, from the west to the cast. each one of which in its own way, has made contributions which have made what Indian life and civilisation are today”.
“Hindi Hindu Hindustan” has been a central agenda for the BJP and for its ideologues in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But perhaps they would do better to read carefully the whole speech of one of their tallest ideologues, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, on the language debate. There is no doubt that Hindi has penetrated deep into different corners of India, but the credit for that goes not to the overzealous propagators of Hindi, or to the government, but thanks to Bollywood. The people of the South or the Northeast may not speak or understand the lyrical Hindi of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, but a smattering of a few sentences is not so uncommon even in the villages of these regions. But any attempt on the part of the ruling party or the Central government to impose it forcefully on an unwilling population will not only backfire but is undesirable too. It would not only create a linguistic elite out of Hindi-speaking people from North India at the cost of all others from the rest of India, but it would be a source of real conflict as it attacks the very principle of diversity that is the strength and spirit of India.