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The Politics Of Linguistic Nationalism: Why The Attempts At ‘Imposing’ Hindi?

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By Heli Shukla:

Last week saw the nation reach a boiling point on something atypical. The home ministry issued a circular stating that “all ministries, departments, PSUs and banks, who have their official account on social media, should use Hindi, or both Hindi and English, but give priority to Hindi.” The nation got caught up in a melee of storming debates over linguistic identity and hidden “Hindutva” agendas. Southern states erupted in all their Dravidian fury over a circular that was merely reinstated from the previous government. The youth took to social media to vent their opinions over the ‘imposition’ of Hindi. Prime-time news shows dedicated their time into exploring other possibilities. Language became a ground for divisiveness.

hindi nationalism

India is a land of diversity and multiplicity. This translates into a multitude of shared cultures that make India the country it is. Yet, the country has seen raging debates over language that have catapulted into movements making the demarcation of languages run deeper. While celebration of diversity is necessary, imposition of one language on a country that is comprised of so many is imprudent and frankly, unnecessary.

A homogenization of India’s culture is impossible. Similarly, a forced generalization of one particular language as a national language is not something conceivable either. Pakistan tried imposing Urdu on the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). That resulted in a linguistic movement that later separated the two. This goes on to prove that we the people of the subcontinent are indeed a little touchy when it comes to language. We’re perfectly comfortable upholding the language of our colonizers but shockingly offended in our disregard of languages that most of us can easily speak in.

Hindi is both the language that seemingly unifies the country and one that divides the country into two. This rakes up the age old Aryan-Dravidian debate. Hindi, popularly accepted as a purely ‘Aryan’ language, is held in contempt by the Dravidians. I say this because an instance of such outrage, which occurred both in the pre and post independence periods, was similar in nature. Only, it was far more extreme. The DMK, formerly known as the Dravida Kazhagam, vehemently opposed the idea of having Hindi as the national language. That’s when the Official Languages Act (1963) came about. Needless to say, the act didn’t end up solving the problem of possibly having Hindi as the official language.

The move to instate Hindi as the sole official language faced massive outrage. Rather than logically looking as to why Hindi could be an official language (if not the only one), cries erupted over why it absolutely shouldn’t be given greater importance. While this has remained an unresolved issue, a petition to include the 22 languages listed in the 8th Schedule of our constitution has been made in light of the recent controversy. The petition urges the government to amend the official languages act so as to give the other languages an official status.

While this move would be far more inclusive, considering these languages are part of the legislature on a regional level, continuing to have Hindi is not a bad decision either. This is because a little less than half the populace speaks variations of Hindi in their everyday interactions. Also, Hindi is a language that is understood in most parts of the country. A compulsory knowledge of it is not coerced but basic knowledge, like that of English has been a part of school curriculum. States are not barred from including their regional language nor are they forced to give greater importance to Hindi.

Conclusively, one can only say that Hindi is not anyone’s enemy. Neither is it the enforcer of a religion nor is it the linguistic symbol of any political ideology or the proponent of a race. Hindi is a vehicle for communication, a collective shade that protects the throng of languages in our country and gives them equal room. Metaphors aside, the government could really do with some smart thinking to permanently resolve the issue of an official language. Simultaneously, the center can also strategize on increasing the awareness of other languages spoken in the country, leading to greater unification and lesser agitations.

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  1. Ragu D

    DMK was not formerly called Dravidar Kazhagam.DK is infact the parent body of DMK.Anna moved out of DK and formed the DMK. And to answer you question on why English and not Hindi, English tries to give the much needed level playing field.Every Indian is at equal advantage/disadvantage with English whereas that’s not the case with Hindi. It would be appropriate for the Govt to have a system where every Indian learns a south Indian and a north Indian language.And please stop this ‘most of India’ knows Hindi , so lets have some basic Hindi in schools.Thanks

    1. boss

      shut-up you Tamil militant!!!!
      You ppl will have same faith in India as well.

  2. Mousumi Mukherjee

    Boss, who wrote below “shut-up you Tamil militant!!!!” is very inappropriate. Also, author Heli Shukla’s statement does not read very respectful, “Southern states erupted in all their Dravidian fury over a circular that was merely reinstated from the previous government. The youth took to social media to vent their opinions over the ‘imposition’ of Hindi. Prime-time news shows dedicated their time into exploring other possibilities. Language became a ground for divisiveness.”

    But, Language issue is not divisive but an issue of recognition of diversity. Its an issue of people’s sense of identity and belonging about who they are. Often this cultural sense of belonging can be even stronger than the sense of belonging to an externally imposed imaginary notion of nation state. Nation-states are political constructs and “imagined communities” as Benedict Anderson but language is part of people’s daily cultural practice and emodied sense of identity. Recognition of language and cultural rights shows respect for diversity and difference. They are even recognized by international bodies like the UN.

    India as a nation long-ago settled this language issue by adopting a 3 language policy to acknowledge the dominant local language of every state and Hindi as well as English as pan-Indian languages for communication as per the Official Languages Act, 1963. Over and above this, states were given rights to choose their languages. Raking up language issues, which already created lot of controversy in the past is like taking the country backwards than moving forward. Language issue even led to the formation of a new nation, Bangladesh within South Asia because of people’s love and respect for their mother tongue and cultural heritage, which provoked them to resist against the imposition of Urdu in former East Pakistan. We should learn from history and should not repeat past mistakes of cultural homogenization through language.

    Finally, we should not forget that as per constitutional recognition, English is also one of the official Indian languages and it is the mother tongue of the indigenous Anglo Indian community in India, who were called Eurasians during colonial times. Article 366(2) of the Indian Constitution defines Anglo-Indian as: “a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident”.
    The current Leaders of the Nation should focus on important social and economic issues facing the country rather than fanning old controversies. Lets not forget that diversity is the rule and not an exception. Recognition of diversity and respect for diversity is what will keep us at peace as a nation and as citizens of this world.

    1. Mousumi Mukherjee

      sorry for a typo in my first comment. Please read: “Nation-states are political constructs and “imagined communities” as Benedict Anderson would say, but language is part of people’s daily cultural practice and emodied sense of identity.”

      And, I do agree with Shruti about the hypocrisy of those who cry for linguistic nationalism but send their own kids and grand-kids to private elite English medium schools where their kids get the benefit of more immersion in English for 5 days a week, which they don’t get at home unlike the mother tongue, which the kid learns at home and also as a subject in school. While in the name of linguistic nationalism/regionalism, wiping out English at the primary & middle school level from government schools post-independence has now created a massive problem for generations of Indian students and in many ways contributed to unemployment and backwardness of especially those from weaker poor socioeconomic backgrounds. I know so many bright students who either failed in the English paper for their high school leaving exam or struggled in college because of this.

      However, according some research findings, exposure to multiple languages and early training in multiple languages is better for students. Hence, in many countries people are experimenting with early bi-lingual/multi-lingual programs in schools. Students need good communicative language education both in their mother tongue as well as in English. Marginalizing one language and privileging another language creates political controversy. It is also not good for the learning outcome and future employability for students. Read this: “Multilingualists turn out to be considerably faster and more accurate at this than monolingualists. But the difference is most pronounced in children and senior citizens rather than in young adults. The reason for this is not clear. What is clear, established by other research, is that bilingual brains (let’s hold it to just two languages here) are more efficient than others. They’re not necessarily “smarter” but they don’t have to work as hard to get a job done, or to switch between various mental tasks (multi-tasking).”

      Hope the leaders would focus more on empowering their future citizens through good multilingual and multicultural education. That’s the way forward in this interconnected world. Just as the Americans are learning Indian languages, Arabic and Mandarin. The Arabs and Chinese are also learning English. So, why should India now want to make the Anglo-Indians feel alien in their own country of birth and why divorce English as foreign, since it has become part of the hybrid postcolonial Indian identity? Along with all other Indian languages, shouldn’t India be proud of this heritage of English (though colonial) especially with such a rich body of Indian English literature?

    2. Vivek

      I agree with all that you say. But the choice for language should rest with the student or her parents. We can’t force ‘one’ particular language. It happens in a lot of states where they’re touchy about their own language. That’s something people have accepted in those states. But the additional condition of learning another language, and that too, as a dictum from the state is something which should be resisted.

  3. shruti

    Even Ambedkar was of the opinion that English is the channel of communication. Its the language of the global market, hence of importance not only to bridge the north-south gap but also to incorporate us into a rapidly integerating market. Even the sleeping giant i.e has belatedly woken upto this reality. As for Hindi and regional linguistic movements, as Kancha Illiah says ‘ all these so called nationalistic politicians send their kids to English medium schools. So on insisting on hindi/regional language, they are being hypocrits.’ Even Modi had to learn English, though he might insist on depending on Hindi as it serves a nationalist purpose.

  4. Vivek Ananth

    This is a highly uninformed piece. I admire the effort it might take to write something that should be constructive on this issue. But, this doesn’t do justice to the subject at all. There is a recent Karnataka High Court judgment which debunks the whole premise of your piece, which is, that the state should have the right to decide what a child should or shouldn’t learn.
    The choice of language should be left to the student or the parents. The should be allowed to make that informed choice. FYI, there have been a bunch of students in tamil nadu recently who went and appealed to the state govt to teach them Hindi in their curriculum. That’s how choice should be exercised. Not by saying that a ‘majority of people speak Hindi in some for or the other’. That basically argues against the whole first few paragraphs that you’ve written here.

    1. Mousumi Mukherjee

      True, I agree Vivek. Your comment reminds me of a close Tamil friends, who comes from a strictly vegetarian Hindu Brahmin family. Much against the common stereotype, this person is a huge fan of Urdu poetry, can recite Urdu poetry by heart and also writes beautifully in Urdu, though an architect by profession.

    2. Vivek Ananth

      Well, I am a tamilian and the one language that I am comfortable with is Hindi. There are innumerable examples for the phenomenon you are trying to explain. I wish people would really try to understand ‘why do people care so much about their language/mother tongue’.
      The percentage metric, to impose a language, will always ignore nuances. We could go watch TV news, if we wanted to live in a world without nuances.

  5. Nitin Chandra

    The writer is unfortunately unaware of many things. Reading this article itself gives me the feeling that writer has unknowingly nurtured the propaganda. I am from Bihar and I can tell you more about Hindi propaganda being from the state of “National Poet”.

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