By: Shashi Tharoor
Once again I found myself caught up in an unnecessary Twitter controversy – this time over my assertion, in response to an innocent question, that Hindi is not our national language. The trolls descended on me with the ferocity that marks their zeal. I was accused of being anti-national, of being a slave to a foreign language – as if the British had excreted their language on us as pigeons might spatter us with their droppings. Unfortunately for them, I was right: the Constitution of India provides for no ‘national language’. But being wrong rarely bothers a troll.
The ugly exchanges did, however, reveal two more essential truths about our country. The first is that, whatever the Hindi chauvinists might say, we don’t have one ‘national language’ in India, but several. The second is that the Hindi zealots, including their recent Southern converts like Venkaiah Naidu, whose assertion “Hindi hamari rashtrabhasha hain” had provoked the recent debate, have an unfortunate tendency to provoke a battle they will lose – at a time when they were quietly winning the war.
Hindi is the mother tongue of some 50% of our population; the percentage has been growing, thanks to the spectacular failure of population control in much of North India. It is not, however, the mother tongue of the rest of us.
First, because no Tamil or Bengali will accept that Hindi is the language of his soul or has anything to do with his mother – it is as alien to him as English is. And second, because injecting anti-English xenophobia into the argument is utterly irrelevant to the issue at stake for those who object to the idea of a national language.
That issue is quite simple: all Indians need to deal with the government. We need government services, government information and government support; we need to understand easily what our government is saying to us or demanding of us. When the government does so in our mother tongue, it is easier for us. But when it does so in someone else’s mother tongue with which we are less familiar than our neighbour, our incomprehension is intensified by resentment. Why should Shukla be spoken to by the Government of India in the language that comes easiest to him, but not Subramaniam?
The de facto solution to this question has been a practical one – use Hindi where it is understood, but use English everywhere and especially in the Central Government, since it places all Indians from all parts of our country at an equal disadvantage or advantage. English does not express Subramaniam’s soul any more than it does Shukla’s, but it serves a functional purpose for both, and what’s more, it helps Subramaniam to understand the same thing as Shukla.
Ideally, of course, every Central Government document, tax form or tweet should be in every one of India’s languages. Since that is not possible in practice – because we would have to do everything in 23 versions – we have chosen to have two official languages, English and Hindi. State governments complement these by producing official material in the language of their states. That leaves everyone more or less happy.
Since the BJP came to power, however, they have not been content to let sleeping dogmas lie. They have been pushing Hindi with more enthusiasm than judgement, requiring governmental file notations to be written in that language, even where that undermines efficiency.
Obliging both to digest a complex argument by a UPite subordinate writing in his mother tongue is unfair to both. Both may write atrocious English, for that matter, but it’s the language in which they are equal, and it serves to get the work done.
Language is a vehicle, not a destination. In government, it is a means, not an end. The Hindi-wallahs fail to appreciate that, since promoting Hindi, for them, is an end in itself.
The result is episodes like the time that
The irony is, as I observed earlier, that the Hindi chauvinists should realise they were winning the war. The prevalence of Hindi is far greater across India today than it was half a century ago. The parliament has become a bastion of Hindi; you hear the language now twice as often as you hear English, and three times as often as you did in the previous parliament, when stalwarts like Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram refused to speak anything but English on the floor of the House. Our present Prime Minister speaks only in Hindi, and his ministerial colleagues, with only a handful of exceptions, try to emulate him.
But the inevitable triumph of Hindi is not because of Mr Modi’s oratory, or Mulayam Singh Yadav’s imprecations, or the assiduous efforts of the Parliamentary Committee on the Promotion of Hindi. It is, quite simply, because of Bollywood, which has brought a demotic conversational Hindi into every Indian home. South Indians and north-easterners alike are developing an ease and familiarity with Hindi because it is a language in which they are entertained. In time, this alone will make Hindi truly the national language.
But it would become so only because Indians freely and voluntarily adopt it, not because some Hindi chauvinist in Delhi thrusts his language down the throats of the unwilling.
The fact is, Hindi’s vocabulary, gender rules and locutions do not come instinctively to everyone.
If you’ve grown up with Hindi at home, it’s a matter of instinct for you that it should be “desh ki haalat acchi hain” rather than “desh ka haalat bura hain,” but for the rest of us, there’s no logical reason to see anything feminine about the national condition. (“Achhe din”, of course, speaks of a quality so elusive and unattainable that most Indian men would accept the term to be feminine! But it’s not….)
Still, if we watch enough Bollywood movies, we’ll pick it up one day. Just don’t tell us that we must, because it’s our national language. It’s not.
Language should be an instrument of opportunity, not of oppression. The day we stop fighting over it, ‘achhe din’ might really be here.
(We all love to express ourselves, but how often do we do it in our mother tongue? Here’s your chance! This Independence Day, khul ke bol with BOL – Love your Bhasha. Sing, write, perform, spew poetry – whatever you like – in your mother tongue. Send us your BOL firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp it to 9910181818.)
Check the BOL microsite here.