How Hindi Got Caught in Karnataka’s Linguistic Crossfire

Posted by The Quint in Quint: Bol
August 5, 2017

By: KS Dakshina Murthy

Hindi is not the issue. Yet it is Hindi which is the issue. This seemingly contradictory view holds within it the crux of the frothing anti-Hindi sentiment that has taken cosmopolitan Bengaluru by surprise.

Bengaluru is among the friendliest cities. (Photo: iStock)

It’s not for nothing that Bengaluru is equated with cosmopolitanism – it is among the friendliest cities on the planet where any language is understood, accommodated and appreciated. The local language, Kannada, is forever giving way to make space for Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Hindi, Bengali and so many more.

You will find that plumbers, newspaper delivery boys, milkmen, auto drivers talk English, Kannada, Hindi, just about any language. This always surprises outsiders who have made Bengaluru their home. Hindi movies have routinely run for weeks in local theatres (for many years now) and several local FM stations cater exclusively to Hindi film music. Versions of North Indian cuisine (even if not traditional in taste) can be found in any part of the city.

It’s Not the Language, It’s the Attitude

So, it is not Hindi as a language or even in popular culture that is the problem. The red rag is the perceived attitude of the Hindi-speaking population. Yes, Kannadigas have a reputation for being accommodating and all that, but that does not mean there is no need to learn their language even after years of staying in Bengaluru. There are innumerable anecdotal evidences of people living in the city for decades and still unable to speak the language, leave alone read or write in it.

Many among Hindi speakers feel that the locals need to learn what they believe is the “national language”. A senior editor of an English daily recounted an instance in a vegetable market – a Hindi-speaking woman was haggling with a vendor. Unable to figure out what the vendor was saying, she burst out with righteous indignation, demanding that she learn Hindi. At this, the editor who could no longer control himself, turned to the woman and said, “Ma’am, you are in her state. You should learn Kannada, not ask her to learn Hindi”.

This, in some ways, captures what can be kindly termed the insensitive attitude of outsiders who choose to make Bengaluru home but do not attempt to learn the local language.

Chauvinism Begets a Counter-Culture

If cosmopolitanism is one side of the coin, the flip side is the rigid culture of identity of outsiders who choose not to integrate. This is a particularly sore point among locals who feel threatened and fear, rationally or not, that if the trend continues, Kannada will lose its pole position in Karnataka.

Feeding on this fear are several pro-Kannada organisations, which don’t hesitate to use violence to resist what they see as “invasion” of their territory. Though the chauvinist groups do not have a huge overt following, they are treated with kid gloves, as they seem to articulate a sentiment subsisting within the larger Kannada-speaking middle class.

Many people feel that Kannada is not getting its due in its home state. (Photo: istock)

Moreover, in these times, when most people travel extensively across the country they see the domination of other languages in their respective states – Hindi in Uttar Pradesh, Bengali in Bengal, Tamil in Tamil Nadu etc. This experience has, in recent decades, added to the widespread feeling in Karnataka that Kannada is not getting its due in its home state.

The opposition to the inclusion of Hindi signboards on Bengaluru’s Namma Metro network is therefore an example of resistance to a kind of linguistic imperialism rather than any hostility to the language itself. This differentiation is important, as the hostility to the Modi government-engineered imposition of Hindi has rarely crossed the line to threaten people speaking Hindi.

That even Karnataka’s Chief Minister Siddaramaiah thought it necessary to intervene – with his government asking Metro officials to explain the inclusion of Hindi in their signage – is clearly a reflection of deep-felt angst over what the future holds for Kannada’s survival as a language. This anxiety may be overstated, but the fact is that the sentiment is real with serious consequences if ignored.

Another reason for the rise in anti-Hindi sentiment is that the BJP government at the Centre is overactive in pushing Hindi into non-Hindi speaking states. Not only is the Centre doing a huge disservice to Hindi language and culture by doing this, it could also create previously non-existent social schisms and deepen existing faultlines.

(KS Dakshina Murthy is an independent journalist based in Bangalore. Would you like to contribute to our Independence Day campaign to celebrate the 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 at [email protected] or WhatsApp it to 9910181818.)

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