Hindi-English Imbroglio and Videshi Nationalism

Students from India's North East protest against the imposition of Hindi
Students from India’s North East protest against the imposition of Hindi

Can Hindi truly claim to be the official language and lingua franca connecting the whole nation? It’s a complex debate and there are no simple solutions


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e live with multiple Hindis – one for instance, in railway and flight announcements, the other in cinema, a mixture of Hindi and Urdu, or Hindustani,  the kind Gandhi wanted India to adopt as its national language. The former kind – sarkari Hindi – survives only in its ceremonial avatar.

This  was acknowledged in a rare moment of honesty when   the Rajbhasha unit of Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order in December 2011 to provide relief to beleaguered translators who came up with words like ‘Misil’ (for file) and sanganak (for computer). It suggested using English words or words from Indian languages instead of  coining new ones but to be written in the Devangari script. It is interesting that this remained unnoticed, for it was business as usual when it happened. How is language both incidental and central at the same time? I wondered.

Government Order dated May 27, 2014 on use of Hindi

Ganesh Devy helped, in his characteristically charming aphoristic manner – “Because people think in language, they do not think of language.” And yet on some days we are ready to wage wars, and fight battles of life and death over language. Once settled, we go back to business as usual. However it is in times of “peace” that language needs to be observed, shaping as it does men, women and lives, manipulating messages, shifting terms of argument, excluding and including people. It is on those days that language articulates identity politics subtly, and invisibly and as an example of language-as self-fashioning.

For instance when Nehru gave his famous speech “Tryst with destiny…” speech at Lal Qilla in 1947, it occurred to few, least of all to Nehru himself, that there was something ironic about announcing the political freedom from the British in a language we learnt from them. More seriously, how many people would have understood English, especially the eloquence of Jawaharlal Nehru? If,  by all counts, English is still a language of a minuscule (however powerful that group might be) of Indians, how many would have been using English way back in 1947?

However, this question in time of “peace” remained unnoticed in history. What  did make hackles rise was a discussion on national  language in the Constituent Assembly  debates, one of the most bitter debates memorialized recently in Shyam Benegal’s Samvidhaan.  Given the fact that the first Prime Minister of independent India spoke most comfortably only in English, was it surprising that English found its firm footing in the Nehruvian era, making not only midnight’s children but also midnight’s grandchildren proliferate. It’s a different matter that we witnessed the expansion of English in a global economy much later, after the 1990s.

Meanwhile Hindi, despite the insistence of a large number of representatives from the North, met with severe antipathy in the South. The life-and-death intensity was provoked by the State’s desire to impose Hindi. Once this was put on a backburner, and over the years Hindi cinema and television serials such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata came to be associated with stories (summarized in daily newspapers for Tamil-speakers)  some of the old memories of imposition faded.

A few years ago when I traveled to different parts of the country to understand the mixture of Hindi and English, popularly called Hinglish, it seemed the resistance to Hindi had receded in the urban parts of Tamil Nadu, while states like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh showed little, if any resistance at all. Thus when the State deso not make languages imperative and symbolic, language wars do not take place.

Similarly, few noticed  that when Narendra Modi, the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, ,  after winning the Legislative Assembly elections of 2012, gave his victory speech to Gujarat in Hindi, it was a window to an unannounced but enlarged role he was going to play in the months to come.  This was a time of “peace.” When he got closer to seeing a distinct possibility of becoming as a serious nation-maker, there was a clear waning of aspersions at others, couched in Urdu words such as “Miyaan” and “Shehzaada”. Hindi text of a more sedate nature took over. Again an unnoticed moment, drowned in the ubiquitous givenness of language.

However a recent development seems to have produced a nation-wide, albeit unreflective outcry about the imposition of Hindi. The new government’s diktat to its officers to use Hindi in official correspondence and social media has come as much-needed evidence of an oppressive Hindu nationalist and retrogressively swadeshi State.

In the spate of articles voicing opinions, there is little acknowledgement of the fact that this is not such a new development, after all. It is drawing attention only because the State has expressed a view on it. Hindi had, after an abortive attempt to be Rashtra-bhasha (national language), not ceased to be the Raaj-bhasha (language of state). Government institutions continue to pay ceremonial tribute to Hindi. Staff and employees are made to fill up forms confirming or denying their proficiency in Hindi. It’s a different matter that even filling up this lesser-known form requires more than proficiency in sarkari Hindi. Dormant departments of Hindi translation continue to invent words that Hindi had hitherto not known. So the new development is not so new, but the outrage it has evoked is interesting for it comes with a symbolic, rather than real, reminder that nations must have a national language.

And I believe that this is the more enduring question we need to deal with. Is it possible to conceive of nations without a national language, or avoid thinking of language as a build up to a nation? If Germany is the nation of German speaking people, and France the nation of French speaking people, why is India not the nation of …… speaking people? Which language needs to fill that gap and with what, and should it at all? India has been challenged every now then by this conundrum and presents to us the most complex moment of nation-making in that respect.

Does Hindi come closest to being the candidate to fill that gap? It is undeniable that comprehension of some kind of Hindi can be taken for granted in a minimum of eight states. Do eight states India make? They cannot. And while it is customary for the promoters of Hindi to blame the “South” (almost as an abstract category), there are parts of the East where Hindi is neither available nor acceptable. The atrocious Hindi spoken in parts of the West I come from, encapsulated in sentences such as, “Bhaiya, meri camera se phota paado” can best be left alone.

Then there is the question as to which Hindi should, if at all it should, be the national language? Scholars working on this issue have documented the construction of Hindi and simultaneous  appropriation of distinct languages such as Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Braj, Maithili etc. This cannibalistic feature of Hindi and its rise to a hegemonic power over languages that go much further back than its own history, created an absurd situation.

As the famous Gujarati writer Sitanshu Yashashchandra put it vividly, this produced the “curious image of a thirty year old mother combing the hair of her sixty year old daughters.” Be that as it may, no government in India  can impose a national language out of thin air, its ingredients do not exist, and creating one as nations in Europe have done (with Norwegian for instance), is not only impossible, but goes against the grain of “Indian” nationalism.  It may achieve some of its goal in quiet ways, but not by policies and diktats. Unwittingly, the new government appears closer to the European idea of nationalism than the linguistic economy of India that functions well without creating a common language.

Is its moment of being swadeshi, in fact a moment of being videshi, I wonder.

Rita Kothari teaches Humanities at IIT Gandhinagar, and is the author of Translating India;The Burden of Refuge: Sindhi Hindus of Gujarat and Memories and Movements: Borders and Communities in Banni, Kutch, Gujarat



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