The Tongues We Speak In

This month began with a set of diktats by the Prime Minister and the government that were in keeping with a long tradition of linguistic chauvinism of the Hindu Right in India.  These involved replacing English with Hindi in official communications, removing proficiency in the former as a requirement in the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examinations; there was even a suggestion that Hindi as a preferred language of use of official accounts on social media substitute English, and a recommendation that this could mean a financial reward! 

In the light of this recent attempt to impose Hindi on a culturally and linguistically diverse population of India, its worth revisiting briefly some issues regarding language controversies in India. The earliest attempt to promote “Hindi language” as a way of “preserving” Hindu “cultural unity” started in the early 20th century, with the Punjab Hindu Sabha conference in Lahore in 1909 passing a resolution to this effect. This was subsequently taken on, and developed into a sectarian slogan that combined religious and linguistic difference (Hindi, Hindu) and morphed that on to a claim for nation building (Hindustan). The “essence” of the “Hindu nation”, as Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar would have it, was to unify those related by blood (Hindus) via a language (Hindi) in one national territory. Needless to say, in its various iterations in the first half of the 20th century, such linguistic identitarianism was pitted against a perceived homogenous other that spoke a different tongue – Muslims and Urdu.

In the same period, in a very different part of the country - in Kerala – the language question was similarly being debated, albeit here it was about Malayalam. However, these discussions were entirely different in their tone, and content from their chauvinistic counterparts in the north. For the purposes of the present comparison, it is worth noting that two elements – of modernising the language (bhashaparishkaram) and its growth and sustenance (bhashaposhanam) were at the heart of much of the writing on this theme in the late 19th, and early 20th centuries. Many of the principle figures involved in this debate belonged to different castes and communities – and people like Murkoth Kumaran (a Thiya, in present day caste vocabulary, an OBC) were significant in their profoundly serious contribution to this debate, and the subsequent growth of Malayalam language and literature. One of the most significant conceptualisations of this period was that Malayalam was a samudaya swathu, community wealth, where the “samudayam”/ community was that of all speakers of the language, irrespective of caste or community differences. For those unaware of this, it is significant that some of the people who gave modern Malayalam its present day character were Christians – Syrian and more recent converts (Kandathil Varghese Mappilla, founder editor of Manorama newspaper, CD David, a prolific late 19th writer and journalist; Joseph Muliyil, novelist) Thiyas (Murkoth Kumaran) and some Nayars (O Chandu Menon, Vengeyil Kunhiraman Nayanar). While Brahmins and the “royal” Samanthar castes were present within the early literary world, by no means were they able to either make the language or literature their sole preserve, or give it a communitarian slant.

What this rather brief counter-history of Malayalam language tells us is that the sectarianism and chauvinism that the Hindi debate attempts to naturalise is far from the reality of linguistic modernisation in India. Indeed, its not even true of the richness and possibility of Hindustani itself. The Hindu Right that claims a right as the sole spokespersons of Hindi language greatly damage both its richness, and variety (with any number of dialects and Urdu that have been a part of its history) and obscure the history of a powerful literary tradition that produced such extraordinary figures as Maithili Sharan Gupt, Premchand, or “Nirala”.

Many people who have responded to this latest set of directives by the government have very rightly pointed out that a large part of the Indian population does not speak Hindi. I agree with them, and do not wish to reiterate here what others have argued very well.  What I wish to remind us of is simply this – language is both an extraordinary resource that can build complex communities and create beautiful literature(s), as it is a site of intricate and difficult politics. And it is as a response to the latter that Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad proposed the idea of an “English goddess” for the Dalits. In what was a brilliant polemical critique of caste Hinduism and its stranglehold on power in India, Prasad proposed a counter-icon. He says, "She holds a pen in her right hand which shows she is literate. She is dressed well and sports a huge hat - it's a symbol of defiance that she is rejecting the old traditional dress code. In her left hand, she holds a book which is the constitution of India which gave Dalits equal rights. She stands on top of a computer which means we will use English to rise up the ladder and become free for ever."

Let us not destroy the enormous possibilities for freedom and social justice in India by giving way to the sectarianism and chauvinism that lies at the heart of the demand for the linguistic imperialism of Hindi.

About Author

G. Arunima (arunima@jnu.ac.in) is a historian by training, and teaches at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has researched and written on different areas of social and cultural history, including family and kinship; aesthetics and visuality; and more recently religion and faith practices.
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