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Resistance of Maithili to Hindi’s Hegemony and Undemocratic Nationalism

Pranav Prakash ( is a Presidential Fellow of the Graduate College at the University of Iowa, United States. He is the recipient of the Newberry–École Nationale des Chartes Fellowship in Paris and a Junior Research Fellowship of the American Institute of Indian Studies in Chicago.

Language Politics and Public Sphere in North India: Making of the Maithili Movement by Mithilesh Kumar Jha, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp 368, ₹ 1,195.

Mithilesh Kumar Jha’s Language Politics and Public Sphere in North India: Making of the Maithili Movement has been published by the Oxford University Press five years after he defended his doctoral dissertation, “Language Politics and the Construction of ‘Dialects’: A Case Study of Maithili,” under the supervision of Pradip Kumar Datta, at the University of Delhi. After the publication of two seminal studies in the 1970s (Brass 1974; Jha 1976), the cultural subjectivity and political consciousness of Mithila, particularly the pluralistic and diverse backgrounds of its speakers and leaders, has received little attention (for notable exceptions, see Singh 1980; Burghart 1993; Jha 1996; Kumar 2013; Davis 2014; Rorabacher 2017). Furthermore, the inclusion of Maithili in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in 2003 and the Interim Constitution of Nepal in 2007 exposed the outdated and inadequate nature of most previous reflections and analyses of the Maithili movement. Against this backdrop, Jha’s book is a timely and valuable contribution to the study of literary and political cultures in South Asia.

The introduction of the book offers an instructive overview of some of the most resilient ideas, concepts, and theories deployed in the field of literary and political studies in India. Among the three dozen scholars who appear in the main body and endnotes of the introduction, a handful of them resurface in the other chapters of the book and contribute directly to Jha’s analysis of the Maithili movement. By casting a wide range of critical ideas, expository themes, and theoretical concerns, Jha grapples with the challenge of exploring the history of modern print, nationalist ideologies, colonial modernity, and vernacular politics in India.

Enumerative Processes

In the first chapter, Jha elucidates how colonial practices of enumeration—like the use of census, mappings, surveys and classifications—influenced both popular and academic conceptions of regional, communal, and linguistic identities. Building on previous scholarship, particularly the writings of Bernard S Cohn, Thomas R Trautmann, Ronald Inden, and Sudipta Kaviraj, he contends that when traditional societies witness and experience different kinds of enumerative processes in colonial and postcolonial settings, the self-perception of their people is radically and substantially transformed. This is mainly because the availability of statistical, empirical, and historical data allows individuals to grasp and reimagine the scope of their cultural history and linguistic identity in novel ways. In the context of the Mithila region and the Maithili language, Jha illustrates how Maithil communities responded to the positivist philological writings of orientalist scholars, colonial administrators, and Christian missionaries as well as to the issue of introducing English education in their schools.

Towards the end of the first chapter, Jha takes exception to the view that the “newly emergent linguistic movements” in India are the outcome of “parochial and backward-looking mentalities” or “uneven economic growth” (p 60). There is absolutely no denying that the rhetoric of “backwardness” has unjustly undermined and marginalised the intellectual, humane and creative contributions of the Bihari people in contemporary times (cf Rorabacher 2017). Jha’s forthright denouncement of such retrograde attitudes in academia is, therefore, a timely and necessary critical intervention. This, however, does not absolve Jha from explaining why he downplays the role of conservative views, regressive attitudes, and uneven economic development in the making of a political movement in India. This is inconsistent with his description of the conduct of “orthodox” Maithils and opponents of the Maithili movement during and after the colonial rule in India (for instance, see pp 86, 96, 153–54).

Furthermore, Jha argues that both these linguistic movements “are/were the outcome of the same processes of enumeration, which gave rise to modern Indian nationalism and particularly Hindi’s and Urdu’s linguistic nationalism” (p 60). However, it remains unclear why he prioritises the mediated role of official enumerations over some of the immediate effects of “caste, class, gender, region and religion” in the people’s perception of their linguistic identities (p 60). In Mithila specifically, the overt influence of caste, religion, and gender, among other sociological parameters, is conspicuous not only in the collective consciousness of the Maithils, but also on the decision-making processes and actions of the Bihari elite (cf Pandey 2014; Davis 2014).

Had census data and positivist descriptions of Indian languages regulated the political agenda of the regional and national elite, then documents like Maithili Sahitya Parishad’s The Case of Maithili before the Patna University, or Jayakant Mishra’s The Case of Maithili before the Sahitya Academy would have readily persuaded various university commissions and literary organisations to recognise Maithili as an independent language. It would have prevented the Janata Dal-led state government from removing Maithili from the Bihar Public Service Commission (BPSC) examinations in February 1992, or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government from refusing to acknowledge the historical existence of the Tirhutā or the Maithilākar script in March 2018. This tendency to disregard, devalue and/or manipulate the evidence of enumerated data and empirical historical details has persistently characterised the behaviour of the political elite in India.

How effective, then, are “enumerative processes” in illuminating and altering the subjectivity of both the political establishment and the common masses in India? Even when these processes cause all other sociological and economic factors to “reconsolidate [themselves] in newer forms” (p 68), what is ultimately responsible for the mobilisation of politicians and masses at large? Is it the rationale of the empirical data, or a desire to preserve one’s religious, linguistic, and cultural identity? When Brahmins and Kayasthas choose to support the cause of Maithili, are they really under the sway of the census data or are they simply reaffirming their religious, casteist, and male-centred cultural identity? Put differently, do these enumerative processes inadvertently diminish and/or dissipate the influence of other factors like caste, religion, gender, region, class, or vocation?

Jha is certainly cognisant of the fallouts of bestowing exclusive interpretational power to empirical data in a revisionist approach to political theory. However, instead of proffering a direct response to these theoretical issues, he tends to apprehend some of these concerns in his adept narration of how Maithili activists and Hindi hegemons forged novel conceptions of their cultural history, linguistic identity, and nationalist ideology during and after the colonial rule in India.

His narrative is by far the most comprehensive and insightful account of the unfolding of the Maithili movement in the last two centuries. He has consulted a wide array of primary documents and historical sources: literary histories, journals, magazines, periodicals, newspapers, political pamphlets, government reports, official memorandums, project reports, political speeches, private papers, personal letters, autobiographies, biographies, monographs, commemorative volumes, and works of creative literature. He has investigated the involvement of more than 70 organisations and institutions in the making of this movement. He has composed brief biographies of 47 Maithili writers and activists in the appendix to his book. He has interviewed several intellectuals, scholars, activists, and politicians who were associated with the movement. Thus, he meticulously extracts a wealth of historical details and political insights, which is the basis of his rich narrative of how this movement evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how it resisted the hegemony of the Hindi establishment and the undemocratic nationalist ideologies of the state. His narrative delineates the political history of the movement in a chronological manner. The second chapter focuses on a period stretching from the 1850s to the 1920s, the third chapter from the 1920s to the 1950s, and the fourth chapter from the 1950s to the present.

The Maithili Movement

The second chapter discusses the publication of modern histories of the Maithili language and the Mithila region. It subsequently examines the rise of print journalism and Maithili readership as well as the institution of new language policies and regulations for public education and official transactions. Furthermore, it documents the formation of modern sabhās and samitis which led the movement for the greater recognition of the Maithili language.

By the first decade of the 20th century, the Maithili elites had laid the groundwork for the promotion of their regional, cultural, and linguistic identities. The histories of Maithili and Mithila had been published in three different languages: Riyāż al-Tirhut (1868) by Ayodhyā Prasād “Bahār” and Ā’inā-i Tirhut (1883) by Bihārī Lāl “Fiṭrat” in Urdu, Mithilā Darpa (1915) by Rās Bihārī Lāl Dās in Hindi, and the History of Tirhut (1922) by Shyam Narayan Singh in English. Maithili journals and newspapers were being published and circulated in different parts of India: Maithil Hit Sādhan (1905) from Jaipur, Mithilā Moda (1905) from Banaras, Mithilā Mihir (1909) from Darbhanga, Mithilā Hitshikṣā from Maniyari, and Tirhut Akhbār from Muzaffarpur. New printing presses and railway lines were established in different parts of Bihar, and Maithili writers were able to connect with their readers and interlocutors in several other towns and provinces of India, most prominently in Jaipur, Ajmer, Alwar, Jhansi, Mathura, Aligarh, Firozabad, Allahabad and Calcutta. Among all these groundbreaking developments, the creation of the Maithil Mahāsabhā under the patronage of Rameshwar Singh, the Maharaj of Darbhanga, in 1910 constitutes a watershed moment in the political history of the Maithili movement.

Although the Maithil Mahāsabhā was founded as an “apolitical” organisation, its financial funding, internal policies, and social activities were thoroughly political in nature. At a time when Nāgarī Pracāriṇī Sabhā was actively promoting Hindi as the rāṣṭrabhāṣā (“national language”) and suppressing the use of the Kaithī script, the members of the very first session of the Maithil Mahāsabhā resolved to promote the use of Maithili language in primary education and academic institutions. Furthermore, Maharaj Rameshwar Singh, who greatly espoused the Brahminical tradition of Sanskrit learning, restricted the membership of the Maithil Mahāsabhā to Brahmins and Karna Kayasthas only. This alienated other caste groups who also formed exclusive organisations to serve the communal interests of their respective castes. Not only were Maithili speakers divided by their caste and religion, the prevalence of divergent (at times even pejorative) views about the literary history, linguistic identity, social status, political cachet, cultural significance, and economic value of the Maithili language further prevented the common masses from developing a sense of deep pride in their Maithil identity.

Jha’s narration of the political history of Maithili is denser and more incisive in the third and fourth chapters of the book. They are aptly clubbed together as two parts of a common thematic unit, “Maithili Language and the Movement.” The third chapter sheds light on controversies surrounding the shared origin of the Bengali and Maithili languages, particularly the influence of Vidyāpati (c 1350–1448) and Govind Das (c 1535–1613) in both traditions. It describes the role of Vidyāpati Parv Samāroh and Jānakī Mahotsav in generating a sense of regional identity among the inhabitants of Mithila. Mā Jānakī became the feminised embodiment of Mithila in the same way as Bhārat Mātā represented the nationalist spirit of India. An illustrated cover of Mithilā, a magazine published by the Vidyapati Press in Laheria Sarai, portrayed Mā Jānakī as if she were receiving blessings (āshīrvād) from Bhārat Mātā. By exposing the ideological leanings and political views of several Maithili journals and newspapers, Jha shows how the modern print media continually shaped and transformed various public and academic discourses on literary history, cultural hegemony, linguistic identities, social reforms, educational policies, and nationalist politics.

The Four Phases

Jha divides the post-independence history of the Maithili movement into four phases (p 167). The first phase unfolded in the 1950s when the States Reorganisation Commission (SRC), established in 1953, began exploring the possibility of remapping Indian states on linguistic grounds. Maithils demanded a separate statehood for Mithila. During the second phase, they campaigned for the recognition of Maithili in literary organisations (particularly Sahitya Akademi), academic institutions (for example, the drive for opening a Mithila University), and mass media (like the demand for setting up a Maithili radio station). The third phase of the movement emerged immediately after the state government, under the leadership of Lalu Prasad Yadav, removed Maithili from the BPSC on 27 February 1992. Agitated by the unjust decision of the government, Maithils demanded not only the reinclusion of Maithili in the BPSC, but also the implementation of Maithili education in primary and secondary schools, the publication of Maithili textbooks, and the official recognition of Maithili as an administrative language. This phase, Jha notes, was rife with public protests and mass demonstrations. As evidenced by the massive protest against the government on 27 March 1992, this movement witnessed the participation of thousands of “Maithili speakers cutting across caste, class, gender and region” (p 218).

Although the momentum of the third phase failed to effect a change in the policy of the state government, it definitely attracted the sympathies of the BJP, which included Maithili in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution in 2003 after they came to power in the 13th session of Parliament (pp 231–32). This moment of national recognition constitutes the beginning of the fourth and contemporary phase of the Maithili movement. According to Jha, this ongoing phase has revived the demand for separate statehood, but, unlike previous phases, their demand focuses less on language and culture and more on “poor economic development” (pp 168, 233–35).

Jha’s formulation of a “four-phase” model is predicated on his critical appraisal of the previous scholarship. For instance, he criticises Paul Brass and Hetukar Jha for adopting “an ahistorical approach towards the movement” and for subsequently ignoring the pluralistic nature of Maithili identity and denying “subjective consciousness” to the Maithili people (pp 29–30, 32, 210). Both scholars postulated that Maithili elites were aloof from the common masses, which is why they could not disseminate their “sense of regional identity [among] the mass of the Maithili-speaking people” (Jha 1976: 5).

Contrary to their characterisation of a “failed” movement, Jha justifiably contends that the Maithili movement should be viewed as “a very successful movement” because it not only achieved most of its political goals (p 33), but also resisted Hindi hegemony and undemocratic nationalist ideologies. Instead of succumbing to the dominance of Hindi, the Maithili movement evolved and distinguished itself both internally and externally, “internally, through its negotiation of different castes, regions and varieties of Maithili speakers; and externally, by its attempts to distinguish itself from other linguistic communities” (p 2; also pp 253, 255). This “double movement” of Maithili communities was inadvertently responsible for “the accommodative approach” of Maithils towards Hindi apologists, for the increasing mobilisation and politicisation of the masses (p 33), and, most importantly, for turning it into “a peaceful literary cultural movement for a very long time” (p 32).

The “four-phase” evolutionary framework proposed by Jha is in effect a chronological periodisation of the political history of the Maithili movement from the 1950s to the present. This framework excludes the first hundred years of the Maithili movement, and no alternative periodisation documents the growth of the movement between the 1850s and the 1950s. Furthermore, his periodisation of the movement in independent India is based on three calculated political moves by central and state governments—the formation of the SRC, the expulsion of Maithili from the BPSC examinations, and the inclusion of Maithili in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution—which foregrounds the power and agency of non-Maithil elites at the expense of Maithili subjects.

The opening and closing terminals of each phase, therefore, is more representative of the radical changes in regional and national politics than of the performance of Maithili activists or the political momentum of the Maithili movement. Even though the movement became “increasingly politicised” (p 33) and it “acquired the form of a mass movement” (p 256), Jha’s narrative of its evolution is absent of Maithil activists who were/are Muslims, Dalits and members of the Scheduled Castes or tribal communities. One female author appears briefly in the appendix to the book (p 330).

Notwithstanding the issue of determining appropriate terminals for the successive periods of a long movement and of identifying Maithili activists from diverse religious, caste and gender backgrounds, Jha steadfastly retains his focus on the political activism of Maithil Brahmins and Kayasthas while depicting the development of each of the four phases of the movement. In the end, he provides unrestrained access to his rich archival data and political insights on the making of the modern Maithili movement. Jha, thus, offers an admirable exposition of the Maithili movement that will leave a lasting impact on the study of literary and political cultures in South Asia.


Brass, Paul (1974): Language, Religion, and Politics in North India, London: Cambridge University Press.

Burghart, Richard (1993): “A Quarrel in the Language Family: Agency and Representations of Speech in Mithila,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 27, No 4, pp 761–804.

Davis, Coralynn V (2014): Maithil Women’s Tales: Storytelling on the Nepal–India Border, Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Jha, Hetukar (1976): Nation-building in a North Indian Region: The Case of Mithila, Patna: A N Sinha Research Institute.

Jha, Pankaj Kumar (1996): “Language and Nation: The Case of Maithili and Mithila in the First Half of Twentieth Century,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol 57, pp 581–90.

Kumar, Aishwarj (2013): “A Marginalized Voice in the History of ‘Hindi,’” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 47, No 5, pp 1706–46.

Pandey, Anshuman (2014): “Recasting the Brahmin in Medieval Mithila: Origins of Caste Identity among the Maithil Brahmins of North Bihar,” PhD dissertation, University of Michigan.

Rorabacher, J Albert (2017): Bihar and Mithila: The Historical Roots of Backwardness, London and New York: Routledge.

Singh, U N (1980): The Maithili Language Movement: Successes and Failures, Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages.

Updated On : 2nd Nov, 2018


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