Language Warriors, Hold Your Horses, Please

On the question of language, the north is unnecessarily anxious and the south unduly agitated while India hasn't done badly in the status quo at all


The immediate, negative reaction of the south Indian States to the draft National Education Policy was expected and yet it is surprising that the sentiment that had almost divided the country for a second time in the 1960s is still raw. While the southern States, led by Tamil Nadu — and now Karnataka resents it no less — react angrily to the proposition of ‘imposing’ on them every time, the opinion of other States where the natives do not speak the language is not quite charitable either. Either knowing this or deliberately daring these people who are no less Indian, the makers of the draft had phrased the part on Hindi in a manner that raised the hackles of many. There being a consensus favouring the three-language formula, wherein a school-going child is asked to choose English, his native language and a language of any other State of the country, there was no need for this political-linguistic misadventure. The problem is that the itch for not having Hindi as the national language after so many years of independence disturbs a large section of the north Indian population, notwithstanding the fact that the States speaking the language are economically the most backward, thus inspiring few to learn the language. It is clearly a game of numbers, not quality or heritage of Hindi, that works here, given that as many as seven large States believe is their language — never mind that it’s a descendant of Prakrit like Rajasthani, Braj, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Magahi, Bundelkhandi or Chhattisgarhi that is spoken at home and in all rural pockets, which linguists find hard to accept as dialects of Hindi.

However, as better sense dawned on the authority that has dropped the idea — it was a draft, anyway — politicians of the southern and eastern States, and all the citizens who get worked up on the mere mention of “Hindi”, must mull over the reality. With no Union government since the Congress’s folly in 1968 trying to repeat the mistake for more than 50 years, the people of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, as much as those of West Bengal and the Northeast, have been increasingly picking up Hindi. This happens partly due to the popularity of Bollywood films and partly because there are circles in university campuses where throwing in a phrase or two of while conversing in the native language is deemed ‘cool’. While a Tamilian may hardly require to move to Gorakhpur, Purnea or Jaisalmer for jobs, he goes to Mumbai alright. And there, it’s easier to pick Hindi rather than Marathi. While Tamil Nadu is among the better-off States, Chennai, or even Coimbatore, is not until now an attractive employment destination for Indians outside the State. ‘Learn Tamil if you want us to learn Hindi’ is, therefore, a specious argument. Learning Kannada, for what Bengaluru is today, still makes sense. However, if the people of Karnataka are not making the lives of Hindi speakers as miserable as not knowing French in France would be — many among the French know English but deliberately don’t speak it — the situation will not change. In the meantime, without many in the rest of the country knowing it, a least likely Kerala has been teaching its people Hindi for decades!

What has been made an issue by the sentimental lot is actually an unnecessary debate. India has not done badly at all due to the absence of one national language or a policy thereof. When the economy opened up nearly three decades ago, a vast middle took shape, thanks to their knowledge of the English language, with many moving overseas to pursue better opportunities. The allegation of a superiority complex of the elite does not hold for the simple reason that this class has wholly arisen from what were low-income groups until the 1980s. They are not the children of industrialists who are setting sail abroad. Even within the domestic circuit, the kind of remuneration packages executives demand today was unthinkable till the era of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh and Chandrashekhar. IITs, where knowing English helps in the technical education, draw the largest crowds of talent from the poorest pockets of and Bengal. Hindi, in the meantime, has changed from to crass, as neither the language spread beyond its native areas nor did the natives themselves ever try to preserve its pristine quality — either in its Sanskritised (that some Puritans claim to be “shuddh” or unadulterated) or in its Persianised form (that some say should be referred to as “Urdu”). But will not and cannot die. Why are the north and south of the Vindhyas losing sleep over it?

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