Politics has heated up around the Union government’s renewed zeal of Hindi promotion in work and communication. Anxious Englishwallahs are shedding crocodile tears, hiding behind the vernacular majority, whom they otherwise detest. This is about the relationship between people, power and language in the Indian Union, a multi-national State.
I remember a government notice in Delhi with the picture of an unclaimed dead body of a poor person, lakhs of whom form the underclass of the ‘cosmopolitan’, happening metro. He had a god’s name tattooed in Hindi. The English language notice did not serve the dead, or the living who might have known this hapless soul, but strengthened vested interests of Anglicized classes for whom the whole subcontinent is merely a vehicle of maintaining their undeserved grip on society, economy, academia and power. But it doesn’t end with English. For decades, hundreds of millions living in non-Hindi states are bombarded with notices, forms, websites, directives, employment advertisements, tenders, etc. in Hindi – shutting out non-Hindi people from employment and other opportunities. Bureaucratic apathy, disdain for common people’s languages and a fundamentally undemocratic, unrepresentative and non-participatory philosophy of governance and others factors come down with naked force on people, in life and in death. To be ‘fully-Indian’ in the Lutyens-Hindustani republic, one needs to know Hindi and English.
On how to deal with the ‘fully-Indian’ myth, we must turn to the Gujarat model. This two-step satyagraha first requires truth-finding and then asserting one’s rights in the face of marginalisation. Gujarat High Court’s 2010 judgement has stated the obvious – Hindi isn’t a national language. Hindi is the mother-tongue of only a quarter of the population, while the staggering majority speak Tamil, Kannada, Santhali, etc. as well as languages like Marwari, Mewari, etc. which census Hindi enumerators cunningly classify as ‘Hindi’ to give false impression of Hindi’s numerical might. Certain rootless urban classes born in non-Hindi/English homes earn cosmopolitan brownie points by their ‘inclusiveness’, which basically means shunning their mother-tongues and birth-culture. The Union government is only too happy to promote this brand of ‘Indianness’ where Hindi/English is the ‘mainstream’, and other linguistic nationalities are marginalised as ‘regional’ (Tamil isn’t a ‘national’ language because of the subcontinent’s British-manufactured administrative unity). It increasingly has the gall to communicate to non-Hindi people in Hindi. Fortunately, the primary life goal of most self-respecting non-Hindi people is not to desert their mother-tongue to make Hindi/English speakers feel ‘at home’. They have the right to live, be aware, dream and prosper in their mother-tongues.
In 2010, villagers of Saraghvada in Gujarat’s Junagadh area challenged land acquisition by National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). NHAI’s acquisition notification was in Hindi and English. The villagers didn’t understand either and hence weren’t notified. Gujarat High Court cancelled the land acquisition. Court also observed that for the villagers, ‘Hindi language used in the notification is a foreign language’. Junadagh is not Delhi, Coimbatore is not Varanasi and the subcontinent has many linguistic nations (Punjab, Tamil Nadu, etc.), as foreign to each other as Nepal is to Tamil Nadu, coexisting within a common administrative framework called the Indian Union. This term ‘foreign’ is particularly painful for Hindiwallas who assert English’s foreignness vis-à-vis Hindi’s indigeneity. The Hindi-English debate blurs the real divide, in which English and Hindi are both languages of power and domination. One must locate the ideology embedded in the ‘lack’ of vernacular translation manpower. Gujarati villagers have shown the way to resist domination at every step – every notification, every advertisement, every tele-caller, every signage, every allocated Rupee, every central policy that imposes Hindi and English on the majority.
The author is a Bengal-based commentator on politics and culture @gargac