The rowdy behaviour of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) legislators in the state assembly the other day could not have helped gain converts to the Marathi cause. Rough and ready methods simply do not work, for force can never win hearts and minds.
If Raj Thackeray wants to champion the cause of Marathi he has to make it easy for people to learn the language, not upset the people who currently don't speak it.
Samajwadi leader Abu Azmi decided that he would defy the Raj diktat, but he too is bound to fail in his defiance. Azmi's party supported him, but spoke the language of Hindi hegemonism. His party bosses praised him for upholding the cause of Hindi, the national language, but in this they may have done more damage to the national cause.
Speaking about Hindi as a national language is no different from speaking about Hinduism as India's official cultural expression. Hindi is a great language, but it is not any more national than Marathi or Kannada, or Bengali or Telugu. Ironically, it was left to the MNS to point out the obvious: that Hindi is just another regional language of India.
This is not an attempt to belittle Hindi. In fact, Hindi is best served when it gently mingles with the other national languages, contributing to their growth and, in turn, being enriched by them. No language grows by being exclusive: it grows by importing words and expressions it lacks; it strengthens other languages by giving them what they don't have.
If there is to be a truly national language, it will develop from an admixture of all Indian languages. One can see the beginnings of it in Mumbai's khichdi Hindi — a Bollywood-enhanced version of which we saw in Sanjay Dutt's Munnabhai.
Even as we wait for a truly national lingo to evolve over the decades, supporters of Hindi are doing the language a great disservice by asserting its hegemony. Hindi is India's largest spoken language, but that does not give it sole status as a national language. That would amount to imposing a linguistic majoritarianism that cannot but harm the country.
It is worth recalling that the entire idea of linguistic states found favour with all Indians barring the Hindi-speaking people precisely because there was a fear that regional languages would lose out. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian parties went to the extent of calling for secession on this score. It was Lal Bahadur Shastri's good sense that prevented Hindi chauvinists from carrying the day.
Coming back to Raj Thackeray and the MNS, it is clear that their agenda is not merely the cause of Marathi. Raj is fighting for political space in the post-Balasaheb dispensation. He is trying to grab the Tiger's political legacy, and his first battle is for mindspace among the Marathi manoos.
That battle is far from over, and won't end till either Raj or Uddhav establishes himself as the sole spokesman for the manoos. The MNS's politics will evolve beyond Marathi only if it wins that battle, which is why we are going to see more eruptions of the kind we saw in the assembly.
However, that's another story. The language issue will continue to fester, for the long-term trend is against smaller regional languages. Every Indian language, barring possibly Bengali and Telugu, which have larger bases of population speaking them, will feel the pressure from both English and Hindi as people start following the 80:20 rule.
They will first learn what is beneficial to them. Since English and Hindi will be the main languages of advancement in the world and in India, most people will probably put 80 per cent of the efforts in learning these languages first.
Whatever the politics of the Marathi manoos, the Raj Thackerays of the world will see their children going to English medium schools. The upper classes are slowly losing touch with their mother tongues anyway; in the next generation, the aspiring classes who currently speak Marathi or whatever will follow suit.
Given this socio-economic reality, those who feel strongly about the decline of their native languages have two choices: give up the struggle and let demographics decide how a language shapes up; or they will have to make it easy for people to learn the language, and market it as well.
Just as the Max Mueller Bhavans and Alliance Francaises market German and French language courses, the non-Hindi regional languages will have to be funded and propagated if they are not to lose traction. They must also set up an institutional framework for the importation of new words and ideas from other languages.
The biggest challenge, though, is not about teaching, but translations. If Marathi is to survive, every major work in every major language should be translated into Marathi. If there are no translations, Marathi-speaking people will have no option but to learn English or Hindi or Chinese to read the world's best works. That will leave Marathi nowhere.
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