No To Hindi Imposition

TIME and again, the Modi regime has tried to slip in its Sanghi agenda of ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’, or One Nation One Language. In 2014, one of the first moves of the Modi regime in its first term was to tell officials of all Union ministries, departments, corporations, or banks to prioritise Hindi in its social media accounts. Later, the regime asked Ministers, Governors and other dignitaries to make speeches in Hindi. BJP leader and Minister Venkaiah Naidu - a Telugu speaker - said in Hindi, “Hindi hamari rashtrabhasha hai” (Hindi is our national language”. This statement was false, since India does not have a single “national” language. External Affairs Minister in the Modi.1 regime Sushma Swaraj had said that her government was trying to get Hindi acquire “official status” at the UN, implying that Hindi was India’s national language. The Modi.1 regime had also tried to replace English with Hindi on highway milestones in Tamil Nadu. Now, the Modi.2 regime is again, reportedly, toying with Hindi imposition via its New Education Policy which recommends a three-language formula to replace the current two-language formula in schools across India. For now, the Modi regime has withdrawn that proposal. But the attempts of creeping and stealthy Hindi imposition on non-Hindi speaking states continues.

The fact is that “Hindi” - the version of Hindi that is used in officialese - is not a natural spoken tongue even in the so-called “Hindi Belt.” It is a Sanskritised distortion of spoken Hindi-Urdu or Hindustani. To understand how this Sanskritised “official” Hindi, sanitised of Persian and Arabic root words, came into being, we have to look at the history of Indian nationalism as well as Hindu and Hindi nationalism.    

History of Hindi Nationalism

The British colonial powers sought to polarise Hindi and Urdu, associating the first with Hindus and the latter with Muslims. In spite of this, Hindustani - which was a living language unlike the artificially created Sanskritised “Hindi” or Persianised Urdu - survived and thrived. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hindi- and Hindu-nationalist politics began to struggle to dominate Indian nationalism. In 1905, Bal Gangadhar Tilak advocated for Hindi in the Devanagari (Nagari) script to be the official language of the Indian National Congress. The Hindu Mahasabha in 1939 demanded that Hindi, not Hindustani, should be India’s “national language.” This debate spilled over into the Constituent Assembly as well. Historically, the “Hindustani” with alternately Nagari and Persian scripts, advocated by Nehru and Gandhi to be an official language together with English, was defeated in favour of “Hindi” in the Nagari script. The Hindu-Hindi-nationalist lobby won that battle.

In November 1949, the All India Radio abruptly changed its "News in Hindustani" to "News in Hindi". The language used for broadcasting also changed, so much so that Nehru in 1948 complained that he could not comprehend the Hindi translation of his own English speech that had been broadcast!  

Alok Rai, the grandson of the Hindi writer Premchand who wrote in both Hindi and Urdu, has persuasively shown this official Sanskritised Hindi is both a product of and a vehicle for Brahminical Hindu-nationalist politics. Rai wrote a little book titled Hindi Nationalism for the Tracts For The Times series (Orient Blackswan, 2000), tracing the violence done to the people’s vernacular Hindi “by and in the name of “Hindi” [Shuddh (pure) Hindi], the Sanskritic usurper.” That book traced how “Indian and Hindu nationalism intertwined in the late 19th century to produce the hyper-Sankritised register of “Shudh Hindi” which is now the official language of India and forms the core of our education system.”

Rai has shown that the old name of Nagari (the script in which Hindi is now written) was in fact Babhani, the script of the Brahmans. The initial battle for an “Indian” rather than a Persian script for Hindustani was between Kaithi and Babhani, and Babhani (Nagari) won. ('A Debate Between Alok Rai and Shahid Amin Regarding Hindi’, Internet edition of Tehelka, edited and reproduced in the Annual of Urdu Studies, 2005,

The 1960s witnessed both the anti-English Lohiaite-socialist agitations in North India against the imposition of English on Hindi-speakers, and the anti-Hindi agitations of Tamil Nadu against Hindi imposition.

It is interesting that while Hindi-English-Tamil struggles take centre-stage, there have been other linguistic contentions too. When Haryana was formed in 1969, breaking away from Punjab, it did not wish to have Punjabi as its official second language after Haryanvi, so it opted for Tamil! As a result, Tamil is officially taught in Haryana Government schools.  

Alok Rai distinguishes between Hindi (the living, dynamic, creative link language spoken in north India) and “Hindi”, the sterile, Sanskritised, de-Persianised language manufactured by a self-serving upper caste North Indian elite for a hegemonic political agenda. Sadly, it is the latter Hindi that is taught in schools.

Official “Hindi” Is Alien And Intimidating Even In North India    

The imposition of “Hindi” is not a concern only for West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala or Karnataka. Official Sanskritised “Hindi” is as alien as English to students in North India as well.   

Alok Rai in Hindi Nationalism, has shown how “school Hindi” is dreaded even in North India. He write, “The large numbers of students who fail Hindi in the Hindi belt itself are grim testimony to the fact that “Hindi” has robbed them of their mother tongue.”

There is a saying, “Kos kos par badle pani, aur char kos par pani” (roughly translated as ‘Water changes two miles, and language, every eight miles’). In the Fujian Province of China, there is a similar saying, “if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does.”

Official “Hindi” scorns languages like Bhojpuri, Maithili, Magahi, Angika, Bajjika, Bundeli, Avadhi, Santali, Gondi etc as “dialects” and shames students who have these languages for their mother tongues. For such students, Rai argues, ““Hindi” has become a kind of poor man’s “English”” - the language of power and upward mobility.

When Maithili asserted its right to be included in the list of languages in which the Sahitya Academi gives awards, Rai noted that the “Hindiwallahs were extremely perturbed because the fiction had been maintained for the last several decades that Maithili was just a dialect of Hindi. The moment this history of how the dialects came to be subsumed under Manak or “Standard” Hindi was revealed, all that history of contention spilled out into the open. And it’s not a history they wanted coming out, which is why they kept it so closely under wraps.” ('A Debate Between Alok Rai and Shahid Amin Regarding Hindi’).  

Rai argues that “Hindi” is actually Hindi’s worst enemy. He says that Hindi can actually be revived and revitalised only by reconnecting with those other tongues of North India - the so-called “dialects” (better called bhashas, the term preferred by GN Devy for all India’s many diverse languages) which are actually the rich, living languages in which creative expression is possible.          

Rai ends his book by quoting the Naxalite Hindi poet Dhoomil, who wrote a poem Bhasha Ki Raat (The Night of Language) in 1965. Rai notes that it is remarkable that in 1965, at the height of the polarised anti-Hindi and anti-English movements in North and South India, Dhoomil could find the sensitivity to write:     

“Your Tamil pain
Is brother to my Bhojpuri pain-
Language is merely a morsel for the deceitful beast…
Before correcting language, correct human beings -
Come! Come, speaking from all your fourteen mouths!”

The Way Forward       

Rai wrote, that ““Hindi”’s national status is…doomed to remain symbolic. Unless, of course, it can engineer a “nation” commensurate with itself: Hindu savarna, Brahminical, pure…” (Hindi Nationalism). Under the Modi regime, the Sangh is of course trying its best to turn India into that Hindu savarna, Brahminical “nation” of its dreams. And that is why, irrespective of whether or not the NEP seeks to impose Hindi, the Modi regime will always try to slip in its agenda of Hindi imposition. To resist it, it is important but not enough to assert the linguistic pride and identities of non-Hindi bhashas. It is important that the struggle against Hindi imposition not be confined to Tamil Nadu, Kerala or even West Bengal and Assam. It is important to forge a struggle against Hindi imposition all over India, as part of a robust struggle against Brahminical Hindutva. Such a struggle should respect the natural flow of languages via migrant workers (whether it is Bengali and Hindi speaking migrant workers in the North East or  J&K, Hindi speaking workers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, or Tamil or Bhojpuri speaking migrant workers in Mumbai or Delhi). Such a struggle should assert the right of every child to be schooled in their own mother tongue bhasha. Such a struggle should seek to offer Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu and Urdu as optional languages in schools in North India. Such a struggle should embrace diversity - of language, culture, faith, diet - all over India and in every region and state of India. It should resist the violence done to migrant workers, and to Muslims in the name of beef, as well as resisting Hindi imposition.

Is a Compulsory Official Language Needed?

V. I.   Lenin

(In light of the current debate over the imposition of Hindi as an official language all over India, Liberation reproduced Lenin’s polemical 1919 piece against the imposition of a compulsory official language in Russia. This piece (Published: Proletarskaya Pravda No. 14 (32), January 18, 1914, Translated: Bernard Isaacs and The Late Joe Fineberg, Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 20, pages 71-73) offers insights for us in India today as well.)  

THE liberals differ from the reactionaries in that they recognise the right to have instruction conducted in the native language, at least in the elementary schools. But they are completely at one with the reactionaries on the point that a compulsory official language is necessary.

What does a compulsory official language mean? In practice, it means that the language of the Great Russians, who are a minority of the population of Russia, is imposed upon all the rest of the population of Russia. In every school the teaching of the official language must be obligatory. All official correspondence must be conducted in the official language, not in the language of the local population.

On what grounds do the parties who advocate a compulsory official language justify its necessity?

The “arguments” of the Black Hundreds are curt, of course. They say: All non-Russians should be ruled with a rod of iron to keep them from “getting out of hand”. Russia must be indivisible, and all the peoples must submit to Great-Russian rule, for it was the Great Russians who built up and united the land of Russia. Hence, the language of the ruling class must be the compulsory official language. The Purishkeviches would not mind having the “local lingoes” banned altogether; although they are spoken by about 60 per cent of Russia’s total population.

The attitude of the liberals is much more “cultured” and “refined”. They are for permitting the use of the native languages within certain limits (for example, in the elementary schools). At the same time they advocate an obligatory official language, which, they say, is necessary in the interests of “culture”, in the interests of a “united” and “indivisible” Russia, and so forth.

“Statehood is the affirmation of cultural unity.... An official language is an essential constituent of state culture.... Statehood is based on unity of authority, the official language being an instrument of that unity. The official language possesses the same compulsory and universally coercive power as all other forms of statehood....

“If Russia is to remain united and indivisible, we must firmly insist on the political expediency of the Russian literary language.”

This is the typical philosophy of a liberal on the necessity of an official language.

We have quoted the above passage from an article by Mr. S. Patrashkin in the liberal newspaper Dyen (No. 7). For quite understandable reasons, the Black-Hundred Novoye Vremya rewarded the author of these ideas with a resounding kiss. Mr. Patrashkin expresses “very sound ideas”, Menshikov’s newspaper stated (No. 13588). Another paper the Black Hundreds are constantly praising for such very “sound” ideas is the national-liberal Russkaya Mysl. And how can they help praising them when the liberals, with the aid of “cultured” arguments, are advocating things that please the Novoye Vremya people so much?

Russian is a great and mighty language, the liberals tell us. Don’t you want everybody who lives in the border regions of Russia to know this great and mighty language? Don’t you see that the Russian language will enrich the literature of the non-Russians, put great treasures of culture within their reach, and so forth?

That is all true, gentlemen, we say in reply to the liberals. We know better than you do that the language of Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky is a great and mighty one. We desire more than you do that the closest possible intercourse and fraternal unity should be established between the oppressed classes of all the nations that inhabit Russia, without any discrimination. And we, of course, are in favour of every inhabitant of Russia having the opportunity to learn the great Russian language.

What we do not want is the element of coercion. We do not want to have people driven into paradise with a cudgel; for no matter how many fine phrases about “culture” you may utter, a compulsory official language involves coercion, the use of the cudgel. We do not think that the great and mighty Russian language needs anyone having to study it by sheer compulsion. We are convinced that the development   of capitalism in Russia, and the whole course of social life in general, are tending to bring all nations closer together. Hundreds of thousands of people are moving from one end of Russia to another; the different national populations are intermingling; exclusiveness and national conservatism must disappear. People whose conditions of life and work make it necessary for them to know the Russian language will learn it without being forced to do so. But coercion (the cudgel) will have only one result: it will hinder the great and mighty Russian language from spreading to other national groups, and, most important of all, it will sharpen antagonism, cause friction in a million new forms, increase resentment, mutual misunderstanding, and so on.

Who wants that sort of thing? Not the Russian people, not the Russian democrats. They do not recognise national oppression in any form, even in “the interests of Russian culture and statehood”.

That is why Russian Marxists say that there must be no compulsory official language, that the population must be provided with schools where teaching will be carried on in all the local languages, that a fundamental law must be introduced in the constitution declaring invalid all privileges of any one nation and all violations of the rights of national minorities.

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