ON 14 September (which the Government of India marks as ‘Hindi Day’), the Home Minister Amit Shah said, “Diversity of languages and dialects is strength of our nation. But there is need for our nation to have one language, so that foreign languages don’t find a place. This is why our freedom fighters envisioned Hindi as Raj Bhasha.” Not long after that, Shah made a speech suggesting that “the multi-party democratic system had failed to fulfil the aspirations of the citizens of the country” and this is why the voters had given the Modi Government an absolute majority.
These statements remind us that the BJP and the RSS detest and fear India’s diversity: its many languages, cultures, cuisines, faiths. They would like to replace this real, glorious diversity (and the federal democracy that respects this diversity) with a mythical “One Nation, One Religion, One Language, One Party, One Leader.”
Last month, the Modi Government abrogated Article 370, declaring that this move was in keeping with their principle of “One Nation, One Constitution, One Law.” This claim was proven false by none other than Amit Shah himself, when at a conclave of political leaders from North East India, he assured that Article 371 would be kept intact to protect the unique identities of the NE states!
If Shah admits that “Diversity of languages and dialects is strength of our nation”, then why seek to undermine and destroy this strength by declaring one language a “national language” above the rest? Indianness does not lie in sameness. India can have “unity in diversity” only if all Indians are united in respecting each other’s diverse languages, cultures, diets, faiths as equals.
The BJP’s attempts to equate Hindi alone with India and impose it on all Indians, is obviously an affront to the speakers of Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu – which are just the languages that India recognises as “official” languages in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution of India, along with Hindi. Apart from these, India has more than 1700 languages that are spoken in various regions.
It was the communal right wing forces which first tried to introduce the slogan of “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan”, even before India’s independence. Since then, these forces have projected a so-called “Hindi Belt” as the seat of Indian politics, and claim that Hindi is the single language spoken by the largest numbers of Indians. This claim is not borne out by facts.
For one thing, if the North Indian states are indeed a “Hindi Belt”, then why do large numbers of school students fail Hindi exams every year in these very states? In the Class X and XII Uttar Pradesh Board exams in 2019, more than 10 lakh students failed the Hindi paper. The reason is that contrary to political propaganda, Hindi is not the mother tongue of these students, who may speak a variety of other languages (such as Awadhi, Braj Bhasha, Bhojpuri). These languages are not dialects that are “less than” the Hindi: they are more expressive than the standardised, official, Sanskritised “Hindi” which is taught in schools.
The upshot is that Hindi imposition is not only an injustice to India’s other languages: it is also an injustice to Hindi itself as well as to the rich linguistic diversity of North India as well.
Writing in 1914, Lenin had argued against the imposition of a compulsory official language in Russia, reminding his readers that “a compulsory official language involves coercion, the use of the cudgel” against Russia’s national minorities. India would do well to take heed. Forcible promotion or imposition of a single national or “official” language on all, will divide, not unite India. Bulldozing over India’s diverse languages, faiths, and the federal rights of states will divide, not unite India.
In the interests of celebrating India’s unity and diversity, it would be better to replace “Hindi Day” with a “Mother Tongue Day”, in which every Indian is encouraged to celebrate their own mother tongue, as well as the linguistic diversity of India.