Shorts In The Dark

How Hindi can be the unifying force for India

Hindi has become by default the language that most Indians speak.

 |  Shorts In The Dark  |  5-minute read |   21-09-2019
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What exactly was it that Home Minister Amit Shah said about Hindi being the national language?

Shah tweeted: 

A common tongue

There was a second strand to this argument, articulated during the speech he delivered on Hindi Diwas: “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.” Following an uproar from non-Hindi-speaking states, Shah issued a clarification: “I never asked for imposing Hindi over other regional languages and had only requested for learning Hindi as the second language after one’s mother tongue. I myself come from a non-Hindi [speaking] state of Gujarat.” Diet and language are sensitive issues bound to stir a hornet’s nest in a diverse country like ours. These are the natural barriers to BJP’s unifying Hindutva project. If one analyses Shah’s arguments, it’s clear that there are two ideas at play here: The first is to do with having a functional link language for the nation. The second is what appears to be an anti-English stance, a revival of an old controversy about why we should be speaking the tongue of our colonial masters — a ‘foreign language’.

Let’s tackle the first part first: Shah is right to the extent that Hindi has become by default the language that most Indians speak. What puts vernacular speakers on the back-foot is the fear of imposition of a dominant language. Once those fears are assuaged, there isn’t really any major resistance to the practicality of having Hindi as a national language.

For instance in Tamil Nadu, more and more children are learning Hindi with the rise in number of CBSE schools. The number of students voluntarily enrolled in Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, established in 1918 by our Mahatma Gandhi to propagate Hindi in the southern states. has seen a steady increase. Most parents view the acquiring of Hindi skills as something that augments job prospects, enables the individual to seek opportunities in other states. A working knowledge of Hindi just makes life (and travel) simpler. It’s hard to resist the temptations of a thought experiment with a subject like this. Imagine if everyone speaks Hindi in India. This can be done either by making Hindi the medium of school education, teaching it as a compulsory second language, or by opening ‘Happy Hindi’ language school branches in every nook and corner of the country. The soft power of Bollywood songs and films is already very efficient in spreading love for the language.

A single market

Let’s examine the benefits for, say, an author. Imagine having a readership of 1.4 billion, as opposed to the small readerships in Oriya or English.

A common language can open doors between states and enable the writer to communicate her stories and shared realities across the length and breadth of the country. From a frog in the well, one is transformed into an ocean-liner riding the waves. A national language creates a national readership and literature. The same holds true for political ideology. A common language makes the dispensing of messaging easier; it also has a flipside. Resistance too will tap into the same tongue. A viral poem in Hindi interrogating a government policy will not be restricted to the ‘cow’ belt. It will have more reach.

Shah tactfully hitches the national language project to a forced decline of English. This is the second part of the argument. While much has been said about Indian writing in English and the empire writing back, it’s also true that for most Indians the language reeks of a snobbish class system that keeps them out. There is no love lost here. Even the most liberal of Hindi writers harbour a grouse against English. The decreasing influence of English will finally put to bed the Indian disease of writing bad ‘Indo-Anglian’ novels for nobody. A chance for Mandarin

You might say that English these days has nothing to do with England, that it’s a world language, but is it really, and for how long? Trump’s trade war with China hasn’t stopped his granddaughter from learning Mandarin. Ivanka Trump posted a video in 2016 of her daughter, Arabella, reciting a Chinese poem, “Sympathy for the Peasants.” The raging trend amongst Manhattan’s elite — that sets the pace for the world’s elite — the last few years has been private Mandarin lessons for their kindergarteners. Nancy Schulman, director of early education at a school in Manhattan, told “China is a fast-growing, important economy and certainly there are parents who are looking forward to opportunities for their children in the future, to be able to participate in a global economy that is important in the world,” she said. The formula for India’s success domestically could be the unifying power of Hindi that unleashes a pan-Indian labour force; its ambitions of international dominion, though, will be better served, wild as it may sound, by Mandarin (foreign languages can’t be avoided forever, especially if one wants to do business). Either ways, English could be headed for a bleak future. The writer is the author of ‘The Butterfly Generation’. The views expressed are personal.

Also read: Why Hindi cannot be a unifying language of India



Palash Krishna Mehrotra Palash Krishna Mehrotra @palashmehrotra

The writer is the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'

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