Hindi supremacy

Deepa Bhasthi on linguistic cleansing

By Deepa Bhasthi

Vizianagaram station board c. 1947, featuring five languages: Telugu, Hindi, English, Urdu and Odia


For those of us who didn’t live in the Hindi Belt (the region of north-central India in which Hindi and its dialects are widely spoken), Bollywood movies were how we encountered the language. Like many Indians, I learned to read and write Hindi at school, where it was a ‘third language’: the ‘first’ was Kannada, the language of my state, Karnataka; the ‘second language’ was English, also the medium of instruction at my school. We were learning Hindi, we were led to believe, because it was the national language of my country, because it was the language of patriotism and, by association, part of what made us Indian. In fact, even if Hindi and its variants are spoken by the largest number of its citizens, India has no national language. 

According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, an ambitious project initiated by Ganesh N. Devy in 2010, India has 780 recognised languages, hundreds of dialects and endless sociolects. Language, then, is very far from being a national unifier. Multilingualism, however, is so common as to be barely worth remarking upon. While every state has one predominant language, its people might speak dozens more, further divided into the languages of the communities, tribes or castes to which they belong.

Yet, growing up in a small town in southern India during the 1980s and 90s, I do not recall meeting even a single native Hindi speaker. The language did allow us to understand state-sponsored TV programming, which was all in Hindi; then cable was introduced. Mostly, though, Hindi helped us sing along to the popular songs from the movies. Indeed, such is the popularity of this genre, you might say that a familiarity with film soundtracks is one of the few things that Indian citizens genuinely have in common and the real reason why Hindi is so widely understood. A majority of non-Hindi speakers would understand, at the very least, the gist of the songs, if not the meaning of every word. Given the prolificity of the songs in popular culture, even people in states like Kerala, where Hindi has very little presence, would be able to recognise the songs, place them in the right social context and hum along. But for India’s ruling rightwing government, this is not enough. 

An end to India’s multilingual status quo and the acceptance of Hindi as the national language is something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling coalition government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are trying very hard – and without much subtlety – to effect. Frighteningly, any rejection of this idea is increasingly being perceived as a rejection of the country and therefore unpatriotic. It’s another instance of the ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ politics that dominate our times. It is also typical of a political environment within which the space for dissent, debate and freedom of expression is shrinking at an alarming rate.

The willingness of people across the country to engage with Hindi because it is more accessible cannot be construed as acceptance of its superiority over the vernaculars

A lot of Hindi speakers migrated from the north and settled in the south after India’s mid-1990s IT boom, as did migrant labourers from regions that were losing their traditional pool of agricultural and construction workers to other job sectors in bigger cities. Since then, Hindi has gradually become more widely heard in cities, and more familiar to people in smaller towns. For autorickshaw and cab drivers, for shopkeepers, for delivery boys, maids and other service workers, a working knowledge of Hindi is good for business. It must be noted that English, on the other hand, remains an aspirational currency. The novelist Arundhati Roy, in her 2018 W.G. Sebald Lecture at London’s British Library on literary translation, calls English the language of mobility, of opportunity, of privilege and exclusion, of emancipation. Only a choice few continue to have access to it.

The politics of language has a violent history in post-Independence India. English and Hindi were both declared official languages to begin with. While the Indian Constitution was written in English in 1949 (and came into effect in 1950), its usage in official documents in India was scheduled to continue only for 15 years, after which it was to be replaced by Hindi as the official language. According to Census 2011 figures, 44 percent of India’s population of 1.3 billion are native Hindi speakers. The figure would be higher if speakers of dialects that come under the umbrella of Hindi, like Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Braj, were to be considered as well. As early as in 1895, there were protests in what is now Odisha against the imposition of Hindi, and when it was time to make the official transition there were further demonstrations from non-Hindi speakers, especially in the south. 

Protests against the feared subordination to Hindi speakers took in states including West Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, but most notably and most violently in Tamil Nadu, and the widespread pressure meant that English was retained in perpetuity as an official language along with Hindi. Given this history of language movements, the Gujarat High Court in 2010 ruled that there was no provision in the Constitution, nor order issued, that made Hindi the national language. In 2015 the Supreme Court refused to admit a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that wanted to impose Hindi as a court language. Again, in 2016, a petition seeking a direction to declare Hindi as the national language was withdrawn from the Delhi High Court on the grounds that there was no such provision in the Constitution. But such minor details seem irrelevant to partisan nationalists.

A fresh round of protests erupted as recently as 2014, when a circular from the Home Ministry directed all government departments and national banks to give preference to Hindi over English on their official websites and on social media. Such was the outcry that the order was retracted. The central government drew more flak on 14 September this year, traditionally observed as Hindi Divas, the anniversary of the day in 1949 when Hindi was declared an official language alongside English. Vice President Venkaiah Naidu (himself a south Indian), in a speech at a Hindi Divas event organised by the Home Ministry, suggested that it was not possible to progress without knowing Hindi. Stating (falsely) that Hindi was the main vehicle of communication among India’s colonial-era freedom fighters, he said that the language was a ‘symbol of social, political, religious and linguistic unity of the country’. An attempt to smooth ruffled feathers is sometimes made, with a token acknowledgement to what are termed ‘regional languages’ (any language except Hindi and English, the latter still being perceived as a foreign tongue), but the desire to enforce Hindi as the language of government administration remains consistent.

Language is not just a means of communication. It is, too, a reservoir of memory, tradition and culture

One need not go too far back into history to see how language politics have drawn new maps in the subcontinent. The separation of the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from Pakistan and the long, bloody civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority were caused in large part by attempts to engineer the triumph of one language over the other. Several states in India have had their own language movements as well, spearheaded by writers and artists. In Karnataka, strong opposition to Hindi in the 1960s and 70s segued into a preference for English. Sanskrit was the dominant language in schools and it had become possible to finish formal high school education without learning Kannada. A widening incompatibility between what was studied and what language was required for employment in government eventually led to the Gokak agitation during the 1980s. Named after Vinayaka Krishna Gokak, a prominent writer who recommended that Kannada be made the ‘first language’ in state schools in Karnataka, the agitation was supported by other writers including U.R. Ananthamurthy and actors such as Raaj Kumar. Also called the ‘Save Kannada’ movement, it succeeded in instilling pride in the language. A standoff between Punjabi and Hindi during the 1960s eventually led to the carving out of a Punjabi-speaking Punjab state, the Hindi-speaking parts becoming Haryana state. The Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters) was established at the state and national level to promote and strengthen vernacular literatures.

One of the arguments made for Hindi’s purported preeminence is its antiquity, because it was birthed by Sanskrit, which is, famously, believed to be the ancient mother of all languages. Factually, Hindi, as it is understood today, is only a little over a hundred years old. It only became an official language of any of the Indian states in 1881, when Bihar adopted it. Mohandas Gandhi, one of the leaders of India’s independence movement, wrote his autobiography in Gujarati, from which language he took his nickname, Bapu. Rabindranath Tagore wrote his most famous works in Bengali; India’s national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, is a translation of one of Tagore’s Bengali hymns into Hindi. Moreover Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language, but the former has been made a tongue of the Hindus (thus making it more Indian to fit into the current Hindutva narrative), while the latter is understood to be a Muslim language. Both borrow copiously from Arabic, Persian and a host of other languages. Even the word ‘Hindi’ is Persian. As late as 1880, the prominent writer Bharatendu Harishchandra considered Hindi suitable at best for prose owing to its status as a pedestrian boli – a spoken language. It was a popular view among writers until the 1920s that Hindi did not have the grace and nuance needed for poetry. Instead, Braj and Awadhi were seen as the languages for poetic expression, until writers like Nirala, Agyeya and Raghuvir Sahay made Hindi gradually more acceptable as a language of creative expression. In the process, Braj and Awadhi, the language in which Bhakti poets like Tulsidas, Surdas and Kabir composed their couplets and poems, were relegated to the status of dialects. To exalt Hindi alone as a reflection of India’s long and rich sociolinguistic history is particularly jarring.

I speak Hindi fluently, but the policies of the central government are autocratic enough for me to have developed a disdain towards it. Hindi is just one of the hundreds of languages that make up this multiculture. The willingness of people across the country to engage with Hindi because it is more accessible cannot be construed as acceptance of its superiority over the vernaculars. Language is not just a means of communication. It is, too, a reservoir of memory, tradition and culture. To know another language is to unlock a new way of thinking. To prioritise just one language in as linguistically diverse a society as India is not only an unwanted attempt at homogenisation, but a means of erasing other histories.

From the Winter 2018 issue of ArtReview