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October 4, 2000


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The language row

I seem to have achieved the extraordinary feat of uniting two of the most ferociously antagonistic groups in India: Hindi-supporters and Tamil-supporters. I received much hate mail regarding my column Language as a mask of conquest - Part I. Readers could have waited for Part II to see the totality of what I had to say, but I don't blame them -- I was provocative. I plead guilty. I have to say, though, that the email after Part II was almost entirely positive.

But one charge I will not accept -- that I am anti-India. Disliking Hindi does not by any means make anyone anti-Indian, any more than disliking Delhi or Madras would make one anti-Indian. There is enough diversity in the country. I personally believe in pluralism: there is more than one acceptable path. This is the reason I am also disconcerted by the One-Truth formula of the Semitic religions. Similarly, I refuse to accept that Hindi is the One True Language of India.

There is a major fallacy in what many Hindi readers wrote to me. Most of them said something to the effect of: "Hindi is India's national language. It is the language of 70 per cent of India's population. Therefore you must learn it." They are just plain wrong:

1. India has no single "National Language". There are two "Official Languages", Hindi and English. I keep hearing this bit about 'Hindi the national language' all the time; sorry, you are wrong. Kindly read that lovely document, the Indian Constitution. Even the Nehruvian Stalinists couldn't get Hindi to be declared the National Language, so let's not all repeat a falsehood that obviously is widely believed.

2. Hindi is not the language of 70 per cent of India's population, but only of some 40 per cent. It is understood by perhaps 70 per cent, as Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Oriya etc. are fairly similar to Hindi. Moreover, with the relentless propagation of Hindi by the government, and the spread of cable TV and "Who'll become a millionaire", others are also getting to understand a smattering of Hindi. However, this doesn't make Hindi their language.

3. Even if 70 per cent spoke Hindi, it would be improper to impose it on others. This would be the tyranny of the majority, unacceptable in a democracy. Pluralism, laissez-faire, free-market and all those buzzwords really mean something.

4. Numbers aren't the only criterion. If you will pardon a crude American aphorism, "Garbage must be wonderful: a million flies can't be wrong!". If we focused on numbers alone, then we should all learn Mandarin Chinese: more people speak it than any other language in the world. So why aren't the Hindis learning Mandarin in preference to English? Because Mandarin has little commercial value. By the same logic of utility, a South Indian prefers English (very useful) to Hindi (slightly useful) or Mandarin (not useful).

5. Language, as are many other things, is a marketplace. Free trade and all that: there should be no compulsion. Compulsion is what creates resistance. People will willingly learn Hindi if it does them some good. I might have cheerfully learned Hindi to understand Bollywood films; but when I was compelled to, I started to dislike the language. Show me tangible benefit, and I will do it. Many Southern job-seekers who wanted jobs in the North have become quite fluent in Hindi. This was a matter of necessity. In fact, today, the reverse may be true: many Northern youngsters join any engineering college in the South to be able to get jobs in IT. And they must be learning a little Tamil, Kannada, Telugu or Malayalam, I imagine: or are they, like the Ugly American of legend, expecting all to speak their language?

I support English because of its utility, in the economic sense of the term. It is useful. It is just about the only good thing that came out of the British rule in India, purely by accident. For, they say, in the new century intellectual property will be the equivalent of what petroleum was in the last: and most of the IP in the world is created in English. It makes hard-headed business sense to be proficient in English.

Let me reiterate that I have no truck with Macaulay's Minute of 1835, which proposed "the formation of a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect". I am interested in English strictly because it has commercial use: it is a universal lingua franca.

Noting this, the Indian middle class (including several fine Hindi patriots I could name) has voted with its feet: they go to much expense to send children to English-medium school. I think this is fine; we must insist, however, on a thorough revamp of curriculum so that national pride is instilled in children from a very early age. This should be done through highlighting early and often the greatness of Indian civilisation -- indoctrination, if you will, just as the Americans do with their frequent "I pledge allegiance to the flag" bit --- and by insisting that children must also learn Sanskrit and some regional language.

Most other nations feed their children patriotism as it were with mother's milk, which is why they are not infested with idiotic, sanctimonious, often anti-national 'progressives' as India is. Only in India are obvious collaborators, paid agents and fifth columnists for enemy powers treated as savants. Some editors/journalists as well as a fellow at Cornell leap to mind, but I am not supposed to name names. They should at the very least (as in the US) be required to declare that they are agents for foreign powers.

Of the several hundred emails I received, many did agree with me: from people as diverse as Punjabis, Gujaratis, Marathis, Malayalis, Tamils, Telugus and Bengalis, who resent the fact that the official patronage for Hindi is causing their native tongues to struggle.

Many wrote to me about the literary tradition in Hindi. Several mentioned Mahadevi Verma and Sumitra Nandan Pant. Okay, I'll accept that, though I know nothing about them. Reader Ruchira, a Hindi, put it well -- most Hindi writers don't mean much to me, anyway, just as the Malayalam writer O V Vijayan means nothing to her.

But that is the crux of the matter -- Hindi is merely a regional language. If I don't know many Hindi writers, then I raise the mirror to you: how many Tamil or Assamese or Gujarati or Oriya or Kannada or Manipuri writers have you read? Can you even name one? You who haven't sinned may cast the first stone. And yes, I too admit I haven't read as many as I should, but I have read a number of anthologies of Indian writing in English, and many translations in Malayalam, too.

Reader Vivek argued that my very name, Rajeev, is a Hindi word. No, it isn't. It is a Malayalam word, derived from rajeevanayana or rajeevalochana, meaning Krishna, the lotus-eyed one. To be precise, it is a Sanskrit word. Sanskrit being the common heritage of most Indian languages, the word Rajeev is native to all of them. It is a fallacy to think that only Hindi has a Sanskrit heritage: Hindi in fact is less Sanskrit-heavy than some other languages.

It is only that Hindi is written in Devanagari script, which much, though not all, Sanskrit is in, too. The scripts may be confusing people, but Sanskrit can be, and is, written precisely in the Malayalam script, and Malayalam in Devanagari: there is a one-to-one correspondence between Devanagari and Malayalam (with the addition of a couple of letters like 'zha' and the hard 'la').

The fact that Hindi and Sanskrit share a script and some vocabulary means little: for instance, Bahasa Indonesia and English share the Roman script and a lot of words in Bahasa are English words transliterated ("kari" for "curry", etc) but that is not a very strong relationship.

Another accusation against me is that I dare speak about Hindi despite being totally ignorant about it. Not quite. I learned Hindi for six years, all through middle and high school. I had to, it was not an option. Kerala faithfully implemented the recommended "three-language formula": Hindi, English and a regional language. Therefore, strangely:

1. My "first language" was Hindi. This was compulsory. (It was a formal and Sanskritised Hindi rather unlike the street Hindi of the movies.)

2.My "second language" was English. This was compulsory. (Yes, the infamous Malayalam-accented English with severe difficulties related to the letters 'Q' and 'O'.)

3. I had no choice in items 1 and 2, but fortunately, I could choose my "third language". I wanted to take something like French or Sanskrit (in my ten-year-old mind, the fact that it was easy to get grades in those languages stood uppermost, all other considerations be damned), but I ended up taking Malayalam, frankly because my parents insisted. In hindsight, I am glad.

4. It would have been entirely possible for me to finish my schooling, within the Kerala government syllabus, without knowing the Malayalam script or in general, any more than a smattering of Malayalam. In fact some of my classmates did do precisely that.

5. This entire bizarre situation remains exactly the same in Kerala to this day. There is a rationale, I suppose: lots of Kerala people migrate to the North to seek jobs, and thus need to know Hindi to some extent.

How many Northern states -- if I remember right, education is a state subject -- implemented the three-language formula? Answer: zero. They have had the formula where it is Hindi, English (Hinglish?) and Hindi as regional language, not a regional language from the South or West or East as the intent was.

So yes, I am not entirely bereft of a passing acquaintance with Hindi. I can read, write and speak Hindi poorly, but well enough to deal with auto-wallahs and cab-drivers in Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad and Bangalore. I also had the remarkable experience of going to Bhopal once and finding that I could understand their shuddha Hindi rather well.

How many Hindis know one Southern language? Do they even realise there are several Southern languages? Despite my emphatic statements about Malayalam, several Hindis wrote to me about 'Malyalam', 'Malyam', 'Keral' (sic) etc. A few informed me I was Tamil. Reader Anu told me I was betraying my mother tongue. Let me clarify: Hindi is Anu's mother tongue, not mine.

But Hindi is the tongue that does makes my mother illiterate. My highly educated parents became functionally illiterate when they went to the railway station as they do not know Devanagari or Hindi, even though they read Sanskrit in the Malayalam script. For, at Trivandrum railway station, the only time tables they could buy were in Hindi, not in English or Malayalam! Yes, this is for the Southern Railway. And you don't believe Hindi is being imposed on us?

I am sorry I hurt some people's feelings when I talked about the lack of appeal of the BIMARU culture: but then, kindly understand, dear reader, a non-Hindi is similarly hurt by cavalier acts of Hindis, like shopkeepers in California, who refuse to speak to us except in Hindi. It bothers me that Vajpayee would speak at the United Nations etc in Hindi. Why not in Sanskrit? That would be equally incomprehensible to the listeners there, but is more representative of all Indians. I am reminded of the title of Malcolm Muggeridge's autobiography: Tread softly, for you tread on my jokes. Yes, we should all (including me) tread softly because we tread on others' self-image.

The term BIMARU is not something I coined. It is a standard term of discourse in the Indian media. It is offensive to some, I realise. I am similarly offended by the term 'Hindu rate of growth', when it really was 'Nehruvian rate of growth', and god knows Nehru was no Hindu.

I do admire the ancient cultures of Bihar (the land of the Buddha, of viharas, hence 'Bihar'), of Rajasthan (the land of Rajput chivalry, of Chittorgarh), of Madhya Pradesh (the land of Khajuraho) and Uttar Pradesh (the land of Benares, Sarnath, Rishikesh). Yes, their ancient culture; but look at them today. Their modern culture is a lot less appealing: it is largely feudal, archaic and under-developed, indeed.

There is also the depressing history of defeat and destruction that we all learn in school. The Macaulayites chose to dwell on the Indo-Gangetic plain's history to drum into us that we were meant to be conquered, that any foreign bandit (from Alexander to Ghori to Babur to Timur to Clive) could come to India and depend on somebody betraying his motherland. This is a story of shame; not likely to inculcate pride in ourselves.

More on language -- II

Rajeev Srinivasan

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