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October 5, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan

More on language -- II

The language row -- I

A historically naďve Hindi, Anish, informed me that Hindis bore the brunt of the Independence struggle while the 'Southerners slept'. This is a fighting claim, and deserves a sharp retort: Hindis needed to revolt, as they were the slaves of the British, not the rest of us. A quick look at a map of British India will confirm that 50 per cent of the country was under British rule and the rest under Indian rule (not exhaustive lists):

1. British provinces: Sind, part of Baluchistan, the Punjab, United Provinces, Central Provinces, Bihar, Bengal, Assam, Bombay, Madras.

2. Indian provinces: NWFP, Kashmir, Rajputana, Patiala, Kutch, Junagadh, Baroda, Rewa, Manipur, Sikkim, Cooch-Behar, Tripura, Kalahandi, Bastar, Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore-Cochin

The entire Hindi belt, with the honorable exception of Rajputana, was enslaved by the British. Half the South, that is the large states of Hyderabad, Mysore and Travancore-Cochin, was under Indian rule. Naturally, those under Indian rule didn't need to revolt, but the others did. This meant Sikhs, Bengalis, Marathas, Tamils and Hindis.

Any fair analysis will show that the Sikhs contributed far out of proportion to their numbers, being martyred in their thousands. Bengalis were clearly in the forefront of the struggle. Maratha nationalists were among the greatest revolutionaries. Most of the patriots brutalised at Kala Pani, the notorious prison in the Andamans, were from Madras Presidency. So the role of the Hindis was nothing exceptional: they just provided their proportionate numbers.

But even if Hindis contributed, I could argue it was the Hindis who got India enslaved in the first place. Who failed to build the Great Wall of India at the Khyber Pass? Who lost again and again at Panipat? Who let Ghori walk away from the First Battle of Tarain? Who allowed Aurangazeb to murder the gentle Dara Shukoh? (If Dara had lived, the Mughals would have stayed on in power, and they were less odious than the loathsome British.)

Who screwed up the First War of Independence in 1857? Who caused Partition? Do the names Mir Jafar and Jaichand mean anything to you? It has always been the Indo-Gangetic Plain dweller. People in glass houses and all that. I'm sure people will take exception to this, and I apologise in advance, but Anish's type of Ugly Indian does irritate me. I admit, though, that no group in India is perfect, we have all been far too easy to enslave.

But if I look elsewhere, there is Rajaraja Chola defeating the SriVijaya empire in far-away Sumatra; the glorious Vijayanagar empire; Marthanda Varma of Travancore vanquishing the Dutch at Colachel; The Battle of Colachel: In remembrance of things past, Orissan Gangas establishing trading empires in Java. These things we are not taught in our curricula which are still Macaulay's masks of conquest. If anyone talks of updating our teaching of history, the Nehruvian Stalinists throw a tantrum. They should learn from their idols, the Chinese, who constantly drum into every child the greatness of their country, and the wrongs done to it by Europeans, Japanese, et al. No wonder they are nationalistic.

There is much more to India, fortunately, than the Indo-Gangetic Plain. There are several distinct cultures, and this is a source of strength in an increasingly globalised world: Indians can deal with a heterogeneous world much better than homogeneous Han Chinese or Japanese can.

I need to expand a little on the Ugly Indian metaphor. Many of us are familiar with the proverbial Ugly American: a tourist in some foreign land who is exasperated that the dumb locals cannot understand his Texan drawl or whatever and cannot provide him with a hamburger grilled to perfection just the way he likes it. You have seen him: he asks a question, the waiter doesn't understand; he repeats the same question, just more slowly and loudly, with increasing irritation. This cycle is repeated until he is shouting, red-faced, veins bulging in his neck.

It is exactly the same way, as cultural imperialists, that some Hindis come across to me when they are outside their home habitat in India. They expect others to understand their so-called national language; they expect others to make their tandoori chicken or whatever "just like back home in Jhumri-talaiya". This is how they come across: as louts who have no respect for others, or even just plain common sense. This doesn't make for national integration. I hasten to clarify that not all Ugly Indians are Hindis, or vice versa -- boorishness seems to cut across language barriers.

Interestingly, I just saw an article in the Pakistani Frontier Post by possibly a Pathan author regarding the position of Urdu in his country. I guess he is talking about Ugly Pakistanis. Says he, and I quote verbatim:

"The imposition of Urdu as Pakistan's national language has been disastrous for the country…

Urdu and Hindi are very similar languages, mostly composed of native north Indian heritage… the fact remains that Urdu is only native to parts of north India and is a foreign language in Pakistan…

Upon Pakistan's creation, the peak of Urduisation became a reality with the imposition of Urdu on the non-Urdu speaking peoples of Pakistan, in the form of Urdu as the national and official language of Pakistan. Except for the 7 per cent of Pakistanis who are north Indian Muslim migrants or their descendants, also known as Muhajirs, whose mother-tongue is Urdu, none of the other Pakistanis have anything to do with Urdu…

…basically Urdu is resisted in much of the country. If many people have learnt Urdu, it is simply because they are forced to do so, for social and economic communicational necessities under the Urdu-dominated system of the country…

Is imposition of Urdu as the national language of Pakistan a conspiracy to 'Indianise' distinct peoples of Pakistan? Many of the native languages of Pakistan are already in danger of being extinct, mostly due to Urdu imposition. And when a language dies, so does its people's identity and heritage…

Criticising Urdu language as the national language of Pakistan might be very emotional to many Pakistanis. But ignoring this issue with falsehoods and illusions will only worsen the problem. Let us be open-minded and cease Urdu as the national language of Pakistan…"

Interesting mirror-image problem they seem to be facing in Pakistan. The man almost speaks, in so many words, of masks of conquest. Okay, maybe his conspiracy theory is a bit much, but still, the sentiment is not unreasonable.

Reader Tariq from India wrote a gentle lament: "My Urdu tutorials were limited to lessons from my parents which I paid little attention to. Today, I lament the fact that I do not know Urdu. While I fail to understand what exactly that loss means to me, I think it is somehow related to a sense of unattachment to my past and my background."

I sympathise with Tariq. I remember reading somewhere a quotation from one of the Greek greats that the loss of one's language is the greatest of tragedies. This is precisely why non-Hindis in the subcontinent feel upset at the explicit denigration of our languages through the medium of Hindi imposition.

But from a non-Hindi point of view, the Persian words in Urdu are not high priority: why on earth do I want to learn Persian, in addition to Malayalam, and Sanskrit, and English which, to varying degrees, are mine? Persian culture is not at all of interest to me, if it is to Tariq it's only fair he study it. But I'm perfectly content to read Saadat Hassan Manto and Qurratulain Hyder (and Omar Khayyam) in translation in English or Malayalam.

My problem with Urdu is two-fold: one, that a lot of Hindis extol Urdu as God's gift to mankind. Really? It seems just another language to me. Nehru, I think, was a big fan of Urdu, and his Hindi plan had the consequence of imposing Persian/Arabic/Urdu on all Indians through state patronage of Hindi, sort of continuing what the Mughals did. It also resulted in the continuing buffoonery of Indian politicians going to Pakistan and making asses of themselves by ignoring their official business to recite Urdu poetry.

Second, I am continually appalled at the obsequiousness of Indians towards anything foreign. The love of Persian is another example of this: we have such an extraordinary inheritance in our own languages, why must that of the foreigner necessarily be better? I'd rather look for diamonds in my own backyard. Love of Persian may be a symptom of some deep inferiority complex.

My friend Reeta Sinha took umbrage at something I said, but I shall let it pass without comment, as I told her. Except she does some hair-splitting about Hindi, Urdu and Hindustani. I am lost: as far as I know, these are just dialects of the same basic tongue, which is derived from Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Braj-bhasha, Rajasthani, Avadhi, Magadhi, Apabhramsa, Khari-boli. The differences (apart from script) are about as great as those between Australian Outback and Boston Yankee English. Enough already with this theological nitpicking on how many angels can dance on a pin-head!

So much for the Hindis. Now for the Tamils. Reader Shyam Sundar pointed out that Tamils around the world continue to be devoted to their language -- those in Singapore, Sri Lanka etc. "What Tamils like me have is a deep love for our language. We do get upset when our language is insulted. Do you call this chauvinism?", asked Shyam. Again I am sorry I hurt people's feelings, but then the fine line between pride and chauvinism is in the eye of the beholder.

Ramesh Rao told me about his column on this topic. He quotes Sumathi Ramaswamy in Passions of the Tongue: Language devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970: "This incorporation of the language into the very being of the tamilian carries tremendous consequences, for in its most passionate moments, tamilpparru (Tamil devotion) certainly instructs Tamil speakers that devotion to their language should supersede devotion to their parents, their spouses, and children; but it also tells them that devotion to their language should transcend attachment to their own bodies and to their own lives".

This is not how an opportunistic Malayali feels about his language: it comes way below his attachment to his body, and certainly below his attachment to his wallet. It is true that Potti Sriramulu immolated himself agitating for Andhra Pradesh; and there are Kannada chauvinists too; but on average others in the South are less attached to their languages than Tamils are. Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers have also demonstrated this steely resolve to uphold the language.

Many Tamils I know -- and I know quite a few --- at least semi-seriously suggest that 'South Indian' is synonymous with 'Tamil'. Au contraire. In my humble opinion, others in the South are not looking for some 'Dravidian' revolution or identity. Speaking strictly for myself, I am Indian first and Malayali second, and 'Dravidian' not at all. In fact, the whole 'Dravidian' business was invented by some Christian missionary (Abbe duBois?): divide and rule, yet again. It was used by the Dravida Kazhagam and others to gain political power.

A number of Tamils, especially Lakshminarayanan, pointed out that ancient and classical Tamil did have significant interchanges with Sanskrit. Apparently it is only in the last century of 'Dravidian' politics that modern Tamil has been 'ethnically cleansed' of a lot of Sanskrit words. This is news to me. Maybe then Sanskrit as the National Language would not be that unacceptable to Tamils either.

Reader Venkatesh wrote that there was a 'manipravalam' movement in medieval Tamil that intermixed Tamil and Sanskrit words. This was also news to me, although I am familiar with the delicate 'manipravalam' (pearls and gems threaded together) of medieval Sanskrit-Malayalam poetry. So Sanskrit and Tamil, perhaps, are not oil and water after all. Some worry whether Sanskrit is older than Tamil, but who cares? Isn't it possible that both were contemporaneous as literary and everyday languages of the Indus-Sarasvati Valley Civilisation? Maybe bi-lingualism is built into our genes?

I personally reject the entire 'Dravidian' hypothesis. I believe there is no distinction between the so-called 'Aryan' and 'Dravidian' 'races'. There was no 'Aryan' invasion: skeletal remains in the Indus-Sarasvati Valley cities show few signs of violent death as would happen in an invasion, and there is a remarkable uniformity of body-types. (See Subhash Kak et al, In Search of the Cradle of Civilization, and F E Pargiter, Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, both published by Motilal Banarsidass; or the Allchins' book).

It is now common knowledge that the Sarasvati dried up circa 1900 BCE because it lost its tributaries to the Indus and the Ganges due to an earthquake; thus the civilisation was forced to spread to other parts of the subcontinent.

It was a wholly indigenous civilisation. Unlike what such neo-Macaulayites as the American-leftist-resident-in-India Gail Omvedt imagine, no "Aryans thundered down the Khyber pass in their horse-drawn chariots". The Aryan Invasion Theory was a colonial lie, a product of its time when whites were brutalising others: Europeans decided that their people must have 'brought' civilisation to India, too. In fact, Indians likely took their culture westwards. See my earlier column on the fudging of the calendar, Millennium Fuss.

The linguistic 'proof' of the Aryan Invasion Theory has also been shown to be ambiguous. The similarity between Sanskrit, Old Persian, and European languages was explained away by a migration of Europeans into India through Iran. But it could be explained equally well, it turns out, by a reverse migration of Indians through Iran into Europe!

As Indian civilisation is demonstrably older than previously conceded by Europeans, this possibility looms large. For instance, given the explicit evidence from celestial events recorded meticulously in the Rig Veda and other texts, it is becoming increasingly evident that Indian astronomy and science predated the Greek, not vice versa as previously assumed.

The Aryan Invasion Theory, it looks like, is a case of "truth by repeated assertion". A hypothesis was accepted as an axiom, and all inconvenient evidence to the contrary was dismissed or explained away. It reminds me of the earth-centric theory of astronomy, and the complex medieval European theories of epicycles to explain it all, when a simple sun-centric theory fits all the available evidence better. But there was a mental block against it.

I believe the 'Aryan'-'Dravidian' divide now belongs in the waste-heap of history: yet another failed theory. It is clear from Indian literary sources (which also nowhere mention a great invasion) that 'Aryan' was not a racial term, but one indicating nobility (of character). Nobles even in Tamil country were referred to as 'Aryan'. The non-existent 'Dravidian' race/identity is increasingly seen as a red herring useful for divide and rule, nothing more.

I will give credit to the Tamils for two things, however. One, it is true that Tamil has one of India's great classical traditions. Two, it is true that if Tamils hadn't been ready to die for their language, the Nehruvian Hindi steam-roller may have eradicated all non-Hindi languages by now. Yes, I do admit that the rest of us Southerners would have stood by meekly and accepted the creeping Hindi-isation of India. This was mentioned by many readers, including Baskaran, Sudha and Nayagan. They are right.

The greatness of classical Tamil literature I accept. There are the Sangam era works, which I too will take pride in, because the classic Silappadikaram (The Jewelled Anklet) was written by Prince Ilango of the Chera dynasty, rulers of what is now Kerala. (Malayalam only separated from Tamil later.) But much more importantly, I admire greatly the Tamil Bhakti saints of the sixth century CE onwards: Manikyavachakar, Sundarar, Appar, Nammalvar, Sambandar, Andal, et al. For it was they who brought Hinduism to the regional languages and made it accessible. To this day, the prevailing form of Hinduism is based on their bhakti, devotion.

In an ironic twist of fate, it was these Tamils, with their ecstatic love for a personal God, along with Adi Sankara, a Malayali, who revived Hinduism in the eighth century CE or thereabouts. At that time, Buddhism was the dominant popular religion. Sankara supplied the intellectual rigor to out-debate the Buddhists -- he in fact turned Nagarjuna's brilliant philosophical exegeses against Nagarjuna's own disciples (not for nothing was Sankara derided as a prachchanna-bauddha, a crypto-Buddhist); and the Bhakti saints supplied the emotional content. This was the Counter-Reformation in Hinduism some 1300 years after the Buddhist/Jain Reformation.

It may or may not have been a good thing that Buddhism was vanquished in India through debate and devotion. In my humble personal opinion, I would have preferred Buddhism to remain a large and active force in India. Of course the death-blow to Buddhism came from Muslim armies, such as those of Alauddin Khilji, which destroyed the great Buddha-viharas such as the university at Nalanda, burned their libraries, and massacred their monks.

But the North-South equation has come full circle in the case of Hinduism. Some vocal Northerners believe in "Hindi, Hindustan, Hindutva". Little do they realise that the very Hinduism that they wish to uphold is not a Northern construct, but one created largely by Southerners. The main contribution of Hindi has been the Rama devotion exemplified by the immensely popular Ramacharita manasa of Tulsidas and the Krishna devotion exemplified by Mira Bai: the Southerners were classic Saivites or Vaishnavites. Classical Tamil may yet be more closely connected to Hinduism than modern Hindi is.

But I am happy that Tamils and Hindis should gang up on me, a common foe who ridiculed them both. This is fitting, and oddly enough shows the remarkable underlying unity of India. It makes me hopeful for the future of our great nation. Furthermore, I would like to commend the Hindis and Tamils for one thing: they have pride in their languages; I wish we could all have the same amount of pride in our country.

The national language debate by S Hasan in Pakistan's Frontier Post

Rajeev Srinivasan

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