Tuesday, Aug 09, 2022
Cover Story

Hindi: The Urge To Build A National Consciousness Around A Language

The move to make Hindi the national language is a political project, the language becoming a tool for constructing national unity

Official language India’s freedom movement: Portrait of the Father of the Nation (Gandhi’s Dandi March). Artwork by Riyas Komu

Saadat Hasan Manto, the great short-fiction writer, once commented about those ardent Punjabis in Pakistan who, in order to appear nationalists, purposefully tried to speak Urdu, which had just been declared the national language by the new country’s rulers in order to forge a nationalistic identity. “Agar koi Punjabi Urdu bolta hai, aisa lagta hai woh jhooth bol raha hai (Whenever any Punjabi speaks Urdu, it looks as if he is lying). Manto could well have made the analogy today by replacing Urdu with Hindi, and Punjabi with an Indian language whose native speakers, barely acquainted with the Hindi literary treasure, are trying to project it as the national language for a political agenda.

Language is among the most powerful and emotive mediums of both individual and national consciousness. A flag or an emblem is deliberately chosen at a given moment, whereas a language is a reservoir of a living memory spanning across centuries. The first initiation of an individual to the world is through the language one learns at home. Political masters can introduce any arbitrary insignia to a population and expect them to follow it, but not a language that is not rooted in the land.