February 19, 2020
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Lingual Battlefield

A disappointed enthusiast provides an impassioned, informed and intelligent polemic

Lingual Battlefield
Lingual Battlefield
Hindi Nationalism (Tracts for the Times, No. 13)
By Alok Rai
Orient Longman Rs 150; Pages 138
To live in today's Delhi is to breathe largely the absence of a rejuvenating culture. The language that walks the streets is of the Humko Binnies Mangta variety, mauling the vernacular and replicating sans irony our colonial masters' compounding of mangna (demand and order), with chahna (desire and affection). Our passions are ruled by copywriters, our early-morning thinking conditioned by liberal-majoritarian columnists. Co-existing with this brand of easy-going, frost-free Hindutva is the aggressive propagation of an artificial high-Hindi as the natural language of Hindustan: the sort that air hostesses mouth uncomfortably, and in which schoolchildren of Hindustani-speaking parents do uniformly badly. This 'Hindi' has a longer and rather different genealogy from that of Babri-Hindutva that is demanding fresh 'ration cards' from so many long-term residents of this land, but it is marked equally by a standardisation of both language and history. In this informed and impassioned polemic, Rai confronts this upper-caste, self-serving 'Hindi' with its own history. "The suspect vehemence with which the Hindiwallah perceives the threat without—Urdu yesterday, English today—indicates," writes Rai, "a neurotic need to escape from its intrinsic difficulties." It is Rai's argument that these difficulties derive from Hindi's "deeply divided historical legacy which makes it only partly popular, democratic, reformist, progressive".

Writing as a disappointed enthusiast, Rai provides an intelligent guide to the bitter and successful fight against a "feudal-foreign" Urdu led by the savarna east UP elite on behalf of a linguistically-wronged Hindi/Hindu India. The success of the '20s Hindi elite was at the cost of making this language unrepresentative of popular speech. The status gained by official 'Hindi' in independent India was scarred by the play of power politics. If Urdu from the days of the language controversy came to stand for the Gangetic Mussalman, the historical power of "Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan" lay not only in its brevity. Concurrent with the census that for the first time enumerated a Hindu majority and a Muslim minority, it marked the immaculate conception of linguistic majoritarianism. The pre-December 6 nation-state has been as complicit as today's double-speak rulers in portraying the triumph of high 'Hindi' as God's own handiwork.

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