Monday, Dec 04, 2023

Hindi Chauvinism Hangs Like An Imperialist Spectre Over Rest Of India


Hindi Chauvinism Hangs Like An Imperialist Spectre Over Rest Of India

Hindi Diwas: With Hindi being pushed by the Centre as Rashtra Bhasha, the spectre of language imperialism haunts the Indian Union

Time’s arrow artwork by Anupriya

First things first. Hindi is not the nat­i­onal language of India. The Uni­on of India was not founded on the basis of any particular language, except maybe English, which formed the only strain of common communication and co-ordination—via the British-built rails and post-office—and connected producers of anti-British narratives in anti-British struggles from Bengal to Peshawar and Punjab to Tamil Nadu. The Gujarat high court, in a historic judgment in 2012, termed Hindi as a foreign language as far as Gujarat and Gujaratis are concerned.

But in 2022, another Gujarati—Union home minister Amit Shah—demanded that Hindi, a “foreign” language for non-Hindi people, be used by non-Hindi people instead of English, the only language that is taught in all classes of all schools in all states of the Indian Union. This led to protests in Tamil Nadu by DMK, in Karnataka by the Congress and JD(S), in Mah­a­ra­s­htra by Shiv Sena, in West Bengal by Tri­na­mool Congress (TMC), in Kerala by CPI(M), with even the Tamil Nadu BJP unit rejecting the idea.

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This shows the depth of the fault line. Given that the Union government’s language department comes under the home ministry that is tasked to look after internal security issues, viewing India’s diversity and non-Hindi identities as internal security threats is deeply emb­e­dded in its structure. This leads non-­Hindi­-speaking people to ask the question: is this India or Hindia?

This question was the source of bitter tension even in the Constituent Assembly, what with R.S. Dhulekar, an elected member from UP, stating that those who do not know Hindi have no right to be in the committee. And it has rem­ained the most enduring question facing the Republic.

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One look at the map will show that the Indian Union represents those territories acquired by the British in South Asia since their victory in Palashi in 1757, using mercenaries from the present-day Hindi-belt, which was divided into two dominions in 1947 by an act of the British Parliament. Thus, what is now the Union of Ind­ia, is a legacy of British imperial conquests, treaties, legislations and whim. What holds it together is a question that will evoke different responses, based on whether one is from a Hin­di-speaking state or elsewhere. Since the nati­o­nalism of dark-skinned lands once ruled by Whites is modelled on European nationalism, language undeniably plays a central role in the development of a sense of nationhood (jatis­o­tta), nation (jati) and nationalism (jatio­tabad).

Ekushe February International Mother Language Day celebrations in Calcutta this year
Ekushe February International Mother Language Day celebrations in Calcutta this year Photograph: Getty Images

In a multi-lingual subcontinent whose major chunk is one state (rashtra)—the Indian Uni­on—­straightforward imposition of a European-style national imagination led to development of two different strains of the idea. One of them—with subscribers from Gandhi to Nehru, Patel to Savarkar and Golwalkar to Modi—has always tried to pigeonhole the subcontinent’s plurality into a monolingual box, with Hindi providing the language element deemed essential for achieving nationhood. In this model, the Indian Union is a nation-in-making, whose completion is tied with the conversion of a num­erical majority of non-Hindi peoples into Hindi speakers—with the core being provided by the Hindi-belt—whose percentage of India’s total population is ever-increasing, due to fert­i­lity rates that are much higher than the rest.

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For example, in 2013, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR; roughly, the average number of children born to a woman) of Bihar was 3.4—similar to Pakistan, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Yemen—while that of neighbouring West Bengal was 1.6—sim­i­lar to the UK, Australia, the Netherlands and Sweden.

In the alternative model, the Indian Union is a multi-national super state, where major constituent nations have their linguistic homelands in the form of states (rajya); and where federal unity is embodied in the Constitution as a Union of States, Hindi and non-Hindi.

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However, Hindi (and Urdu—linguistically the same language) people being the single largest bloc wielding control over the largest number of seats in Parliament—albeit not a majority—have, from the onset, ensured that the pheno­m­enon of Hindi imperialism is nurtured. This has stymied the all-round development of non-Hindi states, with the agenda being pushed by capitalists originating in Gujarat and Rajas­t­han, and later from Delhi. One can see this even in the pre-1947 period, when the Congr­ess lea­der from Gujarat, M.K. Gandhi, funded by Bengal-based capitalist from Rajasthan, G.D. Birla, began pushing Hindi in non-Hindi states with missionary zeal.

With population-­based seat red­i­stribution looming large in 2026, the Indian Uni­on is at a crossroads, threatening to bec­o­m­e a Hindi-­majoritarian Empire.

Since these capitalists are outsiders in all mar­kets barring that of their states of origin, they seem to have developed a tacit system of employing mostly Hindi-speaking people in industrial and commercial operations in non-Hin­di states. This may have sprung from an asp­iration of controlling the market in the long run, but the resultant denial of opportunities to sons of the soil and concomitant demogra­phic changes, naturally lead to discontent, often expressed robustly. Though the Nehru-Shastri Congress was forced to backtrack on imposition of Hindi in non-Hindi states in the face of histo­ric anti-Hindi protests of 1965 spearheaded by Tamil Nadu, steady Hindification of all aspe­cts of the Union government continued to be pus­hed, steadily squeezing out non-Hindi people from a lot of employment opportunities.

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Thus, Hindi people have enjoyed the advant­age of writing national-level competitive exams for higher education and for jobs at all levels, in their mother tongue—including for IIT, Army, NDA, BSF, etc.—which has been denied to non-Hindi people, relegating them to second-class citizenship in what is putatively their own rashtra.

With the pre-Partition Congress consensus now having broken, the Hindi lobby that once used to power the Congress is now the engine of the BJP, with CBSE, NEET, Bollywood etc., as its newer fuels. On its part, the BJP has compromised on the beef question in Meghalaya, backtracked on population control as its Hindi vote-bank is the largest population expander, but is steadfast on its Hindi-imposition agenda.

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This new Hindi-style governance was there for all to see during the Covid pandemic period, when a Hindi-speaking IAS delivered Covid updates exclusively in Hindi to 1.3 billion people, most of whom are non-Hindi-speaking and don’t know any language other than their mot­her ton­gue. For example, according to the last census (2011), 86 per cent of West Bengal is Ban­gla-spe­aking, of which 83 per cent knows only Bangla. Yet, this has not stopped the Union government from having Amitabh Bachchan delivering mandatory Covid warning messages in Hindi before every phone call; or erecting signboards written only in Hindi along national highways and railway stations. In fact, anything that is controlled by the Union government in West Bengal—train tickets, in-flight security instructions, CISF frisking instructions, BSF ord­ers to inhabitants of border areas, forms, apps, publi­cations, websites, income tax return filing systems, post office and bank forms, ATM—has only Hindi legends.

Increasingly, PSUs, BSF, MEA, post offices, ban­ks, etc., are deploying Hindi staff in non-Hindi states—who not only do not know the local language, but also have the audacity to question the citizenship of their customers for not knowing Hindi.

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Almost every day in West Bengal, there are incidents reported in the press where employees of Union government departments—be it Rail­ways, BSF or banks—insult Bengalis by calling them Bangladeshis for not knowing Hindi and speaking in Bangla in Bengal. What is common to most is that the instigators are found quoting the lie that Hindi is the Rashtra Bhasha to conf­l­ate Indian citizenship with Hindi proficiency.

This isn’t an emotive identity issue anymore. Since 2018, finance commissions have been pun­i­shing non-Hindi states for successful populat­ion control, while rewarding Hindi-states for the­ir fai­lure to do so, by using the 2011 Census as base instead of the mandated practice of using the 1971 Census. And with population-based red­i­stribution of seats looming large in 2026, the Uni­on of India is at a crossroads. Either it bec­o­m­es a Hindi-majoritarian empire with non-Hin­­di people as second-class citizens, or major non-­Hindi states unite with their diversity to force Hindi-controlled Delhi into a comprom­ise—­where parliamentary seat redistribution can only happen if major subjects are transfe­r­red from the Union and Concurrent lists to the State list.

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Unity in diversity has silent but obvious pre-conditions—equality and dignity. Either Hindi is denied special status at the Union level; or all of Tamil, Bangla, Marathi, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Odia, Assamese, Punjabi have the exact same legal status and rights as Hindi, in the Union of India.

(This appeared in the print edition as "India or Hindia?")

(Views expressed are personal)


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Garga Chatterjee is a language activist and general secretary of Bangla Pokkho, a Bengali rights group