A telling parable about Malayalis’ relationship with languages is a Malayalam short story by the late O.V. Vijayan about institutions that taught typewriting and short-hand in Palakkad. Legends were woven around their alumni conquering corporate and government back-offices at 100 words per minute. One day in 1962, the curtains fell on them abruptly when the news of Chinese intrusion reached Palakkad. Vijayan noted that overnight, typing schools gave up their skills in English and switched to Mandarin.
The hyperbolic tale carries a bigger Kerala truth: it has been jobs over anything, even language, for the Malayalis; and this could well be true everywhere. Kerala holds limited wherewithal to support all of its nearly fully literate population of about 33 million. According to a recent estimate, migration for employment has put nearly 2.31 million Malayalis abroad. More live in other Indian states; the 2011 census had estimated nearly one million Malayalis living in Tamil Nadu alone. With this kind of scattering, multilingualism is expected to be high in Kerala. The 1991 census had estimated that 28.85 per cent Malayalam speakers in India spoke a second language, and further, 19.64 per cent knew three or more languages. On the other hand, speakers of Hindi, which has a vast geography to fall back on, did not find much need to study a second language—only about 12 per cent of native Hindi speakers were multilingual.
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While skilled and educated Malayalis trekked outside Kerala for jobs, with the population ageing fast, there was a deficit of youth, especially in areas that required manual effort. This vacuum was filled by long-distance trains to Kerala originating from faraway stations like Howrah, Dibrugarh, Bhubaneswar, etc. A high wage regime and better social climate drove poor youth from the North and the Northeast states to board these trains. At the peak of migration, these trains disgorged about 11,000 passengers every day. Estimates of inward migration to Kerala vary from 2.5 million to 4 million—roughly about 8-10 per cent of the state’s population.
‘Bengalis’—the generic name for all migrant workers in Kerala—carried out house work, tended gardens, manned shop counters and cooked in restaurants. Their skills and hard work were the most valued in construction. The areas of work they mostly engaged in called for a high degree of verbal communication. Malayalis chose Hindi as the lingua franca though the majority of these workers were from West Bengal and Assam. One reason for this is that migrant workers in Kerala can understand Hindi, even if that is not their first language. Labourers at a construction site—drawn from various states like Odisha, Manipur, Bihar, Bengal and Assam, say—chose Hindi to talk among themselves.
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This period saw Malayalis brush up their Hindi. Merchants’ associations held tuition classes in Hindi for shop owners so that they could communicate better with their employees. In towns like Perumbavoor—a centre of the plywood industry—more Hindi was heard on the streets than Malayalam. Hindi signboards on buses started appearing. In Malayalam cinema, which liked to mirror contemporary society, bhais marked their presence. Masala Republic, a 2014 Malayalam movie, had a Bengali protagonist, along with a dozen migrant workers in the cast. Today, Hindi is a part of everyday life in Kerala. It is not that migrants didn’t try to pick up Malayalam, but their Malayalam was less effective than their hosts’ Hindi.
Hindi was central to most nation-building projects initiated by Gandhiji. He saw the need to fuse southern and northern states for future national integration. Hindi was the chosen vehicle because of the large number of people who spoke the language. In 1918, he founded, along with Annie Besant, the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha to spread Hindi among the people of erstwhile Madras Presidency, and the princely states of Travancore, Cochin, Mysore, Banganepalle, Hyderabad, Pudukottai and Sanduru—practically the whole of present-day South India, minus Puducherry. People flocked to study Hindi in 600-odd centres of the Sabha. Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi, a product of the nationalist movement, started Yugaprabhat, a Hindi fortnightly, in the 1940s. Popular culture also carried forward the Gandhian view of Hindi as a unifier. K.A. Abbas’s 1969 movie Saat Hindustani, about seven Indians from various corners of India coming together to liberate Goa from the Portuguese, has a character called Mahadevan, a Tamilian who was a Hindi pracharak. He was anxious for the unity of the country when anti-Hindi riots broke out in Madras.
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Nationalism apart, Malayalis took to Hindi whole-heartedly. From middle school upwards, Hindi is taught in almost all schools. Universities in Kerala have Hindi departments with emphasis on research. Vinod Kumar Shukla, one of the finest writers in Hindi, had reportedly said while visiting the Hindi department of Calicut University that even if Hindi dies in other parts of India, it will survive in Kerala. The soft power of Bollywood, popular TV serials, especially from the Doordarshan days, kept Malayalis on friendly terms with Hindi. Newspapers seldom fail to recall the anniversary of Muhammed Rafi’s first appearance in Kochi, back in the 1950s.
All these dramatically change once you attempt to hierarchise languages. The 1965 anti-Hindi riots in Madras state, which claimed over 70 lives, were prompted as the constitutional deadline to declare Hindi as the sole official language approached. The Tamil reaction to such a move was so strong that ever since, the Centre has wisely extended use of English in official communications. When it comes to imposition of Hindi, even the Hindi-friendly Malayali resists. In 1989, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the then chief minister of UP and a Hindi enthusiast, wrote a letter to the late E.K. Nayanar, the then chief minister of Kerala, in Hindi. Nayanar, not to be put down by such oneupmanship, replied in Malayalam. The next letter from a flummoxed Mulayam to Nayanar was in English.
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Union home minister Amit Shah’s recent statement, “Hindi should be the link”, brings back memories of the anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s. That it should come from Shah, a Gujarati, is ironic. The 1956 reorganisation of Indian states on linguistic lines left one state, Bombay, untouched. It was seen as an experiment in two languages, Marathi and Gujarati, coexisting to buck the trend of language-based states. Maha Dwibhashi Rajya (the Great Bilingual State) didn’t last long; in 1960, the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat were born following riots that claimed 107 lives. Shah should know about the emotional sway of languages over people.
Rebottling the old nationalist narrative of Hindi as a unifying factor is anachronous. The nation has been in existence for more than seven decades and linguistic states are coexisting relatively harmoniously for the last 66 years. By flogging a nearly dead horse, Shah is probably trying to please Hindi speakers. They have enough numbers to put most of the required number of MPs to form the government. The Hindi heartland is from where the BJP draws its power. Shah might have fallen to temptation to further nurture this huge constituency. Coexistence of languages had ensured the stability of nations, as countries like Switzerland would testify. On the other hand, our neighbour Pakistan’s history suggests that staking primacy of a language in a multilingual nation can inflame angry sentiments.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Love and Loathing")
(Views expressed are personal)
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N.S. Madhavan is a malayali littérateur and columnist