Thursday, Jun 01, 2023

Surrender To Kareena's Pout, Will You Please, Justice Katju?

Surrender To Kareena's Pout, Will You Please, Justice Katju?

A passionate counter to the Press Council Chairman's many linguistic biases


Retired Justice Markandey Katju seems to have developed a knack to find different ways to keep reappearing in the news. If he isn’t rating Salman Rushdie as a “substandard” writer, he is relegating Indian journalists to the same category. If he isn’t chiding newspapers for carrying news of Dev Anand’s death on their front pages, he is fulminating about 90 per cent of Indians being fools. But it is his latest sermon, asking Tamilians to learn Hindi, and his disputatious clarification that ensued, that should get one worried. Had he finally lost it entirely to become one of the disparaged 90 per cent himself? What else could one attribute his crude reasoning to?

In his piece, Required, Two Tongues, that he wrote for The Hindu, Justice Katju urged those from Tamil Nadu to pick up Hindi so that Indians could communicate with each other. Given that there was nothing recent that seemed to even remotely suggest Indians were suddenly grappling with a Babel-like situation, his out-of-turn prescription did cause expected furore. When he was pilloried, and rightly so, he wrote another article (‘Think rationally about learning Hindi and it will make sense') and offered even more controversial "explanations" that must be contested vigorously.

This isn’t an attack on Justice Katju but the ideas he espouses, ones that, I dare say, have many other supporters. Neither is it an attack on Hindi, but the arrogant and faulty reasoning he adopts, and so does the government, to privilege Hindi over several other languages.

Ironically enough, the biggest impediment to Hindi’s growth has come from those who seem to want it the most. It is something that Justice Katju also acknowledges in his article when he says that even the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had told him how Tamilians were learning Hindi without any problem until diktats to do so came from Delhi. This is when resentment built up and Hindi was shunned. The decision to learn a language is and ought to be an extremely personal decision that cannot be enforced but must be enabled, though it hardly works that way in India. When Hindi speakers remind those not familiar with Hindi, even if politely, that they must make an effort to pick up the language to enhance national unity, it rankles even those who may have learnt Hindi, or wanted to do so otherwise. From the perspective of non-native Hindi speakers and those who still don’t know the language, the state has only been arrogant to force them to learn the language and chosen to ignore others.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia Commons, showing shows pockets of non-Indo-Aryan languages
in the the area taken for the "Hindi belt"

Unfortunately, Justice Katju’s directive in his latest articles asking Tamilians to learn Hindi belies a similar combination of arrogance and ignorance. This is especially true when he throws up exaggerated numbers of Hindi speakers to justify his statement. Defending himself and arguing how Hindi has far more speakers than Tamil, Justice Katju writes, 

“In the Hindi belt there are 200 million people in Uttar Pradesh, 82 million in Bihar, 75 million in Madhya Pradesh, 69 million in Rajasthan, 27 million in Jharkhand, 26 million in Chhattisgarh, 26 million in Haryana, and seven million in Himachal Pradesh.” 

Now, to conflate a state’s entire population with the number of its Hindi speakers is specious for it ignores people who may not speak Hindi at all but other languages. This is especially true of Chhattisgarh, which has a large tribal population amongst its total of 25.5 million. Would it be right to assume that all Gondi, Chhattisgarhi, Korku and Halbi speakers speak Hindi? Or does Justice Katju think these languages are all different forms of Hindi? (As an aside, it may help to know that the Maoists have chosen to work on developing an indigenous script for Gondi that currently uses the Devanagari one as a way to create a separate identity for Gondi speakers.)

Similarly, his figure of 69 million Hindi speakers in Rajasthan, which has a 2011 Census population of 68.6 million, ignores the fact that many still do not speak Hindi but other languages like Marwari, Dhundhari, Bagri, Mewari, Mewati and Hadauti. In fact, the inclusion of Marwari in the Eight Schedule, a Constitutional list that at the moment privileges 22 languages at the expense of others, has many supporters including the state’s chief minister Ashok Gehlot. Even, Himachal Pradesh, which has a population of 6.8 million, has pockets where people speak, for instance, only Mandiali or Chameali and no Hindi at all. Anyway, it is misleading to use numbers of speakers in the Hindi belt who speak Hindi only as their second or, perhaps even, their third language and pretend its their mother tongue or first language.

Not only has Justice Katju got his facts wrong when he exaggerates the number of Hindi speakers, he rather imperiously relegates Tamil to being “only a regional language” and upgrades Hindi to a “national” status. Even the Constitution doesn’t use “national” to tag Hindi (“official” is how it is described). But then what is the point of such labels, Justice Katju, other than to show one as inferior to the other? The truth is that both these languages are international; while Hindi is spoken in countries like Suriname and South Africa, Tamil is used in Malaysia and Singapore.

Justice Katju also refuses to acknowledge the linguistic diversity of the Hindi belt. When he assumes that the Hindi belt is one homogenous linguistic unit, he is being arrogant to consider other languages as forms of Hindi or deny that other languages even exist in this region. Even in Uttar Pradesh, a person from its east who hasn’t passed through the state’s formal education structure, will hardly be able to communicate with somebody from the west—so varied are the speech forms there. Two other states he mentions as part of the Hindi belt, Bihar and Jharkhand, also have different languages—the former like Angika and Magahi and the latter many like Santhali, Ho and Mundari—that are completely subsumed by the official aggrandisement of Hindi. Having Hindi as the official language of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh has also served the state well in keeping a lid on any contentious claims by speakers of many other languages there that represent, not just the Indo-Aryan family, but others like Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian.

Justice Katju could argue that Marwari, Chhattisgarhi and Angika, or even the others, are dialects of Hindi. And that is where the problem lies. There are a growing number of linguists who recognise the inherent arrogance, indeed ignorance, terms like 'dialects' or 'minor languages' represent and how they have silently nibbled away at our linguistic diversity. On what grounds two speech forms—and I am deliberately avoiding the discriminatory language-dialect or major-minor distinction—ought to be considered as separate languages is extremely disputable. Unfortunately, the state’s practice, indeed ours too, has been to subsume and co-opt to enforce homogeneity. It is apt here to bring up the aphorism popularised by Yiddish scholar Max Weinrich—“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Just as Yiddish was relegated to being a “linguistic mishmash”, principally by German and East European language speakers, dominant population groups have always had their speech forms override others spoken by weaker groups. The rise of modern day Hindi from what chiefly is Khariboli and the gradual sidelining of Braj Bhasa and other forms tells this story. Remember, Johnny Walker’s derisive comment popularised by actor Balraj Sahni on how only an official version of Hindi was being promoted through the All India Radio and Doordarshan? “’Ab aap hindi mein samachar suniye’, wo bolte hain aajkal. Bolna chahiye, ‘ab aap samachar mein hindi suniye’.” (‘Listen to the news now in Hindi’ is what they say these days. What they should instead say is ‘Listen to the Hindi in the news’.)

Unfortunately, this bias has been the cornerstone of our linguistic policy, where the Census a) does not record languages that have less than 10,000 speakers and b) seeks to distil speech forms recorded by Census officers to “languages” as the state knows them. For instance, the 2001 Census officers recorded 6,661 languages but they are dismissively termed as “raw returns”. These are reduced to 1,635 “languages after rationalisation” and it whittles this down further to 234 “mother tongues after classification”. Finally, the tally is brought down to 122 “languages”. That some appointed experts can reduce 6,661 languages to just 122 is offensive to say the least, just the way Justice Katju’s simplistic assumption of all in the Hindi belt being Hindi speakers is.

It is the muddleheaded who, over six decades after independence, still seem to think that India is set to disintegrate if linguistic diversity is to be encouraged. It is they who are convinced that India would fall apart without an indigenous “link language” and that Hindi is the one that holds India together. This is why we still have something called the Department of Official Languages, charged with the promotion of Hindi and with a budget of Rs 55.61 crore in 2012-13. One may argue that India did need a “link language” to help build a common “Indian” identity soon after 1947 when the nation was at its most fragile. But do Indians still need to be chained with a link language even now? The European Union, which can be arguably compared to the federal structure of Indian states, has 23 official and working languages and, last heard, was not fretting about having a link language. If national integration ever was the goal, the Centre should have been spending an equal amount to propagate Tamil in Haryana as it does to promote Hindi in Tamil Nadu and Justice Katju should have been urging readers of Dainik Bhaskar to learn Tamil just as he does in the The Hindu asking Tamilians to speak Hindi.

The retired judge takes his flawed reasoning even across the border, when he adds, “Pakistanis (who number about 200 million) also speak Hindi, though they call it Urdu.” Given that Pakistan’s official and latest census figures put the country’s population on October 2 at 180 million (20 million less than Justice Katju’s estimate), he grandiosely assumes that all Pakistanis speak Urdu (rather a speech form that he doesn’t want to accept as Urdu). While there is no reliable estimate of how many Pakistanis speak Urdu as their first language, a 2008 figure put it at just about 8 per cent. On the other hand, a query to Pakistanis on Twitter about how many Pakistanis do not speak Urdu at all offered a range from anywhere between 30 to 50 per cent, most correlating Urdu speakers to the number of literates. Worse, the retired justice also implies that all other languages spoken in Pakistan, which includes Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi and Saraiki and many others, are all forms of Urdu. Sorry, Hindi. But then he needn’t go as far as to Pakistan to get an earful; the Sindhi and Punjabi Academies in Delhi, comparatively within earshot, will gladly help him with classes to tell the two languages apart from Hindi and from each other.

Moreover, his argument implying that Pakistanis think they speak Urdu but actually don’t is, to be kind to him, peremptory. The retired judge, who quoted effusively from Urdu poetry in his judgements and wrote a series of articles on the lang uage’s decay, needs to be told that Urdu, for that matter any language, isn’t meant to be fossilised for it to become a nostalgic indulgence of an elite few. Urdu isn’t only the language of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry, as Justice Katju would like it to be, but also the language of Faiz’s contemporary Ibn-e-Safi’s popular crime fiction, for which he was often criticised by the highbrow lot. Urdu is also the contemporary language in which the colloquial banter in Pakistan’s campuses is conveyed or the price of potato haggled in, in its bazaars; to delude oneself into believing it isn’t will only hasten its death.

Ultimately, whether or not a language becomes popular is going to be determined, not by any brute evangelism, but mainly by the lure of economic empowerment it represents for its speakers. If English is popular today, it is not because, as Justice Katju suggests, “all knowledge in the world is in English” (an opinion for which he has been rightly criticised by Dhananjay Rai). It is because the language brings job opportunities. In fact, probably the only thing I agree with in Justice Katju’s two articles is when he says that a Tamil shopkeeper, who had learnt Hindi to do more business, “had more sense than those who oppose Hindi”. For that is how economics drives linguistic shifts. Tomorrow if Tamil Nadu becomes the economic powerhouse of India, no Hindi-bachao karyakarta can stop merchants in Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar from learning Tamil. This kind of shift is happening in Gabon, which has been Francophone but where its leaders, sensing the economic opportunities that come with English, are now making a bid to switch over to it. Rwanda has already made that leap to become bilingual (French-English). In years to come, we should not be surprised if Angolans switch to Mandarin from Portuguese given the vast and still growing presence of the Chinese there. It is a natural linguistic transition that neither fanatics nor purists can hold back or reverse.

Moreover, Justice Katju’s idea that English and Hindi can serve specific purposes, the former for acquiring knowledge and the latter for communicating, actually denigrates Hindi’s stature by deeming it unfit to become a repository of knowledge and denying that it already possesses knowledge that can even enrich English. It also undermines the importance of translation, something that allows for conversations between languages. If at all Justice Katju thinks that English has become “a language of knowledge”, it is because the Department of Official Language and other state language bodies have done little to promote translation from English into Hindi and other Indian languages. Or, for that matter, even between different Indian languages. Today if anybody wants to pursue higher technical education, he or she has little choice but study in English. This is a harsh indictment of our inept linguistic policy.

Even when Justice Katju writes that lawyers should not be allowed to argue in Tamil in front of judges who have come from outside the state, it accentuates how we have ignored the importance of interpreters. If there is a lawyer who doesn’t speak anything but Tamil, why should he or she be barred from arguing in front of a judge who doesn’t? It is unrealistic to expect a judge to pick up Tamil but why can’t an interpreter be hired? Aren’t international negotiations carried out through interpreters? One must enable linguistic diversity, not disable.

I know Justice Katju will hate this, given his publicised condescension for film stars, but it is the likes of Shahrukh and Salman Khan who have done more for Hindi prachar than Justice Katju ever has or can. Not just in Tamil Nadu but across the world. Kareena has effortlessly achieved with her pout what Justice Katju cannot with his pen. Shahrukh has accomplished with his stammer what Justice Katju will not with his sophistry. Promoting Hindi, therefore, is a duty that the likes of Justice Katju should promptly pass on to the Kapoors and the Khans. Hindi has a safe future as long as the charm of the Hindi film industry thrives.

Instead, I would urge Press Council of India chairman and (retired) Justice Markandey Katju to spare some of his free time, a lot of which I presume is already taken up by Faiz and Ghalib, to read Anali Puri’s insightful exposure, published in The Hoot, of how marketing/advertising is insidiously eating into journalism. If he already has, I expect him to do something about the concerns raised. But if promoting Hindi is still Justice Katju’s favourite hobbyhorse, there is one area where he can intervene meaningfully. The PCI chairman can urge Hindi papers to stop using Roman numbers and switch back to the Devanagari ones that have been abandoned without any scruples, even by our Hindi guardian-in-chief, the Department of Home Language that uses the Roman numerals. Many Hindi loyalists will remember him gratefully just for that.

Debarshi Dasgupta speaks, reads and writes Hindi.