Amit Shah touches raw nerve in South India

Union Home minister Amit Shah touched a raw nerve among the people in the south by tweeting last Saturday that Hindi was the only widely spoken language which can unite the country. The occasion marked Hindi Divas in the national capital. Expectedly tempers flared in the south especially in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala with leaders decrying that Hindi has never been a unifying factor.

Congress leader and former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah responded with a tweet that "the misinformation campaign about Hindi being the national language must stop as it enjoyed the same status as Kannada in the Constitution". The opposition was not to Hindi but to its imposition, Siddaramaiah cautioned. On his part JD (S) leader H D Kumaraswamy asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the Centre would celebrate Kannada Divas as "Kannadigas too are part of the federal structure.”

Even as Kannada activists observed Saturday as a "black day", the state BJP remained silent on the subject. The controversial issue of Hindi and especially its imposition in the south accounting for 130 seats in the Lok Sabha particularly at a time when the saffron brigade is desperate to make a breakthrough in that region can be disastrous.

Caught on the wrong foot by the remarks of Shah, Karnataka chief minister B S Yediyurappa emphasised two days later "as far as we are concerned Kannada is the principal language. We will never compromise its importance and remain committed to promote Kannada and our state's culture". He, however, side-stepped the role of Hindi in his state.

While Hindi might well be the language that is spoken by 44 per cent of the people in the country, its inherent success sprouts from its linguistic diversity. Shah sought to underline that it was crucial to have one language which became this country's identity globally. Interestingly, he encouraged other mother tongues but appealed to citizens to use Hindi.

Therein lies the problem because the people in the South have not found Hindi appealing to put it on a pedestal higher than their mother tongue like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam among others. There are enough indications that restarting a language war can be disastrous for the country.

It is no secret that the country's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had reservations about identity-based states. Nevertheless, the power of language based movements had an impact compelling him to change his mind.

The language issue resurfaced much later on making Hindi the sole official language. Tamil Nadu spontaneously erupted in anger and the Centre was compelled to hold its horses. Keeping in mind the cultural ethos, the country eventually arrived at the use of a three language formula–English, Hindi and the regional language.

This has served the interests of the country well and efforts to tinker with this arrangement might harm the country and the interests of the ruling BJP led NDA. The success of India's unity in diversity should be strengthened.

Impartial observers believe imposing Hindi countrywide by Amit Shah and in turn the ideologue of the BJP, the RSS, might be counter-productive and boomerang. They argue that pursuing a unitary language for strengthening unity might be unproductive and have a deleterious impact.

The BJP needs to be careful in safeguarding its own interests. This was brought out by the Karnataka Congress when it said India has never banked on one language for its existence. "BJP wants to implement its sinister hidden agenda of the RSS dividing the country by inciting the people on grounds of religion and language".  

The dominance of Hindi in the corridors of power particularly has come to the fore in the second consecutive term of the Modi government at the Centre. Sources said while there was no written communication on shifting to Hindi, the gradual shift is increasingly becoming evident with notings and official correspondence being done in Hindi. The Union Home ministry has taken the lead in this regard.

DMK president M K Stalin maintained making Hindi the national language would make non-Hindi speaking people the second citizen and undermine the unity. He recalled what DMK founder Annadurai observed that if a "language spoken by more people should be the national language, then the ubiquitous crow, and not the peacock, should be the national bird,” Mr. Stalin quipped.

Interestingly, PMK leader S Ramadoss, an ally of the BJP said while Shah had the right to extol the greatness of Hindi, he could not impose the language on others. "Hindi can never be the identity of India as it will lead to depriving the right of languages such as Tamil," he emphasised.

Under the Official Languages Act, 1963, English is to be used for purposes of communication between the Union and a State which has not adopted Hindi as its official language. Four years back in 2015, the government constituted a Hindi Advisory Committee in various ministries and departments to "ensure progressive use of Hindi".

Earlier the government issued an order that under the Act all files would have to be issued bilingually in Hindi and English. Under the Official Languages Act, 1963, English is to be used for purposes of communication between the Union and a State which has not adopted Hindi as its Official Language.

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator.

-By T R Ramachandran

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