Hindi film actor Ajay Devgn rekindled the controversy over the status and use of Hindi with a tweet. Devgn’s assertions were factually wrong and in bad taste. He implied the supremacy of Hindi over other languages and mocked film industries from southern India. Unforgiving denizens of the social media site pointed out the irony in his assertions because some of his biggest hits have been remakes of films from the south or have come from the stables of southern filmmakers. Devgn’s chosen target was Kannada film actor Kichchu Sudeep who, gentle as they come, asked the Hindi star on the social media platform “don’t we too belong to India, sir?”
Mumbaikars would respond to Devgn with a dismissive wave of the head accompanied by a sentence like “kuch bhi kya bol rela hai ye” instead of its chaste Hindi equivalent “yeh galat keh raha hai." Mumbai has its own brand of Hindi, influenced heavily by migrants over centuries who carried with them Persian, Farsi, Gujarati, Konkani, Kannada, Tamil, Punjabi and Hindi; of course, the Bambaiyya Hindi or Mumbai Hindi takes liberally from native Marathi too. The word “bindaas” for example is a Marathi import – from original “bindhaast” – rarely heard among Hindi speakers in the north. It’s a well-documented discourse that the Hindi film industry’s striking roots in Bombay helped develop this dialect of Hindi.
Mumbai Hindi is less puritanical and Brahminical, warmer and more informal than the Hindi spoken in Delhi and large parts of north India. In fact, it’s arguable if Mumbai speaks one kind of Hindi given the wide variations between say Matunga dominated by Tamilians and Keralites and Ghatkopar-Borivali dominated by Gujaratis, but the common consent is that there exists a Bambaiyya or Mumbai Hindi distinct from Delhi’s Hindi. Language researchers have noted that this Hindi carries a unique sentimentality or feeling, an emphatic quality, a sense of freedom and ease, a personal connection than the Hindi used in the north.
The evolution and use of Bambaiyya Hindi, film historians tell us, can be traced back to its use by side characters or negative characters in Hindi films of yore but gradually adopted by the hero or lead actors over a period of time. The Hindi in Bollywood movies now carries a curious mix of English especially if the film is for the NRI market, that’s its evolution. Devgn, as a leading actor in and producer of Hindi films, would know how films gave a pan-Indian quality to Hindi. It perhaps made him believe that Hindi is India’s national language.
However, he seems to have forgotten the simple lesson taught in schools that India does not have a national language but boasts of 23 official languages of which Hindi is but one. Devgn could have easily checked this. Instead, he went with the wide-spread inaccurate belief that it is the ‘national language’. Devgn has contributed to amplifying a misconception and untruth among people, certainly among his legion of followers. This is how a falsehood gains legitimacy and begins to look like the truth.
The Constitution of India does not accord any Indian language the status of national language. The official language of the Union of India was Hindi, English was to be used for a few years after independence but an amendment in the 1960s allowed it to continue as an official language too. The government of India, therefore, communicated in Hindi and English with states deciding to receive it in the language which suited them the best. Accordingly, states in the north preferred Hindi while southern states – given the initial moves for Hindi imposition and the anti-Hindi violence – chose English.
Over time, Hindi became the default language option for the power elite in Delhi, a phenomenon amplified by the late Prime Minister A B Vajpayee and carried forward by Narendra Modi. Modi, whose mother tongue is Gujarati, is evidently more comfortable in Hindi than in English. His preference for Hindi in public communication – as opposed to his predecessors – is not only due to his ease with the language but also the larger political project of forging a native, muscular, sons-of-the-soil Hindu identity distinct from that of the upper class and English educated elite. Hindi allowed him a direct connection with his vast audience and gave him a pan-Indian look – except that Hindi is hardly a pan-Indian language.
Second-in-command Amit Shah appears keen to change that. Shah has been advocating that we adopt Hindi as the national language. In 2019, Shah had said “it is absolutely essential that the entire country has one language…the most spoken language of Hindi” which had kicked up a major row. Earlier this month too, presiding over a meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee, he pointed out that Modi had decided that the medium of running the government would be the official language of Hindi.
Hindi is also a regional language. English is the official language preferred by many states. The greater the emphasis on Hindi as the official medium of communication, expect a stronger pushback to it. The idea of a national language is antithetical to a union of linguistically-different states such as India. When it dominates the public discourse every once in a while, it distracts from the more significant issues – inflation, unemployment, hate speech – and raises the hackles of states that do not naturally veer towards Hindi. Devgn, intentionally or otherwise, waded into this duplicitous project to make Hindi the only important language.
Mumbai’s politicians have displayed their own brand of language chauvinism in various campaigns, led by muscle-power and state authority, to ensure that Marathi has the preeminent position in the city. The Shiv Sena has been at the forefront of this for decades, joined recently by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. But the language war in Mumbai has not completely rejected Hindi as southern states do, perhaps because there is a Mumbai Hindi – a syncretic mix of languages as it were.
Syncretism, whether in language or culture, or society itself, is fast fading. There’s a needless premium among Hindus on being unitary in language, food, prayer, and more – a unitariness built on hate of the other. The rising tide of hate should bother us – Devgn included – more than the status of Hindi. Hate, expressed in any language, is still hate.
(The author is an independent journalist, columnist, urban chronicler, and media educator who writes on politics, cities, gender, and development. She tweets at @smrutibombay)