The new Union government seems hellbent on Hindi-fying the regime and its activities. The original party of the upper Gangetic plain bazaar class is back at doing what Hindiwallahs used to do regularly before Tamils showed them some serious spine. The Union government’s insistence on Hindi promotion by any means necessary and other unnecessary means. At this juncture, one must again question the relationship between people, power and language in a multi-national state like the Indian Union. And if that state wants to be humane and representative, what should its language policy look like?
How does one fight this ‘rajbhasha’ language monster that haunts the majority? On the question of certain myths of ‘full Indianness’ and how to go about dealing with it, we need to turn to Gujarat. This first requires finding out the truth and then asserting one’s rights in the face of marginalisation. In 2010, the Gujarat High Court let people know the obvious – Hindi is not the national language of the Indian Union. Hindi is the mother-tongue of only a quarter of the population, while the staggering majority speak Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Konkani, Santhali, etc. as well as languages like Maithili, Marwari, Mewari, etc. which ‘census Hindi’ enumerators cunningly classify as ‘Hindi’, to give a false impression of Hindi’s numerical might.
Certain rootless urban classes of people born in non-Hindi/English homes earn cosmopolitan brownie points by their ‘inclusiveness’, which basically means shunning their mother-tongues and birth-culture. The Union government is only too happy to promote this brand of ‘Indianness’, where Hindi/English is the ‘mainstream’ and the rest is pejoratively ‘regional’ (that Tamil is not a ‘national’ language is an artifact of the British-forged administrative unity of the subcontinent). This is why it increasingly has the gall to communicate to non-Hindi people in Hindi. Fortunately, there are still many such people in the subcontinent who do not think that their primary goal in life is to make Hindi and English speakers feel ‘at home’ everywhere by switching from their mother tongue.
They also assert the right of being spoken to in their home state in the language of the state. Again in 2010, villagers in the Junagadh area of Gujarat challenged the land acquisition made by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). The NHAI had issued a notification for acquisition in Hindi. The villagers did not understand Hindi and hence they were not notified. The Gujarat High Court termed the notification and the land acquisition as null and void. While doing so, it also observed that for the villagers, ‘Hindi language used in the notification is a foreign language.’
Guess what, Junagadh is not Delhi, Coimbatore is not NOIDA and the subcontinent has many linguistic nations (Punjab, Tamil Nadu, etc.), as foreign to each other as Nepal is to Tamil Nadu, cohabiting within a common administrative framework called the Indian Union. This term ‘foreign’ is particularly painful for the Hindiwallahs, who never tire asserting English’s foreignness vis-à-vis Hindi indigenousness.
By creating a Hindi versus English divide, they seek to obfuscate the greater divide of power verses powerlessness, in which English and Hindi are languages of power. The villagers of Junagadh have shown the way to challenge the language of the powerful at every step – every notification, every advertisement, every tele-caller, every public signage, every central policy that accords special status to Hindi and English.
There is no majority language, but many minority languages. This false majoritarianism, fuelled by public money, Bollywood and a Hindi-nationalist yardstick of ‘broadness’ and ’parochialism’ that has been brainwashed into the affluent classes who live or migrate to Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. For peoples and languages to be treated equally, the first step is to break the pedestal that the Indian Union has accorded to Hindi and English. Only then can we talk and live as equals.
The language question is not merely a question of ethno-linguistic pride and autonomy, but fundamentally a question of livelihood, democracy, justice, dignity and equal stakeholdership in a federal republic. The Indian Union has no heart near Delhi nor is its soul near Varanasi. The sooner some people snap out of such self-important delusions, the better. Otherwise, they must be prepared to listen to an old Hindi song from non-Hindi regions – “Mere angne mein tumhara kya kaam hai.”
Speak to us in our languages, devolve power to states, so that one doesn’t need to speak to a centre insistent of an exclusionary language policy. People with pasts much older than the Indian Union or the lifetime of Hindi and English languages in the subcontinent, can manage their affairs perfectly. In this Republic, we must never forget which region’s revenue, minerals and resources subsidise which regions and who needs whom.