Indian Union government’s official language policy flawed

Hindi in Devanagari script is the official language of the Indian Union government and some state governments. It derives its primacy from numbers. According to the 2001 census, 41.03 per cent of the population was Hindi speakers. However, the census definition of Hindi is extremely wide and people are counted as Hindi speakers even if they don’t call their language “Hindi”. Census Hindi includes Western Hindi (but not Urdu), Eastern Hindi, non-Maithili Bihari languages (including Bhojpuri), Pahari and Rajasthani languages – even if the speakers did not report their language as “Hindi”. These numbers don’t do justice to the real diversity of the languages that are counted as “Hindi”. Let me recount an example.

As a researcher in human vision, I am associated with a project that brings congenitally blind children from the interior villages of North India to Delhi. Many of them come from the Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh. Since these children are blind from birth, they remain almost exclusively at home, are poor without access to radio or television, hence exposed mostly to their mother-tongue and not the Hindi that operates in larger towns, schools and government offices. When Delhi natives asked these children questions in Delhi-area Hindi, they vaguely understood. Communication became smooth through interpreters who in this case were relatives of the children. They had visited big towns at long distances from their village homes and had some exposure to Bollywood films. The blind children spoke Awadhi. Awadhi speakers are at least 38 million strong, according to 2001 data and are by themselves the 29th largest linguistic community in the world. According to the census, these blind children and the Delhi natives, both speak the same language – Hindi.

Among the top 10 census languages of India, Hindi is the only one whose proportion of speakers in population has increased every decade, for the last four decades.  For all the other nine languages, the proportion of speakers has gone down between 1971 and 2001. While this may signal the success of “Hindi”, the biggest casualties have been those languages which are now classified as “Hindi” but were not called “Hindi” even 150 years ago.

While speakers of non-Hindi languages like Tamil, Bangla, Kannada, etc have official language status in various states with strong and widespread education infrastructure in those languages, Awadhi, probably the single-largest linguistic sub-group within census “Hindi”, has no such distinction. This is unfortunate for a language that had, for centuries, produced some of the most widely read and cherished works of literature that remain alive in the popular culture of a wide tract of northern India. Ironically, Awadhi comes closest to official recognition in the form of Fiji Hindi, the language of the indentured labourers from the Awadhi heartland who were shipped to Fiji before Awadhi and Hindi were conflated.

Bhojpuri, also classified as “Hindi”, has fared slightly better than Awadhi in garnering infrastructure like textbooks and TV channels for its charcha among its speakers. Even then, that is miniscule compared to its size (about 40 million) and does not do justice to its rich long tradition of producing literary works of the highest grade. In Delhi-centric Indian imagination, speaking Bhojpuri has become associated with being comical, rustic and backward. Outside its native speakers, contemporary Bhojpuri music is largely known for being the medium for sexually explicit songs for male consumption.

With rural to urban migrations being on the rise and schools being the primary sources of literacy, these two forces synergistically serve as great transformers of the diverse world of northern Indian languages into a more homogenous form of Hindi that combines elements from Khariboli (the language around Delhi), Bollywood and the highly Sanskritised official “Hindi” – a transformation that may be happening slowly but surely. In the face of continuous official Hindi imposition, the continued survival of Awadhi, Bhojpuri and other people’s languages are a testament to their immense resilience and the depth of their roots in their speaker’s lives and dreams.

There is a method to the assault on these languages and their slow destruction follows a well-known pattern. At first, it starts with people’s languages being replaced by imposed languages in education, official work and big money commerce. Then it starts affecting all other aspects of life outside one’s home. And then it invades homes and communities. The assaulted languages survive in domestic space and then go on to become the language of older people and of very intimate emotions. And then one day they are gone. With that an alternative way of living and dreaming disappears. Destruction of a language is a crime against the whole of humanity.

The politics of jacking up the number of Hindi speakers started in the colonial period when the Hindu-Hindustani was in contest with Muslim-Hindustani. The call for distinctiveness between these two variants reflected the political fissures of the time. The need to recruit Bhojpuri and Awadhi speakers and many others like speakers of Pahari resulted in the steamrolling of real distinctions at the grassroots. Hindu high-caste domination of ‘Hindi’ language politics ensured lower-caste rural voices being shut out when language enumeration rules were set-up.

Simultaneously, there was a conscious process of Sanskritising Khariboli by expunging it of Persian influences and then imposing it on the large mass of passive recruits. The resulting Hindi is what one reads in Government of India circulars and Indian state radio. That ‘Hindi’ was so alien to Balraj Sahani, the legendary Hindi-film actor, that he had once commented that radio newsreaders typically said, “Ab Hindi mein khabar suneih” (Now hear the news in Hindi), but what he heard was “Ab khabar mein ‘Hindi’ suneih” (Now hear Hindi in the news). (IPA Service)

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