The irony of Hindi supremacy (12 May 2018)

(My column in Mint Lounge, May 12 2018)

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In an interview earlier this month, the chief minister of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, repeated a mantra he has for some time pointedly articulated. “I am not anti-Hindi,” he declared, “but I will push for the supremacy of Kannada.” Hindi is a welcome guest, of course, but “the Centre,” he stressed, “cannot impose Hindi.” This widely publicized stand is not altogether surprising coming from the south—with the uncompromising emphasis placed on one imperious brand of nationalism by the ruling powers in Delhi, it is only a matter of time before more resistance of this variety appears in a country as diverse as ours. Where national pride in one format, one language, and by one definition alone is hammered from above, from below must necessarily emerge stirrings of sub-nationalism that evoke local histories, linguistic identities, and an eclectic, heterogeneous heritage. Add to this imminent elections, and the potential dividends from the clash of a Kannadiga David against the Hindi Goliath should be patent at once.

The rise of Hindi as a self-proclaimed “national language” is well documented. In the late 19th century, stalwarts like Bharatendu Harishchandra and Raja Sivaprasad in Varanasi were among many who bombarded the colonial state with petitions and press propaganda to replace elite Urdu (which evidently privileged Muslims) with Hindi (the language of the larger mass of people) as the lingua franca of the courts and in government. Official patronage of a language determined which communities could claim influence, converting the whole debate into a sharp political contest between Urdu and its rival. The campaign for Hindi eventually triumphed, and the transformation of this family of north Indian dialects into an instrument of northern nationalism was soon complete. This being accomplished, Hindi turned south, opening a new (and now revived) conflict with languages of the peninsula. Indeed, even Mahatma Gandhi lent his weight to Hindi, advising that the “Dravidians being in a minority… they should learn the common language of the rest of India”—a patronizing remark that inspired C.N. Annadurai to quip that by this logic of numbers, the best candidate for national bird was not the minority peacock but the majority crow.

Interestingly, the very arguments that proponents of Hindi once directed against Urdu can today be deployed by defenders of the south against the seemingly all-consuming appetite of the north. Consider, for instance, linguist and writer Raja Sivaprasad’s famous 1868 memorandum, Court Characters In The Upper Provinces Of India, which opens up a veritable arsenal of arguments for reuse in our 21st century context. For instance, the raja states, while railing against Urdu, “To read (the Persian script of Urdu) is to become Persianized, all our ideas become corrupt…our nationality is lost. Cursed be the day which saw the Muhammadans cross the Indus.” By the same yardstick, then, to insist on Hindi and Devanagari in states where it is as alien as Swahili could legitimately lead to complaints of an “invasion” to undermine local culture and pride. “The Muhammadans did not force their countrymen…to pass in the Vernaculars; they forced the Hindus to learn their language,” complained Sivaprasad. By that very logic, why should the children of the south, it can be asked, be compelled to digest Hindi, when they have their own native languages to cherish and safeguard?

Besides, added the raja, if at all a commoner must endure “foreign” Urdu, he might as well invest in English—at least it guaranteed a remunerative job. Here again, Indians of non-Hindi cultures can borrow from Sivaprasad: Far from earning rewards from the over-ambitious vernacular of the north, the prospects of a brighter future lie in acquiring that language which opens doors to the world at large. By replacing Urdu’s script with Devanagari, Sivaprasad also said, “Court papers will no longer remain hieroglyphics and sealed books to the masses.” One only need recall here the case of that Odisha parliamentarian who, on receiving a letter in Hindi from a minister, returned it, asking his sender to use a language he could understand. Many, in other words, might harbour the most intense passion for Hindi, but masses of Indians feel as much connection to Devanagari as they might to the “hieroglyphics” that so exercised Sivaprasad’s furious mind.

The great irony, of course, is that in several parts where it has no past, Hindi had made quiet and steady progress through the 20th century, till a recent, overmastering desire to copyright nationalism led those in power to issue lectures on culture and sermons on Indianness. Old ghosts laid to rest were resurrected, and schisms that didn’t exist were suddenly invented. India is, after all, a mosaic of hues and cultures, and to turn it into a single shade and one tedious colour is not only misguided, it is tragic. In Sivaprasad’s day, he championed Hindi so the “whole of India north of the Krishna (could be)…united by one common bond of language.” Now, in 2018, the formula has been inverted, so that those Indians south of the Krishna find their own common cause, not in a love for Hindi but in a determination to celebrate that other special thing: the right of every citizen and people to retain their claim to glorious difference. This, then, has served as a political plank upon which a Siddaramaiah can pitch his flag, and this has become a rousing call to fight what, from the south, looks suspiciously like cultural arrogance too easily manifest among some in the north. Whether or not Karnataka becomes the scene of David’s triumph will, of course, become clear soon enough. But as everyone who knows the story can tell, sooner or later Goliath must fall.

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