Linguistic Chauvinism in 21st Century India


                                                  “Ae Ram-Rahim ke matwaalo
                                                  Bhasha ke liye kyun ladte ho,
                                                  Allah bhi Hindi jaane hai,
                                                  Bhagwan bhi Urdu jaane hai!”

BJP President and Former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Rajnath Singh courted controversy last month by stating that the maximum damage to Indian culture had been inflicted upon by English language. His comments invited wrath from various sections of the media and intellectual class. Party spokespersons of the BJP tried to defend their exposed party President by stating that he spoke against Anglicization of India and not against English as a language. The point which needs to be addressed over here has wider implications and appeals to the idea of a diverse nation where linguistic chauvinism doesn’t come in the way of ensuring egalitarianism and justice to all.

The principle problem with 21st century India is that we have confused English with education and Hindi with nationalism. In the former case, we tend to opine that since English is a universal language, it is but necessary for everyone to have fundamental knowledge of the language as it serves as the link between persons belonging to different countries. Press Council Chairman and votary of English language in India, Justice Katju believes that since all the knowledge of the world is tightly concealed in books written by English speaking people, it is imperative for a seeker of knowledge to know English.

There is no denying of the fact that no language of the world has even come close to achieving the kind of universalism which English has but to say that English books have monopolized knowledge is certainly wrong.  While it is important for one to be aware of basic knowledge of English for the purpose of cross cultural communication, it makes no sense to even claim for a second that persons not having good command over English are worthless. Unfortunately, this kind of snobbish bigotry is more prevalent in former colonized nations as they are busy in their quest of aping their colonizers.

Ever since independence or maybe even before that, considering the fact that it was the Hindi-Urdu controversy in 19th century which caused a communal polarization between Hindus and Muslims of undivided India, language has been a defining factor in setting the tone of Indian politics. Contrary to public perception and general knowledge, Hindi is not the national language of India. Instead it enjoys the status of the official language of India as enacted through legislation inside Parliament in 1950. There are several languages which have been enlisted in the 8th Schedule to the Indian Constitution. Schedules to the Constitution pertain to inconclusive debates held in the Constituent Assembly.

The maximum resistance to embracing Hindi has come from the Southern parts of India. Dravidian leader CN Annadurai was the formidable force behind unifying Tamilians in opposing Hindi. He did recognize the fact that Hindi was spoken by a large number of people in India (approximately 40%) but he reasoned that if we go by this logic then crow and not the peacock should be the national bird of India. We’ve got to realize that a pluralistic society cannot be planked around blatant majoritarianism. By raising populist slogans like “Ek rajya, ek bhasha, nahi chahiye doosri bhasha” we are alienating none except our own people.

We’ve got to realize and recognize the right of every group to speak whichever language they wish to. If we come in the way of this inalienable right of human beings then we inevitably provide them with excuses to turn to separatism and secessionism. In the long run, such kind of a policy can lead to balkanization of small countries and civil wars or at least frequent disturbances in large nation states. The Sachar Committee appointed by the Government of India rightly pointed out that one of the foremost reasons for backwardness of Indian Muslims was because of their inability to acquire education in their mother tongue. A tolerant nation of the size of India should always ensure that it institutionalizes the use of a specific language for official purposes if it is spoken by a minimum of 7-8% of the population in the given state.

The third common problem associated with languages is in terms of them being identified with certain religions. A perfect example of this can be the supposed “Arab nationalism” which prevails among Muslim majority countries. Arabic was not developed by Muslims. The language of Arabic predates the Islamic Prophet yet we see this strange kind of obsession whereby Maulvis insist upon reading the Quran only in Arabic. Why is it that religious leaders at large have remained wary of translations? Isn’t it better to read the scripture in a language which you can understand instead of merely rote learning and memorizing certain passages of the scripture with the intention of repeating them every morning without even knowing their meaning? It is more logical to read the original scripture (if you can) and then interpret or reflect upon it using translations. By this way we can actually implement into our lives what our scriptures want us to.

In India we also see some people jumping upon the anti-caste bandwagon and use the opportunity to bash Sanskrit. A whole galaxy of linguists and Dalit-sympathizing academicians argue that Sanskrit is the language of exclusion. We can never ridicule a language on the basis of such a bizarre proposition. Languages don’t work by themselves. Human beings tend to implement them and the caste Brahmins utilized Sanskrit in a manner to benefit them. They never really allowed Dalits to become proficient in Sanskrit. That doesn’t mean that Sanskrit by its very nature is anti-Dalit. The fact of the matter is that the ones who exploited Sanskrit on caste lines were anti-Dalit. Sanskrit was never actually a religious language. It was a language of the elites, very much as Urdu was the language of elite Indians prior to independence.

Languages are tools for communication and not tools for division. No language can be held to be superior to another as all languages have their own essence. It is our duty to strive and ensure highest possible levels of linguistic diversity by saving the endangered languages of the world. The association of certain languages with intelligence, nationalism or religion is not only unhealthy but is also in contravention of their origins and history.