National Language War: Time For A Rethink On Language-Integrated India

The proposal for Hindi to be one of the measures for national integration is flawed because it seeks to fight a non-existent problem and also undermines the very idea of India.

National Language War: Time For A Rethink On Language-Integrated India

Every now and then, the discourse on making Hindi the national language props up on Indian media. Over the past few days, this debate was re-ignited by popular Bollywood actor Ajay Devgn, who proclaimed in a tweet that “Hindi was, is and always will be our mother tongue and national language.” The conscientious netizens as well as many in the mainstream media quickly pointed out the obvious factual inaccuracy. However, the sentiment shared by Mr Devgn is, unfortunately, not an unpopular one among the “Hindi-belt”. 

Just around a month ago, Home Minister Amit Shah had advocated for Hindi to become the “national link language”, suggesting residents from non-Hindi states to communicate in Hindi instead of English. Sanjay Nishad, a minister serving in Yogi Adityanath’s Cabinet, bluntly declared “Those who want to live in India should love Hindi. If you do not love Hindi, it will be assumed that you are a foreigner or are linked to foreign powers.”  

The absurd chauvinism aside, the sentiments expressed by the Home Minister have been a crucial part of BJP’s ideology. The idea of Hindi being a language of national integration is very old and was initially propped up by the Congress leaders till Potti Sreeramulu’s fast-unto-death effectively changed India’s landscape. The idea behind the creation of linguistic states was pretty simple- it allowed citizens to be proud Odia, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati etc. as well as proud Indians.   

The fact is that India does not need a language for its national integration. In fact, Indians are very well integrated. Despite the enormous diversity and rich and distinct history of each state, its residents are proud to belong to one country. Even political movements/parties with strong jingoistic attributes and regionalism like the Shiv Sena were proud to proclaim their allegiance and patriotism to India.   

Thus, the proposal for Hindi to be one of the measures for national integration is flawed because 1) it seeks to fight a non-existent problem and 2) it undermines the very idea of India i.e. you are allowed to have multiple strong identities in the pluralistic nation of India.  

As the strong reaction from non-Hindi states have made it amply clear, any measures to impose/privilege Hindi over other languages will only create further strife in a country that has far more important issues to address. 

Moreover, those claiming English to be a symbol of colonialism in India are quite simply wrong. Indian English is distinct and separate from British and American English. Consider, for instance, the phrase “What is your good name?” This phrase will be unrecognizable to an American or a European. In fact, its cultural nuances are native since it is a rough translation of - “Aapka shubh naam kya hai?”(Noted here in Hindi for wider readership but it’s the same in other languages as well). Similarly, words/phrases like “mention not”, “rubber (for eraser)”, “out of station”, “arey!”, “curd”, “revert”, “Standard (for grade)”, “eve-teasing” etc, are absent from other types of English. African American Vernacular English, which some linguists argue should be seen as a separate language altogether, similarly retains its connection to African Creole languages. 

The point being that Indian English is so distinct that it can no longer be said to be one imposed by colonizers. Instead, we have adopted the language willingly and made it our own. Its prevalence should be celebrated, not bemoaned.  

However, it is important to address the issue of linguistic chauvinism here. The fact that Hindi is not and should not be the national language does not mean the non-Hindi states should remain in silos. Measures must be taken to ensure that diverse languages are available for learning at a school-level. Our ignorance of each other’s languages prevents us from exploring the rich and diverse literature and culture that each state possesses. Multilingualism should be encouraged and incentivized.  

Ironically, it is the populace of the Hindi-speaking states who hold a caricaturist view of South India and prominent states like Gujarat and Maharashtra while being almost completely ignorant of states like Odisha and most of North-East. 

The residents of non-Hindi speaking states enthusiastically enjoy the Northern cuisine and explore its great writers, musicians and filmmakers while Hindi speaking states remain unaware of the rest of India. Thus, measures must be taken to expose the Hindi-speaking states to the languages and literature of the rest of India (for instance, making it compulsory to learn an active native language other than Hindi chosen by the student). This will not lead to “national integration” as India is already extremely well integrated. However, it will expand our national imagination to include stories of ignored regions like the North East and Odisha.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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