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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 41, September 26, 2009

Message of ’Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom’

Saturday 26 September 2009, by Rakesh Gupta


Book Review

Language and Politics in India by Asha Sarangi (ed.); Oxford University Press, New Delhi; 2009; pp. 431; Price: Rs 795.

The book under review is published as a part of a series of Readers on specific themes in Political Science and Indian Politics. It has an Introduction, three parts with 4, 3 and 4 reproductions, a select bibliography, note on foreign and Indian contributors (most of them working in foreign universities), figures list and tables. The Introduction needs some attention by the reader of the volume for it is the new part of the book. The rest are re-reads giving us the flavour of individual styles, idiosyncrasies of use of the first person rather to the jarring point (Sudipto Kaviraj), and issues dominating the political scene at the time of writing. Some texts are loaded with partisan positions of political divides without really examining the genealogy of languages. There is no Philologist as a contributor. There are two Linguists who talk about the Andamenese family of languages in India as the sixth and not five language families recognised by UNESCO.

One of the authors, Anvita Abhi, uses the expression genealogy. Going to the roots is not new. Often people do not if they are concerned with the dominant discourse and engage with it, even if in a radical fashion, within it. The introduction raises the issue of the language question while Abhi’s piece raises the issue of threatened languages. The language question is turned into a cultural issue, then an issue of language nationalism and finally its role in a plural democracy like that of India. Such a shift is implicit in the introduction. Asha considers that

…the language question … needs to be probed into deep structures of relationship between language, history, culture, ideology, power, economy, and politics. (p. 2)

One is unable to grasp why music and cinema are not included to discuss the language of power and the power of language. The author herself is familiar with the language of politics. If one goes beyond immediate history the inter-linkages among ‘shram’ (body-labour), ‘swar’ (sound) and ‘sangeet’ (music) can be discovered. Each of these has significance in the identity of language and politics. These need incorporation. Most of the contributions gloss over this. Even the most narcissist and eclectically pretentious ones like that of Kaviraj.

The issue of language politics and its hegemonic politics is brought out well by Frederich Engels in his work on the Condition of the Working Class in England, apart from other works. Therein the issue of hegemony over languages by dominant languages is dealt within the framework of new relations of production that the new mode of production established. One need not worry about this since the present volume is not within a larger framework inclusive of the Marxist discourse. This volume is within the other discourse. She involves the universe of literary cultures in the history of South Asia struggling against the dominant colonial powers. The going under of languages is seen here in the context of colonial and capitalist domination. So it is radical but not beyond the dominant hegemonic discourse of cultural issues that late capitalism raises with all its dynamism in independent states like India. The peoples inhabiting the country are at different stages of development including language development. Interestingly it does not raise the issue of what the languages of minorities do to each other.


South Asia cannot skip the European experience and so the Introduction surveys these Western experiences through the scholarly writings of the different perspective of the European scholars. The bridging of the gap between the foreign and the vernacular was for communicative action of the dominant power. In this field one notices, as does the editor, the works of Cohn and Grierson. The problem with the editor is that she is aware of Grierson but perhaps did not find any contribution on him or by him on the issue at hand. I am consciously raising this issue since the Reader is practically silent on Semiotics or Semantics or other artistic forms of language. I am sure Asha will find some time to pay attention to the post-structural way of looking at cultural politics on the language question. This would take her deeper into the relations of power in the formulation of language relations within the dominant language as also among the smaller languages of other peoples. If Western Christianity can adopt the musical instruments and songs of the Indian tribals to perform marriage ceremonies in the Churches in India with the local lingua songs, surely languages can also benefit from cross-cultural coexistence despite the failure of Esparanto as a world language long ago.

D.L. Sheth brings out the struggle between English and vernacular. That resulted in the former’s decline owing to the coming in of the regional languages. The moment of reckoning then shifted to how Hindi was viewed. This is important since 43.36 per cent population of India, as per Sheth, who refers to the 1991 census, have English as their second language. There is no data on the third language. Hindi’s domination over other Hindi dialects is brought out by him. He thinks that with a little more dynamism it may become the language of the people outside the Hindi speaking belt. (p. 287) The language question generates only intra-elite conflict.

The teething problems of the European Union’s decision to adopt English as its language but with German alphabets and pronunciations would turn out to have many lessons apart from the hilarious side of speaking English as Germans speak their own language. The issue is far more complicated with regard to the sign languages like the Chinese and the Japanese. The Inroduction’s theory part is just as silent on the combining of languages or sign languages. The writings of Barthes on these are interesting from the perspective of signification. The signification that Urdu stood for in South Asia needs to be unravelled. The undoing of that signification by Gurmukhi and Hindi in Punjab and UP respectively, also needs a focus. This is quite different from speaking English with German pronunciations. The reviewer perhaps expects too much from an erudite scholar operating within the format of a small Introduction.

Talking about evolution, Nietzsche referred to image as start of life. For film experts image is equally significant as a process of signification and film language. The volume is oblivious of film as a language, as per Metz, and the politics of this language in terms of identity politics and ideological reach of the state. There is a lot by way of theoretical literature on this in Semiotics. In part three of the volume SK’s essay ‘Writing, Speaking, Being’ turns the question on its head. He makes a distinction between ‘guru’ and ‘chailita’ ways of speaking, in tracing of the language hegemony. This piece does not involve the genealogy of both language and being.

In his discussion of Greek tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche suggests how it is the dominant classes and priestly class who unfold the unacceptable hegemonic relations of language, morals and men. One need not quote from Gramsci for this. He needs to be more eclectic than he has so far shown to be. A Foucault way of looking at language relations, especially relations of power in Power and Knowledge may help him in his internal economy argument. This would still remain within the dominant discourse.

All the issues covered in the volume by Paul Brass, Granville Austin, Sumathi Ramaswami, Joseph E. Swartzberg, Selma K. Sonntag, A. Warikoo and D.L. Sheth are covered either with breast-beating of the fall of language or the celebratory role of the present constitutional structure in dealing with the language problem. The volume begins with Granville’s piece on the Constitution. The reader must decide for himself about the existence or otherwise of the question. Robert King’s book considers that the problem does not exist otherwise. This book is included in the bibliography but not as a contribution. Obviously the editor considers that the issue is live. By the end of the introduction the editor is talking about the need to examine the phenomenon of the language nationalism. Any future Reader would need the editor to take the story forward from where it is left, as did Orvel Schell and others with regard to China Readers (1 and 2) with regard to the Dengist programmes in China. The second China Reader had totally new things to offer. They contained classic texts. Does this volume do? The reader of the work can decide for himself. Identity politics of minority languages also harm/cement each other. This is an issue not yet raised by the contributions.

Asha Sarangi must be congratulated for the Introduction and the ways in which the issue can be approached afresh. The only hope is that when she says all that she has to say, which she has not yet in this Introduction, some of the issues raised, are taken care of by scholars like her. A single methodological approach and political perspective is not enough. To borrow from the Chinese phrase ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ (without its signification of the ‘Right-wing’ in Chinese politics then), this is the message of the Reader under review. One hopes that next time there are classical texts dealing with the issue of language politics in a volume.

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