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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 44 New Delhi October 19, 2019

The Language of Languages in India

Sunday 20 October 2019, by J.J. Roy Burman


The recent pronouncement by Amit Shah, the Home Minister of India, to impose Hindi as the official state language generated immense heartsore in many parts of the country, mostly the littoral States. It appears that Mr Shah is either ignorant about the genesis of the formation of the Indian nation-state or is oblivious of the basis of formation of nation- states all over the world. In such cases the official state language is the one brought to use by the ethnically predominant nationalities. These kinds of formations obviously lead to subtle frictions which are not overtly articulated. Thus, nation-states are usually ephemeral in nature. The languages have oscillated according to the shifting political economy of the region.

We have seen the dynamics of colonisation in the Latin American countries. The official state languages have evolved according to the point of origin of the colonising country, mainly from Europe.

In this frame of mind Amit Shah seems not to be educated enough to understand the primary logic that India, like the formation of any other nation/state, was a political-economic and not a cultural body. Language is a part of culture.

Shah’s position is similar to that of the nation- states of the West where minority population are always the underdogs. If this be the situation, it is not unnatural that the South Indian States after Shah’s pronouncement—even the CM of Karnataka—have raised their voice very strongly opposing it. Many other States run by the non-BJP political parties have come out against Central Government’s move. The language movement of Tamil Nadu of the 1960s cannot be wished away that easily. This time the TMC from West Bengal and the BJD from Odisha have also stringently protested against the Hindi lobby. Ripples of this stance have certainly affected the Central Government and can be felt nationwide.

The effect of the new language can be perceived most clearly in the North-East States. Imposition of Assamese as the State’s official language in the 1960s saw the breakup of States into pieces with Nagaland leading the show followed by Meghalaya and then Mizoram. It can, however, not to be denied that language plays a crucial role in the cohesion of States like Nagaland, Manipur Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland is a multi-ethnic State with 16 separate tribes with different languages and they communicate with each other in Nagamese, an admixture of Assamese and Hindi, though the official State language is English—a very pragmatic arrangement. In the State Assembly again Nagamese is the common lingua franca. In Meghalaya again English is the State language which binds the three major tribes—Khasis, Jaintias and the Garos—together. It is only in Arunachal Pradesh that Hindi has gained immense popularity. This is largely because the schools teach Hindi right from the primary level and no tribe is that singularly dominant over others.

In Tripura the situation is rather singularly bleak. Demographically the indigenous Tripuri tribe has been seriously affected due to the entry of Bengali refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangla is the State’s official language replacing the Kak Borok language, popular among the Tripuri tribes.

In Mizoram, Duhlian, the State language, could not quell the aspirations of the Bru people and Chakma migrants. In Odisha for the tribes of south and southwestern districts (Kaya tribes) the State language is not apprehended by the general masses and they continue to be backward in all aspects. Even in the State of West Bengal the indigenous Rajbangshis are up in arms against the prevailing Bangla language used by the migrant Bengalis. In Manipur though the tribes have their own language, they use Meiteilon, the language of the dominant Meitei people, of the State to communicate among themselves.

Fig.1: Different Languages Spoken in different parts of India

In North India in the States of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan different regions have separate dialects as seen in the map. (Fig.1) They are not comprehended by all and researchers (Hindi-speaking or outsiders) need to hire interpreters during field works.

Pedagogically it emerges that language and culture is the not main criteria for the formation of political dominions of the different States. At the national level, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP statesman as the Foreign Minister, made a pronouncement like the Soviet Union which had Russian as the official language, that ensured the cohesion of the nation-state, India should also have Hindi as the national language. Unfortunately, within a short time the Soviet Union decimated into pieces, and the Russian language policy proved to be of no use.

Interestingly Bangladesh and West Bengal have Bangla as the official state language; the situation reflects formation of the one nation and two states. Sheikh Hasina, the PM of Bangladesh, while attending the funeral of Jyoti Basu declared that Basu was not just a leader of West Bengal but he was a leader of the Bangla jati—nation. Both India and Bangladesh have their national anthem composed by Rabindranath Tagore.

Here I would like to conclude with Rabindra-nath’s perception of nationalism. His childhood teachings taught him to perceive that nation is almost better than reverence to God and humanity. “I believe I have outgrown that teaching and it is my own conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

We in India must make up our mind that we cannot borrow other people’s history, and that if we stifle our own, we are committing suicide. When we borrow things that do not belong to your life they only serve to crush your life.

The India that we see today, never existed prior to August 15, 1947. It is now an artificial formation and English should be adopted as a national language not favouring any particular ethnic formation. This strategy has shown us the way as English was adopted in Nagaland and Meghalaya for all-round development. It should not be ignored that in an important multi-ethnic neutral European country such as Switzerland since 1938, Romansh, German, French and Italian together are considered to be official languages. The corporate world in India too has been now emphasising on proficiency in the English language. It is found that not only India, China too has been promoting English to the youth so as to augment trade interests. It needs to be realised that English is an inter-national language which promotes global inter-communication. It needs to be realised by the NDA Government that India is not a cultural body but rather a political economic entity; the structure of the same is most likely to change in years to come. Its political map has changed several times since its foundation on August 15, 1947.

Prof J.J. Roy Burman belongs to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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