The Hindi Gam­bit?

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Times City -


The north In­dia-cen­tric world­view of BJP was on dis­play again re­cently when con­tro­versy about the im­po­si­tion of Hindi flared up again. Amit Shah’s re­ported state­ment about the de­sir­abil­ity of a sin­gle lan­guage that would help unify the coun­try kicked up a storm. Shah has put out a clar­i­fi­ca­tory state­ment deny­ing any such in­ten­tion and as­sert­ing that his speech had been mis­rep­re­sented, but regardless of whether he meant what he ap­par­ently said this time or not, the fact that BJP is keen to pro­mote Hindi as the na­tional lan­guage is some­thing that is known.

It has made sev­eral ef­forts to fur­ther its agenda, in­clud­ing the changes it made to the re­cruit­ment process in cer­tain govern­ment jobs by do­ing away with the re­gional lan­guage op­tion and giv­ing can­di­dates the choice of only Hindi and English. The re­cent con­tro­versy over Metro signs in Hindi in Ben­galuru points to how the Cen­tre’s ef­forts are be­ing no­ticed and re­sisted.

From an ide­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, one can un­der­stand why BJP would want to push Hindi. At a fun­da­men­tal level, the idea of gath­er­ing the stag­ger­ing plu­ral­ity of Hindu re­li­gious prac­tice into more uni­tary strands is a project that the party been pur­su­ing dili­gently. The con­sol­i­da­tion of the Hindu vote re­quires the cre­ation of a uni­fied field, and the grad­ual era­sure of dif­fer­ences. Till such time that one’s pri­mary iden­tity is de­fined in spe­cific eth­no­cul­tural lines as is cur­rently the case, rather than on a more ho­mogenised sin­gle axis, the am­bi­tion of build­ing a sus­tain­able and durable base be­comes that much more dif­fi­cult. Lan­guage is an im­por­tant el­e­ment in iden­tity for­ma­tion; af­ter all, the cur­rent ba­sis for the divi­sion of states has been lin­guis­tic.

Po­lit­i­cally, the party has cer­tainly made some head­way in its en­deav­our. The con­sol­i­da­tion of the Hindu vote cut­ting across caste is an im­por­tant step for­ward, and while this project is by no means com­plete, the party has made enor­mous progress in at­tract­ing a much wider swathe of vot­ers in the re­cent elec­tions. It has ex­panded its base, mov­ing well be­yond its up­per caste-trad­ing class roots by re­cruit­ing OBC and Dalit vot­ers into its fold. The slow demise of re­gional par­ties is tes­ti­mony to BJP’s suc­cess.

Is­sues like gau-rak­sha and love ji­had are some of the in­stru­ments that are part of this at­tempt to pro­vide a com­mon frame­work for the Hindu vote. Either by us­ing a sym­bol that cuts across caste di­vi­sions or by unit­ing against a com­mon per­ceived enemy, the de­sire to cre­ate com­mon cur­ren­cies can be seen here. The other in­stru­ment be­ing used is the push against non-veg­e­tar­i­an­ism. While beef is un­der­stand­ably the prin­ci­pal is­sue, all meat prod­ucts are also be­ing tar­geted. The calls to ban the sale of non­veg­e­tar­ian prod­ucts dur­ing Hindu and Jain fes­ti­vals, for in­stance, have been grow­ing.

In­ter­est­ingly, at­tempts to pro­mote veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and to present it as a su­pe­rior moral choice for Hin­dus does in­vite back­lash, but of a rel­a­tively muted kind. Bar­ring some re­gions in the coun­try where the idea of the non-veg­e­tar­ian is thor­oughly le­git­imised, in most other parts of In­dia, the non-veg­e­tar­ian car­ries with it a shadow of guilt. In numer­ous ways, we can ob­serve this cul­tural anx­i­ety about eat­ing meat. From the ‘meat-free Tues­day’ prac­tice that is so preva­lent in parts of the North to the act of giv­ing up non-veg in or­der to ap­pease the Gods in case aw­ish is granted, the non-veg­e­tar­ian comes ac­com­pa­nied by a moral bur­den. Which is why it is dif­fi­cult for many to take a strong po­si­tion against the cam­paign op­pos­ing meat, how­ever fond of it they might be?

How­ever, when it comes to Hindi, it is hardly an emo­tion­ally uni­fy­ing is­sue. Hindi has a rich his­tory of po­etry and lit­er­a­ture, but in pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, it gets as­so­ci­ated most strongly with cinema and ev­ery­day life. There is a small group of purists that would have a sig­nif­i­cant emo­tional stake in the lan­guage, but for most oth­ers across the coun­try, the use of Hindi is seen as a func­tional ne­ces­sity rather than an ex­pres­sion of deep cul­tural be­long­ing. Even in the ar­eas where Hindi is the ap­par­ent lin­gua franca, it is the lo­cal di­alects that are mark­ers of cul­ture and a way of life. Bho­jpuri, Braj, Maithili, Bun­deli and Avadhi are some of the di­alects that re­side in their own cul­tural ecosys­tems.

In the ar­eas where Hindi is widely spo­ken even if it isn’t the first lan­guage, the kind of Hindi spo­ken is of a ba­sic kind, pep­pered with words from English and re­gional lan­guages. What is par­tic­u­larly note­wor­thy is the slow de­cline of the De­vana­gari script. A gen­er­a­tion is emerg­ing that might well speak Hindi, but strug­gles to read it in its orig­i­nal script. Ad­ver­tis­ing is a good in­dex of this — al­most all Hindi slo­gans are writ­ten in English, so to speak. The kind of high-flown Hindi that is the sta­ple of Do­or­dar­shan broad­casts and air­line an­nounce­ments has virtually no tak­ers.

The pri­mary fault line for Hindi is with English and not other re­gional lan­guages. There is a hi­er­ar­chy at work here that is dif­fi­cult to dis­lodge. An im­plicit seg­men­ta­tion has taken place — English as the lan­guage of op­por­tu­nity and Hindi as the lan­guage of ev­ery­day con­nec­tion. Hindi and re­gional lan­guages com­pete only when an at­tempt is made to make it a dom­i­nant lan­guage. Oth­er­wise, even in the South, Hindi has been mak­ing grad­ual in­roads or­gan­i­cally, sim­ply be­cause it pro­vides some value in a rapidly in­ter­con­nect­ing coun­try.

Given this sce­nario, there is lit­tle to be gained po­lit­i­cally by mak­ing this an is­sue. Hindi is bound to grow, but push­ing it as a na­tional lan­guage can only re­tard rather than help its cause. Un­like the other gam­bits used by the rul­ing party, Hindi is un­likely to be­come an emo­tion­ally res­o­nant is­sue amongst its followers, but it is cer­tain to gal­vanise a dispir­ited op­po­si­tion in some parts of the coun­try. Peo­ple do not feel strongly enough about Hindi, un­less it is im­posed on them. Lots to lose, lit­tle to gain.

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The pri­mary fault line for Hindi is with English and not other re­gional lan­guages. There is a hi­er­ar­chy at work here that is dif­fi­cult to dis­lodge. An im­plicit seg­men­ta­tion has taken place — English as the lan­guage of op­por­tu­nity and

Hindi as the lan­guage of ev­ery­day con­nec­tion

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