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Language Tops List of the Identities Indians Cling on to And BJP Put Hindi at the Centre of It

School children stand around a drawing of a map of India together with the symbols of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Sikhism to spread the message of peace and harmony in Ahmedabad. The message written in Hindi reads: “all religions are equal”. REUTERS/Amit Dave

The BJP wants to make Hindi, the language of its communication, a national language for obvious reasons. The party has not been able to make much headway in areas where Hindi is not the predominant language.

  • Last Updated: August 16, 2020, 11:46 AM IST

When DMK MP Kanimozhi was asked at the Chennai airport by a typically crass police guard if she was Indian as she did not understand Hindi, she faced the frequent questioning that non-Hindi speakers in India are put through. By such questioning, non-Hindi speakers are also made to feel that their national identity is suspect just as their nationalism is.

This constant linking of language to nationalistic credentials happens across the world where multi-cultural populations exist. In the UK and US, knowledge of English has been made essential for those seeking jobs. There are few outsiders coming to India and looking for jobs, so Hindi has not been made essential criterion for jobs but that day is not too far. The draft national education policy has made Hindi compulsory in primary classes, raising the hackles of South Indian states.

South India and north east India, have often been seen as “the other’ national discourse and in policy making, something again emphasised in the education policy which has reintroduced Hindi as a compulsory subject, shoving aside English which has worked well as a link and working language in India. This has happened because India has always had north Indian or Hindi-speaking prime ministers, whatever be their political inclination. The notion that India has to have Hindi as a national language has dominated the thinking of many such parties.

The BJP wants to make Hindi, the language of its communication, a national language for obvious reasons. The party has not been able to make much headway in areas where Hindi is not the predominant language. Such states have been clamouring for English to be popularised because of the immense opportunities it opens up. Youngsters from north east states, for instance, find jobs across the country quite easily because of their English speaking ability.

The popularisation of Hindi runs parallel to the silent propagation of Sanskrit as an exclusive or ‘high’ language which is usually accessed only by the higher castes. As S. Anand writes in Economic and Political Weekly, Sanskrit was the language of the intellect of the intellectuals and of the sacred literati. This two-pronged imposition of language is thus a continuing project for the BJP.

The aspiring classes are in a rush to learn English as can be seen by the mushrooming English speaking schools across the Hindi heartland. Having been born into Hindi and thus assured of a so called Indian identity, these classes now want to escape into a larger world of possibilities that English opens up. So the aspirations of the people and the policy of the government actually collide and have never really succeeded despite many years of effort by various governments.

Hindi, no doubt, has benefitted from such policies and has run over many variations and dialects of Hindi such as Bhojpuri, all of which are struggling to emerge from Hindi domination.

Dalit activist KanchaIliah Shepherd, who has been demanding the widespread teaching of English in schools, writes that the OBCs have not been able to compete with the upper castes because they did not take English seriously. But now most underprivileged classes in India have taken to learning English after ignoring Hindi, leading to this renewed concern in the BJP that the language through which its propagates Hindu supremacy, is getting sidelined. The UPA policy had allowed for English to be taught in primary classes.

But when it comes to attaching an identity, ‘Hindi-speaking’ is a powerful one to have, considering that more than 50 per cent of people speak or understand the language. In government jobs, including the army, it is the default language of communication and command.

So a Tamilian who knows bits and pieces of Hindi is in a position of advantage in the army when he stands in the bitter cold at the border away from the hot climate and language of his state. So it is no wonder that a Hindi speaking north Indian gets all the advantage in such jobs and so he is moulded to think that the language he speaks is the language of his country, and so posed that question to Kanimozhi. For him and others of his ilk, it does not matter that a south Indian regiment can also take on the Chinese at the border, like it recently did in the GalwanValley.

The army sure has given recognition to languages by naming regiments after some languages, but even here Hindi is too overpowering for any other Indian language to make any lasting impact.

In India the identity of language is assuming more importance, alongside religion and political affinities. To be known as a Malayalam or Kannada speaker gives someone an identity above or bereft of the other slightly dangerous identity of religion. But knowing English is the identity that is much sought. It places the person above all, a top ranking so to say, free of the chains of being a minority or a south Indian both of which are scoffed at, not just at airports but in the hallowed corridors of power where all games are played.


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