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Memo to Modi: Being Indian shouldn't mean Hindi chauvinism

The Modi government is sailing dangerously close towards igniting a language divide where there is none.

A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister made a welcome break from the past when he decided to speak in Hindi to foreign leaders – an assertion of his own Indian-ness and an entirely justifiable personal decision. Leaders should speak in the language they are most comfortable in.

But a recent government order asking government ministries to give priority to communication in Hindi on social media comes close to crossing the line between a healthy decision to speak to Indians in the languages they understand best, and backing Hindi chauvinism. India is home to many languages, including English. All are equally important.

Narendra Modi with M Karunanidhi. AFP

Narendra Modi with M Karunanidhi. AFP

A home ministry note dated 27 May – the day after Modi assumed power – makes the use of Hindi compulsory in social media. It reads, inter alia: “It is ordered that government employees and officials of all ministries, departments, corporations or banks, who have made official accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube or blogs, should use Hindi, or both Hindi and English, but give priority to Hindi."

Some quick points need to be made here. Nothing stated in the 27 May order is new or which has not been part of covert or overt official policy for some time now. Open any government website, and there are usually both English and Hindi versions available. The Press Information Bureau website puts the Hindi version on top, and the English one below. This was started well before Modi came to power. The RBI website has both Hindi and English sites. The Union budget is always available in a Hindi version.

So what the home ministry has done is not a new imposition on us. It has always been there, but we didn’t think twice about it since English has always been there. The order extends to the social media what has been standard policy on official websites of the government of India.

The worry, if any, relates to the phrase at end of the statement, which suggests that ministries should give “priority to Hindi.” This is bound to be misunderstood, especially in the southern states, and DMK leader M Karunanidhi has already kicked up a fuss about it.

The problem for the Modi government is this: the same thing, when pushed by the Congress government, looks less threatening than when done by Modi or Rajnath Singh. This is a perception issue, but reality is nothing if not driven by perceptions. The perception that Modi is pushing Hindi is more likely to excite comment than if the Congress is.

Modi speaking Hindi to foreigners is fine; Modi speaking Hindi to Indians because that is what he is comfortable with is also okay. But a Modi government trying to privilege Hindi over other official languages will not be taken kindly to.

That said, we need to bring sanity to the whole business of what languages to use in public communication and signages. And it’s not just about the centre pushing Hindi, but many of our states are also pushing their regional languages at the cost of English or Hindi or third languages. Linguistic chauvinism is alive and kicking everywhere.

So what are we driving at?

This is a globalising world, where people from all over will come to India, and people from the rest of India will come to study, work and settle in states other than their own. Foreigners should not think they have come to a place where they can’t follow anything written anywhere, and Indians should not feel that working in a neighbouring state is no different from landing up in Ghana or Timbuktu.

What we need is not Hindi or regional language chauvinism, but a more people-friendly language policy which recognises that the purpose of language is communication – and communication has to happen in multiple languages and formats in the modern, globalised era.

A Karnataka that calls itself the Silicon Valley of India cannot use only Kannada on street signs and bus routes. A Maharashtra that thinks it is the financial capital cannot privilege just Marathi in public communication – however important it is for politicians to emphasise their Marathi credentials.

If Singapore can recognise four official languages – English, Mandarin, Tamil and Malay – there is no reason why Tamil Nadu should not use Tamil, English, Hindi, and even Malayalam or Telugu (depending on which is the third or fourth most used language in the state) as its official languages.

After the anti-Hindi agitations of the 1960s, India had evolved a three-language formula, where states would emphasise English, Hindi and the regional language at the school level. But in many states this has been reduced to a two-language formula. The Hindi states, we went down to a single language formula – till smart parents saw that English was the route to better jobs. The Hindi states should be encouraged to learn one more Indian language beyond their own Hindi and English.

The Modi government would thus be well-advised not to privilege Hindi over other Indian languages or even English, even though there is nothing wrong in tweeting in any language. In fact, it should start tweeting in all official Indian languages – starting with the big ones like Telugu, Bengali, Marathi and Tamil.

Languages are meant for communication. They are also an important way of self-expression. They should not be used to exclude people who are not familiar with a particular language.

For a nation that wants to take its rightful place in the world, we need to use many languages in public communications.