Hindi on Bengaluru Metro signboards: It's a conflict between preserving identity and bid at homogenisation

The #NammaMetroHindiBeda movement against the imposition of Hindi in Bengaluru Metro has gathered significant political support.

Garga Chatterjee July 05, 2017 14:30:30 IST
Hindi on Bengaluru Metro signboards: It's a conflict between preserving identity and bid at homogenisation

The #NammaMetroHindiBeda movement against the imposition of Hindi in Bengaluru Metro has gathered significant political support. It seems that decades of forced imposition of the language and marginalisation of Kannada in the Karnataka capital, under the hubris-laden smokescreen called 'cosmopolitanism', is coming home to roost.

The aggressive Hindi imposition initiatives by the present BJP-led Union government provided the spark to the powder keg of discontent that has been brewing for quite some time now.

Let us be clear about certain basic notions first. The Indian Union is not an entity formed on the basis of any language. In short, there is no language that 'binds' it. However, most non-Hindi states of the Indian Union were, in fact, formed explicitly on the basis of language. That is, in almost every state there is a binding language on whose basis the state was formed. Thus, states broadly correspond to the core homeland of certain ethnolinguistic nationalities.

Hindi is not the national language of the Indian Union – in fact, it does not have one. It is an unheard of concept in the Constitution of India. If this sounds new to you and if you have heard textbooks, media, Delhi-headquartered party politicians and others telling you that Hindi is the national language, it's because they are lying and want you to believe in that lie; so much so that it almost becomes a "natural truth" by shameless repetition.

Hindi on Bengaluru Metro signboards Its a conflict between preserving identity and bid at homogenisation

File image of Namma Metro. PTI

Hindi is the mother tongue of about 26 percent of the citizens of the Indian Union and the language is not understood by a majority of people. Still, Hindi is one of the two official languages of the Union government – a restrictive system in a multi-lingual Union of linguistic states that casts a majority of the citizenry into second-class citizenship.

The ambit of usage of the official language is limited to official functions of the Union government. Announcements in train stations, trains, airports or planes are not official functions of the Union government. They are customer service and safety functions of the travel sector. The concept at the centre of all travel-related service is not "national unity", not Hindi promotion, or showing who paid for the infrastructure and other such unrelated things. At the centre is the welfare of the traveller.

The Bengaluru Metro, called Namma Metro (Namma meaning "our" in Kannada), is a joint venture between the Karnataka government and the Union government, implemented through an agency called the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL). When it started in 2011, it had three languages for all signs and announcements – Kannada, English and Hindi. The inclusion of Hindi as a public service in a city of Karnataka, where Hindi does not even figure in the top five mother tongues of Karnataka or Bengaluru makes no sense in terms of giving a service to the public.

But wherever the Union government is involved, Hindi imposition in areas where it is irrelevant and unwanted has been a long pursued Delhi policy. Due to huge opposition to this initial inclusion of Hindi, two things happened. RTI activists made BMRCL admit that though there was no specific direction for inclusion of Hindi from the Union or Karnataka government, it had followed guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.

The ministry specifies a three-language formula of including Hindi in non-Hindi states for the convenience of Hindi-speaking people and a two-language formula of Hindi and English in Hindi states, again for the convenience of Hindi-speaking people only.

The metro falls under none of these categories of road transport or highways, neither is it obligated to follow such Union ministry guidelines. That was the fishy bit. On an RTI inquiry, the BMRCL stated that it was the decision of the BMRCL board.

It stated that, "As mentioned, BMRCL being a new mass rapid transit system for Bangalore and that Bangalore being a cosmopolitan city, BMRCL has thus adopted a language policy whereby the display boards should be understood by most of the commuters". That’s all good, except that census figures show that there are more Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Urdu mother tongue people in the area than Hindi. So to keep the international character and intelligibility, the use of English is understandable.

Also, many Dravidians are conversant in that language and don’t share the "English is foreign" logic of Hindi people. In fact, the Gujarat High Court has clearly stated that for non-Hindi states, Hindi is also a foreign language. So, that takes care of English. If the BMRCL's idea was that "the display boards should be understood by most of the commuters", then Kannada and English should have been there, along with other languages in the order of the number of mother tongue people of a language in the area.

If a three-language formula was to be instituted, the candidate for the third language, based on the BMRCL principle of reach would have been either Telugu, Tamil or Urdu as each of them outstrip Hindi in the area. So, why a small minority language of Karnataka called Hindi is accorded this vaunted status using backdoor reasons?

Clearly, it is not understandability but the age-old Delhi disease of Hindi imposition. No wonder, the BMRCL management is packed with Hindi people, in the form of IAS cadres sent by New Delhi. This initial public opposition forced BMRCL to take a step back and remove Hindi announcements and Hindi direction boards inside the metro stations. Thus, the Hindi imposition plot sad been foiled due to citizen’s activism and awareness.

Now, the BMRCL has again started pushing Hindi widely inside the Namma Metro. What prompted this change even after a sane understanding had been reached? Here, it is relevant to mention that the Union ministry involved as a stakeholder in BMRCL is the urban development ministry. The minister in charge is one M Venkaiah Naidu, who regularly lies to the public stating that Hindi is the national language and who, in spite of winning multiple Rajya Sabha terms from Karnataka, never cared to pick up the language of the Kannadigas he supposedly represented.

These are the sort of people and mentalities one is dealing with here. In fact, when Naidu wanted yet another Rajya Sabha term, a justified uproar went up in Karnataka – so much so that Naidu was not given a nomination this time.

It seems that Naidu's power and stature depend completely on wishes of the Hindi-dominated Delhi headquarters of the BJP. Thus, after he took over, the BMRCL started getting Hindi imposition directives from the Union urban development ministry. Such things are always best done by non-Hindi politicians without a significant native base. Naidu fits the bill perfectly.

It is useful to remember that the urban development ministry has no such Constitutional mandate to impose Hindi on BMRCL. After the Delhi diktat led to the re-introduction of Hindi in Namma Metro, the font sizes of the language on the sign boards were also increased. Let me remind you once more that BMRCL is not a Union government

BMRCL is not a Union government organisation. And even if it were, the Hindi imposition ideology of the Union government is what is being protested. This whole notion that the Union government necessarily equals Hindi is imperialistic and chauvinistic and has no place in a federal democracy. Union government is the government of all linguistic nationalities of the Indian Union, not that of Hindi people alone.

This latest round of Hindi imposition in the Namma Metro evoked unprecedented resistance from Kannada activists. This has now spread to large sections of Karnataka's civil society as well as non-Kannada groups. It started out as a social media campaign with the hashtag #NammeMetroHindiBeda, that trended all over India with many non-Kannadiga people joining in, who are similar victims of Hindi imposition in various ways.

The protests took to the streets and demonstrations happened in front of the Town Hall on JC Road. The Delhi media sat up and took notice – albeit with its usual Hindi bias in the narrative. The intensity of this movement has now isolated BJP in Karnataka's political scene on this question. It is on the back foot on this issue and has not managed to fight off the charge that is levelled against the party in most non-Hindi states – that it is a Trojan horse for the expansion of the Hindu ideology.

HD Deve Gowda's Janata Dal (Secular) has come out strongly against the imposition Hindi in Namma Metro. Certain senior ministers of the Congressite state government of Karnataka have also opposed Hindi in Namma Metro. Even Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had made a public statement about his resolve to oppose Hindi imposition by the Centre around the same time.

Thus, the protests are hardly 'fringe'. They represent the Kannadiga mainstream. In the wake of rising protests, Hindi signs in some metro stations have been covered. This method has been used by the wildly popular social media page Troll Haiku, to mark this as the reliving of the feeling of Independence for this present generation of Kannadigas.

The rise of linguistic nationalism in non-Hindi states is not unrelated to the Hindi imposition drive by the Union government party, that is completely dominated by representatives of Hindi states. Just in the last three years, Kerala and West Bengal have made their state languages compulsory as a subject in schools; Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has protested the wanton imposition of Hindi by replacing Odia in Delhi-controlled NHAI’s signposts in Odisha; Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu has flagged the issue of differential fertility rates between the cow belt and the rest; and DMK leader MK Stalin called for a second independence struggle against Hindi imposition.

While Hindi chauvinists charge that insistence of non-Hindi languages divides people, the reality is the opposite. It has been uniting diverse peoples. Even the fractious Tamil-Kannadiga relationship has been put aside as the Karnataka unit of DMK has come out in open support of a Kannada-English two-language policy for Namma Metro.

As #NammaMetroHindiBeda trended, Marathis started their own social media campaign with the hashtag #AapliMetroHindiNako that trended in Mumbai, Pune and in Bengaluru – thus marking a great example of disregarding their border dispute disagreement for a bigger cause. Thus, for some years now, the Hindi imposition issue has become much more than a Tamil issue as Delhi likes to portray it – to minimise its relevance, reach and scope.

Enthused by their success and aware of the need for unity and solidarity, Kannada groups are planning a conclave on the Hindi imposition issue and plan to invite stakeholders from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. While Hindi is imposed everywhere for the benefit of Hindi-speaking people in the name of the three-language formula, Hindi states themselves provide no such benefit to non-Hindi people among their midst, who are expected to learn the local language, that is Hindi.

So, the Delhi Metro has Hindi but no Bangla for its Bengali commuters, while the Union government forces Kolkata Metro to have Hindi for the benefit of Hindi-speaking commuters. Even basic things like local train tickets, tourist helplines, air tickets, in-flight safety announcements are always made in Hindi and never in any non-Hindi state language, even when the train or plane plies between two non-Hindi places or even within a non-Hindi state.

Equality and dignity are a pre-condition for unity. This issue goes beyond just Hindi signboards. It is a tussle between the reality of a diverse, multi-lingual, multi-national Federal Democratic Union and the homogenising ideology of 'Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan'. It is not only an issue of language but also of state rights and federalism, of preserving identity in the face of obliteration and homogenisation.

That was the promise of decolonisation which has been delivered to the Hindi belt, ironically, using funding of revenue-rich non-Hindi states. While the Hindi establishment wants themselves represented everywhere, it denies reciprocal rights for non-Hindi people.

Such a unilateral approach is a model for division and not unity, as the ultimate result of Pakistan’s Urdu imposition made apparent in 1971. The powers that be should heed these signs and roll back all directives and initiatives making Hindi compulsory in non-Hindi states. That is the way to peace and unity.

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