Tamil Nadu protests Hindi imposition: Linguistic diversity, not parochialism, required to sustain a global democracy

The limitations of your language are the limitations of your life. For me, this saying is a lived experience, both negative and positive. Am I victim or a successful product of linguistic diversity?

I am not sure.

The outbreak of protests in Tamil Nadu against yet another looming threat of Hindi imposition is occasion to reflect on how circumstances determine the limiting or liberating potential of language. Language, like life, precedes all states and constitutions. Therefore, it may be said to be a pre-constitutional right. After blood and land, language is the most important basis of identity and sustenance. It evolves in an individual’s life, moulded by social conditions, sustained by emotional and cultural ties, and motivated by economic aspirations and material ambitions.

 Tamil Nadu protests Hindi imposition: Linguistic diversity, not parochialism, required to sustain a global democracy

The National Education Policy draft was revised amid uproar over the imposition of Hindi. Twitter/@HRDMinistry

India has several hundred languages and dialects. Hindi and English are official languages for administrative purposes. There are several national languages. Hindi is not the national language, as many Hindi speakers and those in the Hindi-speaking regions believe.

I was born in Kerala on the border it shares with Tamil Nadu. My mother tongue was a dialect of Tamil spoken in Kerala and different from the classical version. After some months of schooling in the village kalari, we moved to Mumbai, where Marathi is the state language. I started in a Marathi medium school and later went to an English medium school run by Irish Redemptorists. Hindi was a second language from Class II, Marathi a third language from Class III and Sanskrit — as an alternative to French or Latin — the fourth language from Class VIII.

In those years in Mumbai, “South Indians” like me were perceived as a “dominant minority” of outsiders by Maharashtrians who were not socially, educationally and economically mobile. It was rare to find a Maharashtrian speak in Marathi in offices where South Indians would converse freely in English and even their own language. This reflected a social order, which gave rise to anti-South Indian protests.

My entire education was in English. It is also the medium of my writing, though I have written articles in Hindi. I was equally fluent in Marathi, studied French at the university, German in Germany and Tamil through correspondence. Although I could speak and read Tamil, and had to follow the Tamil press as a newspaper reporter, I had not learnt to write the language, which is at least half my mother tongue. The other half of my mother tongue is Malayalam, in which I can converse.

As an English-educated, upper caste Indian, such a linguistic development has alienated me. I have not had access to any of the rich and varied literature in Indian languages. The dependence on English over the years retarded my Marathi and Hindi, and there was never any need to write in Tamil. The only Tamil I wrote was letters that the domestic help who worked in my house in Delhi wanted me to write to her folks in a Tamil Nadu village.

I used to write to my mother in English, not in Malayalam or Tamil, which were her languages. She had picked up English and knows the script used to write in Hindi — Devanagari — which is the same script for Sanskrit, a language she had studied. She used to write replies to me in a mixture of Roman and Devanagari characters, freely using these to form the phonetic equivalents of words in Tamil and Malayalam when she could not recall the English or Hindi words.

I feel the vacuum of not knowing my mother tongue or any Indian language in depth. Yet English has liberated me through education and access to employment, which could be pursued in other countries, too.

It has gifted me with a worldview or weltanschauung and an eclectic outlook. English opened my mind to so much that would have been closed to me in my own mother tongue. Yes, I unashamedly admit to being a beneficiary of English language imperialism. But, I can hold my own against the imperialists in their language, which is now mine.

Like most people in the South and East, I feel there is Hindi imperialism in India and there are tendencies towards “one country, one culture and one language”. The imposition of Hindi has, in turn, created language chauvinism, and made the love of language and its sustenance for education and jobs a political issue. This is a serious problem in India, where the states were carved out on a linguistic basis. There are states which have made their language compulsory at the primary level and for a percentage of jobs.

While this offers prospects to the socially and educationally backward sections, it imposes a handicap on the middle and upper classes in a situation where English is associated with the elite. Politicians are using it, and with great effect, for pursuing a divide and rule policy.

The other side of this — the emancipatory potential of English — is evident most in the case of information technology. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are among the states where linguistic identities are strong. Yet, the bulk of IT professionals going to the US and other countries are from these states; they account for the highest number of work visas to the US.

Had they been victims of linguistic parochialism in their states, they would not be where they are with their achievements. They too are beneficiaries of English imperialism. They opted for the advantages of this in opposition to Hindi imperialism, as well as the parochial imposition of their own state language or mother tongue as a medium of education.

On a global scale, Hindi imperialism is less threatening to linguistic diversity than English imperialism. But, for the person facing Hindi imposition, it is more oppressive than the bigger imperialism of English, which at least offers more opportunities and new horizons.

Where is the need to impose Hindi, unless it is for the self-serving ulterior motives of only-Hindi speaking elected elite that wants to exercise power and domination over the non-Hindi people? Hindi doesn’t need political props or official patronage at the expense of the non-Hindi states to grow.

For the last 50 years, Hindi has been growing at a high rate because of the population growth in the Hindi heartland. The higher population growth in the Hindi-speaking states has caused a big surge in the use of Hindi. Whereas the lower population growth in the five southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Kerala has resulted in a decline in native speakers of the states’ languages.

On a recent visit to Kerala, when I spoke to migrant workers in Hindi, they responded in Malayalam. And their Malayalam is better than mine.

Figures suggest that Hindi has grown at double the rate of the Dravidian languages of these five states. Hindi is also growing in the South because of migration from Northern and Eastern states.

Increased Hindi usage does not in any way diminish the South, but Hindi imposition does.

Besides, the promotion of Hindi is more at the expense of Southern states, which contribute more to the national exchequer because of their superior economic development and growth. Unfortunately, they are even penalised for this, as for example, Tamil Nadu had to settle for reduced seats in Parliament as a result of better population policy.

If Hindi is useful for people to make a living and succeed, then Hindi will flourish. Not otherwise.

There can and should be no imposition of language. The policy should be to let a thousand languages bloom. Linguistic diversity has to be sustained for a global democracy, and linguistic parochialism requires to be challenged by politics that favours economic equality.

It is a question of creating the circumstances and deciding whether the state or people should be accorded primacy in making the decision.

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Updated Date: Jun 03, 2019 17:08:31 IST