Fear of ‘Hindi imperialism’ triggers language war, but Devanagari may script an amicable truce

Indian languages are not mutually competitive, but complementary. This mutuality and complementarity will further increase with the adoption of the Devanagari script

Rasal Singh May 05, 2022 06:42:18 IST
Fear of ‘Hindi imperialism’ triggers language war, but Devanagari may script an amicable truce

The growing debate over Hindi as the national language of India. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Time and again, Hindi is being projected as a threat to India’s pluralistic identity as far as languages are concerned. The latest being an online spat between two actors from competing film industries. At the success party of KGF: Chapter 2, Kannada actor Kichcha Sudeep referred to the recent pan-India success of south Indian films and said Hindi was no longer “a national language”. In response, veteran Hindi film actor Ajay Devgn asserted that Hindi was the “national language” and would remain so. He further asked his south India film colleague why regional films were being dubbed in Hindi if this was not the case. This Twitter spat soon snowballed into a major controversy, with fellow actors and politicians from south India jumping into the bandwagon. They accused the Central government of indulging in language politics.

Earlier presiding over the 37th meeting of the Official Language Committee of Parliament, Union Home Minister Amit Shah also called for the adoption of Hindi as an alternative to the English language. He pointed out that nine tribal communities of the North East have adopted Devanagari as the script of their dialects. Apart from this, all the eight states of the North East have agreed to make Hindi compulsory in schools up to Class X. The minister also said that the development and expansion of Hindi should not be at the cost of other Indian languages but as an alternative to English.

Shah’s pitch for Hindi provoked strong criticism from a wide spectrum of Opposition leaders and artistes. These include Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, Kerala Chief Minister P Vijayan, noted musician AR Rahman, and actor Prakash Raj, to name a few. It’s ironic that while Hindi, an Indian language, is considered a symbol of language imperialism, English finds no such objection. The statements made by AR Rahman and Prakash Raj are glaring examples of this hypocrisy and demonstrate their lost connection with the soul of India.

The National Education Policy 2020’s focus on the mother tongue ensures that a child’s energies are spent on learning critical concepts rather than a new language. It also protects hitherto discriminated languages by including them in the school curriculum. However, its implementation on the ground seems to be a Herculean task in the present socio-cultural scenario, wherein the Indian languages find themselves vulnerable to the colonial language, English, which is slowly engulfing all the Indian languages except Hindi.

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The prominence of the 21 Indian languages included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution is gradually diminishing in the intellectual world, while the dominance of the English language is gradually expanding. Apart from its prominence in socio-cultural life, governance-administration, and trade-market, English has also made significant inroads as a medium of education. This undoubtedly poses the biggest existential threat for Indian languages as a whole.

In the present context, there is a dire need for the Indian languages to come closer to each other to deal with English supremacism. Efforts should be made to strive toward eradicating their mutual unfamiliarity and separation. The Devanagari script can play a decisive role in the development, propagation, and interaction of Indian languages. For this, the best literature of all Indian languages must be transliterated into the Devanagari script so that it can be accessible to the vast majority and wider Hindi society.

People of great eminence such as Raja Rammohun Roy, Lokmanya Tilak, Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati, Mahatma Gandhi, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Krishnaswamy Iyengar, Muhammad Karim Chagla and Bineshwar Brahm had advocated the adoption of Devanagari script for all Indian languages as the national or common script. A common script would enable the spoken language to flourish while easing the burden on educational and administrative systems. Devanagari script is best suited for this purpose as it fulfils the two most important criteria — unlike the Latin script, Devanagari is phonetically sound; and among the current Indian scripts, it’s the most widely used. Though the need for a common script has been emphasised by many, nobody has intended to tread on the political landmine of regional politics for years. It’s time to rise above narrow politics and regionalist identities and move towards realising this dream.

Having a single script for different Indian languages is of far-reaching significance as it will remove the unfamiliarity, mistrust, and distance between them. Thus, bringing them closer to each other. The process can be initiated with the adoption of the Devanagari script as the common script for Indian languages that originated from Sanskrit and also for script-less languages and dialects. Today there are many languages and dialects — for instance, in Jammu and Kashmir, North East, Andaman-Nicobar, and Goa — that are facing existential crises due to the lack of a script. However, these gradually disappearing/endangered languages have a very rich tradition of oral literature, which needs to be protected.

Similar is the case with the literature of Nayanar-Alvar saints, Gitagovindam of Jayadeva, Guruvani of Guru Nanak, verses of Shankardev, Bakh of Lalleshwari, Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas, and Gitanjali of Rabindranath Tagore. These should be read by every literate Indian. Standardising the script not only provides the best balance of diversity and functional literacy, it further increases social closeness and cultural affinity.

Certain Indian languages have their own separate scripts like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, etc. Excessive linguistic diversity is not always the best for knowledge creation and propagation. The adoption of the Devanagari script as their co-script would not only enable the spoken language to flourish but also resolves the age-old problem of socio-cultural narrow-mindedness existing in a society.

The Devanagari script may also be partially modified/enhanced to accommodate the specific sounds of a particular language thereby establishing its natural proximity and affinity with more and more Indian languages. The complex process of language learning can be made very simple and accessible by adopting a common script for all Indian languages. By doing this, new languages can be learned easily. The origin, cultural context and vocabulary of Indian languages from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Kutch to Kamrup are very similar. This holds the key to making Indians multilingual. It needs to be understood that Indian languages are not mutually competitive, but complementary. This mutuality and complementarity will further increase with the adoption of the Devanagari script.

Today, the market and language have an interdependent relationship. The market expands through language and language flourishes through the market. That’s why Hindi is developing and expanding so much. Other Indian languages would not only be culturally enriched by being associated with Hindi through the Devanagari script; rather, they will also be able to find their feet in the employment, business, and tourism sectors. The original script of the Dogri language was Takri and that of Kashmiri was Sharda. Over a period Dogri adopted Devanagari and Kashmiri adopted Nastalik as their script respectively. Today Dogri is read and understood by Hindi society, while the Kashmiri language is gradually shrinking. The Kashmiri language can revive itself by adopting the Devanagari script and connecting with Hindi and other Indian languages.

The author is Dean, Students' Welfare, Central University of Jammu. Views expressed are personal.

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