Speaking Hindi: How Modi is putting Indianness back into India

Modi's decision of speaking to foreign leaders is Hindi despite his ability to speak English is an act of cultural and linguistic assertion. It is time we connected back to our cultural and linguistic traditions in a modern way

R Jagannathan June 06, 2014 08:05:26 IST
Speaking Hindi: How Modi is putting Indianness back into India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is defining India's cultural shift away from the post-independence Nehruvian disdain for Indianness. For decades now, India's elite of rootless wonders has built its power base by controlling the national discourse by making English its mainstay. Just as Brahmins used their control of Sanskrit to exclude the masses and dominate the old power structure, the Nehruvian elite in India has done the same in India by making regional languages uncool and unmodern.

Speaking Hindi How Modi is putting Indianness back into India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Modi is hopefully going to reverse the tide. I was thrilled to learn from The Indian Express today (5 June) that he talks to foreign leaders in Hindi even though he is reasonably comfortable in English. Apparently, he uses translators for Hindi-English or Hindi-Russian language conversions, but if he gets replies in English he needs no reverse translation.

Modi's decision to speak Hindi to foreign leaders is a dramatic affirmation of India's cultural and linguistic heritage which is second to none. It emphasises India's potential soft power even as we wait for our economic power to catch up. It tells the world that India is not a subset of western universalism, where our languages have to be tailored to fit western stereotypes.

We have as much in common with our south and east Asian neighbours as with the west - to which also we owe a debt, but not all of it. At one stroke Modi has made India Indian and placed is squarely in Asia without cutting off bridges to the west. India, in fact, is the bridge between Asia and the west in many ways. This is in keeping with Modi’s diplomatic and geopolitical priorities. The 21st century is the Asian century, and it won't happen if India does not reclaim what is good about itself in the Indian and Asian context.

Some will see this shift as a throwback to the damaging Hindi chauvinism of the mid-1960s, which sent Tamil Nadu into flames. This is not the case. As a Gujarati who is proud of his mother tongue, Modi is no Hindi chauvinist. In the recent election campaign, where all his speeches were in Hindi even outside the heartland, the local voters did not see it as an effort to shove Hindi down their throats, but as an assertion of his Indianness. They understood that he spoke in the language he was comfortable in. They understood the message, and were not upset by the medium he chose to express it in. Else he would not have won Karnataka, or scored big gains in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, or Kerala.

India's real problem is that our English-speaking elite have steadfastly kept us hermetically sealed from our Indian language roots, our culture and our Indianness. Rootless themselves, they have emasculated us as a nation. I would be the last one to think everything about Indian culture is great or wonderful. We have as much nonsense in our culture as any other. We have to excise the nonsense without losing touch with our core.

Nor do I see myself as anti-English. As one of the prime economic beneficiaries of this English obsession of the elite, I will always support the learning of English as a compulsory second language in India as its opens a window to opportunities, and to all the literature and knowledge the west has to offer. But, as Gandhi said, we should keep our windows fully open to ideas from everywhere, but we need not choose to be blown off our feet by anyone of them. We have to be rooted in our own culture in order to modernise it, improve it. Language is a key medium for the transmission and progress of culture.

Some may object to making language a priority in our political and economic discourse. People want jobs, not bhashans in Hindi. True. But learning is fastest in one's mother tongue. To progress, we have to be a learning culture. Moreover, language and culture lead to soft power and more jobs, not less. Long after technology makes most human efforts obsolete and jobs redundant, culture and language will give us back our human abilities, our ability to be more than just the technology we use. American culture and Hollywood will be there long after US jobs have been outsourced to Asia and elsewhere. This is why we can’t abandon what is ours in terms of culture and language.

Consider the jobs bonanza ahead if we emphasise mother tongue plus English as a national cause.

First, there would be a need for thousands of translators and multi-lingual skills, both from Indian to foreign languages, and between Indian regional languages themselves. We need as many English-Hindi, Japanese-Tamil translators as Hindi-Tamil, Kannada-Bengali translators.

Second, as we reinvest money and emotion into our own languages, more original work will be done in them, and more foreign work can be translated into local languages, creating a huge deluge of jobs.

Third, assertion of our linguistic identities is key to international respect and power. As long as we speak and deal with the west in English, we are essentially playing on fields created for them. If we speak and converse in our languages, the field automatically levels out. We lose our disadvantages.

Fourth, no nation respects any other nation that is merely trying to ape them. The Chinese do not fear our military, our economic potential or our political leadership. They fear only our culture and soft power. If the US respects anything beyond our software coding skills (which is actually low-level labour arbitrage), it is Bollywood, which represents popular culture better than our English speaking elite. Bollywood is the real challenge to America, not IT.

However, to make culture, soft power and language our new core strength, we need not diss English at all. In fact, we should engulf and devour it, the same way English has engulfed and devoured words from all the places they ruled.

In our Hindi chauvinistic phase, we created unwieldy new words drawn from Sanskrit (which was also a revolt against Urdu-oriented words that became anathema after partition). We need to absorb common words from English, Hindi and all regional languages in all our languages to enrich all of them. Why should the word certificate, for example, not remain certificate in Hindi and instead become praman patra? If we want to be closer to our culture, it means absorbing easier words from other languages while still retaining our own cultural flavours. Did English become less English by absorbing words like catamaran and rice (both words from Tamil, the latter from  arisi) and Raj from India?

We simply have to simplify our languages in order to relearn them. Sanskrit went out of favour because we mystified it and took it away from the masses. A living language must get closer to the people, and we need linguists who can simplify rather than complicate matters.

Krishna Shastry of Samskrita Bharati, who has taken the re-popularisation of Sanskrit as his mission, is a good example to follow. Instead of teaching Sanskrit the old-fashioned way, with an emphasis on grammar and using unwieldy words, he (and his instructors) speak spoken, simple Sanskrit which almost any Indian language user can follow without great effort. The grammar and erudition of Sanskrit he leaves to those who want to pursue a higher level of learning in it.

It’s the way to go for all our regional languages as well. In his own way, Modi has brought Indianness back to India. It is for us to make it our own now.

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