Tharoor Line | Language an instrument of opportunity, not of oppression

Union Home Minister Amit Shah
Home Minister Amit Shah. File Photo

This week’s news that India has contributed US$ 800,000 (6.2 crore rupees at current exchange rates) to the United Nations as part of the Government’s initiative to enhance the organisation’s outreach in Hindi – to whatever limited audience that cares to read it – did not occasion much outrage. Even those in South India who have been railing against Hindi imposition did not take to social media to denounce this waste of taxpayers’ money. Perhaps they have finally become tired of the subject, after Home Minister Amit Shah’s tone-deaf advocacy of Hindi as the “link language” ten days ago, followed by a Bollywood controversy fuelled by “Singham” star Ajay Devgn saying that “Hindi was, is and always will be our mother tongue and national language.” Those of us who have previously explained to the Hindi zealots that their arrogant advocacy of Hindi was counter-productive to national unity simply sighed and thought, these people will never learn.

Ajay Devgn defends association with tobacco brand, calls it 'personal choice'.
Actor Ajay Devgn. Photo: IANS

After all, just last week a UP Minister, BJP ally Sanjay Nishad, had gone so far as to declare that “Hindustan is not a place for those who don’t speak Hindi. They should leave this country and go somewhere else.” The advocates of “Hindu Rashtra” prefer to tell their critics to “go to Pakistan!” It seems the advocates of “Hindi Rashtra” want us to go anywhere, so long as we vacate India for the Hindi-wallahs.

This sort of talk would laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. Half the country barely speaks or understands Hindi; the other half actually includes Hindi speakers who claim Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithili, Marwari and several similar languages as their real mother tongues. The passionate believers in Hindutva who currently rule our country don’t see India’s wonderful diversity as an asset and a strength. For them, a real nation must have one national religion and one national language: hence the slogan “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan”.

Earlier attempts to impose Hindi led to language riots in the mid-1960s that cost hundreds of lives and resulted in the compromise “three-language formula” that enshrined Hindi, English and a regional language as being of equal importance. The formula is largely honoured in the breach: no North Indian state teaches any South Indian language, and while the Hindi Prachar Sabha has many adherents in Kerala, Tamil Nadu resolutely refuses to teach Hindi in its government schools, and has even refused permission to open any Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (where Hindi is compulsory) in the state.

In practice, India has two official languages, English and Hindi. State governments complement these by producing official material in the language of their states. This compromise has worked well for seven decades, but our present rulers, in their linguistic triumphalism, won’t leave well enough alone.

Language, as I have often observed, should be an instrument of opportunity, not of oppression. People will learn languages that are not their own – whether English, Hindi or a foreign language – if it enhances their opportunities for jobs or career advancement. They will refuse to do so if someone seeks to impose it on them. Oppression should, and will, always be resisted.

If Hindi is thrust down the throats of the unwilling, serious conflict will arise. Our government already seems all too willing to disturb the co-existence that had kept all our religious communities living together in harmony. If they add language chauvinism to the cauldron, they will tear India apart.

The Americans have a charming expression, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Do not repair something that isn’t damaged. Indians of various mother tongues are getting along well. Messrs Shah, Devgn and Nishad, do speak Hindi among yourselves; just leave the rest of us alone.

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