Is Protest against a Language, a Symbol of Revolt against Political Domination?
Two episodes that occurred in the last few weeks, involving protests against the insistence on the use of Hindi language have caught public attention. Senior DMK leader and Member of Parliament, Kanimozhi has strongly protested the alleged comment made by a CISF officer at Chennai airport, that Are you an Indian? This comment was made by the officer in response to the MP's saying that she not know Hindi and requested the officer to speak in either English or Tamil.
More recently, the Secretary of the Union Ministry of AYUSH speaking at a training session organised by his Ministry, informed the non-Hindi speaking participants that they could leave the meeting if they so wished. This was when they requested that English be used as they could not follow Hindi. Over the years, when travelling through airports in South India, one has got used to CISF personnel at the security terminal speaking in Hindi and expecting a response in the same language, unmindful of the possible discomfort of some people, especially from the non-Hindi speaking states.
At government meetings and academic conferences, it is quite normal for officials and academicians to not merely make presentations in Hindi but continue the entire dialogue in that language, oblivious to the fact that many in the audience may not be well versed with the language.
Coming from a non-Hindi speaking state, I am equally comfortable in Kannada, Hindi and English. Whenever I speak in Hindi, I am often asked (by some from among my Hindi speaking audience) as to how do I manage to speak Hindi so well even though I am from South India. While I laugh it off, I often wonder whether someone whose mother tongue is not Hindi and is fluent in that language needs to be positively complimented or questioned on how he is so well versed with that language! Both the episodes quoted at the start of this essay, illustrate a simple point - many among the Hindi speaking population in India, assume that it is their right to speak that language across the length and breadth of the country and it is the bounden duty of very Indian to not merely accept their right to speak in Hindi but also respond in the same language! One is noticing, in recent times, an alarming increase of these numbers.
A quarter century ago, when the United Front selected H D Deve Gowda as their leader and he was invited by the President to be Prime Minister, a few North Indian journalists immediately reacted: Does he know Hindi?.... as if this was a necessary qualification to become Prime Minister! For many this Hindi chauvinism is representative of the domination of North India in the politics of this country.
While championing the cause of the three language formula, the newly unveiled National Education Policy, makes strong pitch for respecting and celebrating the language diversity of India. It stated that for purposes of cultural enrichment as well as national integration, all young Indians should be aware of the rich and vast array of languages of their country, and the treasures that they and their literatures contain (NEP Document 4.15). It goes on to suggest a fun project on languages in India, from Class 6-8, which would give the students both a sense of the unity and the beautiful cultural heritage and diversity of India and would be a wonderful icebreaker ....as they meet people from other parts of India (NEP Document 4.16). Extremely wonderful ideas but could well fall through if the reality is one of forcing a nation to accept a language as its sole national language!
One recalls here how India's second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, diffused the anti-Hindi agitation when he was the Home Minster of India. In my book on Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Principles, I have chronicled, the former Prime Minister steadfast commitment to ensuring the sentiments of the non-Hindi speaking states are taken into account on any decision on the national language issue. At a meeting of the All India Youth Conference in Tirupati held in September 1962, Shastri asserted that unless Hindi could be sufficiently developed and the people learnt it well, he did not see any point in imposing it. As Home Minister he piloted the Official Language Act of 1963 which provided that English may continue to be used, in addition to Hindi, for all official purposes of the Union. D.R. Mankekar observes that Lal Bahadur Shastri won the confidence of the South by his ready recognition of the Southerners genuine displacement of English in favour of Hindi as the medium of official communication of the Central government. It is clear that in the current times, leaders from the Hindi heartland have not been as sensitive as Lal Bahadur Shastri (who hailed from Uttar Pradesh) and this has caused the heightened tensions on the language issue.
The friction on Hindi has surfaced from time to time. The latest set of episodes vividly demonstrates the insensitivity demonstrated by some in the Hindi-speaking states to the apprehensions of those in South India and the North East. People demonstrate a greater acceptance of Hindi when they are allowed to do so at their own pace. When attempts are made to force people to communicate in or accept Hindi, it often creates an emotional backlash. This backlash is not so much against the language per se, but a reaction to the domination of North India in both the politics and socio-cultural life of the larger nation.
(Dr Sandeep Shastri is a leading political scientist and Pro Vice Chancellor, Jain University)
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