Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Shah’s Flavor for Hindi in India

Nehru had rejected Hindi as the language of a free nation pushing aside the proposal of the then home minister Govind Vallabh Pant in 1965. When the current home minister Amit Shah pitches for Hindi as a lingua franca and clarifies that Hindi should be an alternative to English and not local languages, the language debate is again out in the open. The eighth schedule of the Indian constitution has 22 official languages, while some regions like Rajasthan still struggle for the constitutional sanctity of their regional language. With around 600 languages considered endangered and 250 already extinct in the past seven decades, the policies in India are bringing the focus back to the mother tongue and local knowledge. Statement about Hindi connecting the country and diversity of language as the country’s strength has sent a message that India’s ruling party is pushing the language agenda to the fore.

Deadline for Switch Over
After the British transfer of power to Indian hands in 1947, the constituent assembly in the 50s had decided that Hindi would be India’s official language. The Indian constitution had laid down 26th January 1965 as the deadline for the change-over from English to Hindi. Nehru was unhappy over the Parliamentary committee report headed by the then home minister Govind Vallabh Pant, declaring Hindi as the principal language and English as a subsidiary. Nehru’s affinity with British culture was so strong that subsidiary or additional or alternative language status for English was not acceptable to him. Pant tried to convince Nehru that he did not mean to give any less importance to English by designating English as a subsidiary. But Nehru’s resentment over this issue caused extreme disappointment to Pant, and he had a heart attack after his reaction. Narrating the incident, Kuldeep Nayar, information officer with the ministry and veteran journalist, writes in his book ‘Scoop’ that Pant opened with him after this incident declaring ‘Hindi will never be India’s lingua franca. You will see it. Pandit Ji (Nehru) has made things difficult.’

Fear of Imposing Hindi
Pant had worked hard to bridge the difference and reach a consensus between pro-Hindi and pro-English parliamentarians. Nayar narrates the whole drama behind the language debate. Overzealous Hindi supporters had ruined the prospects of Hindi by pushing the issue too far, and KM Munshi, the framer of the constitution and a champion of Hindi, called for a relaxation in the time limit in the interest of Hindi and the unity of India. The President’s order of 1952 had already authorized the use of Hindi in addition to English for various appointment orders. Later, in 1965 allowing Hindi in all official correspondence sent a fear among non-Hindi speaking states that the government was quickening the pace of introduction or rather the imposition of Hindi. The Non-Hindi faction was apprehensive and wanted an indefinite postponement of the date. At the same time, Hindi supporters pushed for a definite date when India would adopt Hindi as the principal language of the nation. Pant kept patience and was able to get the committee to endorse the constitutional obligation of having Hindi as an official language of the Union. But then, the enthusiastic press was drawing unnecessary attention, making it challenging to have the issue move at its own pace. He managed to stop the media from discussing it and, knowing the sensitivity, made sure that no further commissions were set up in the future to settle the language issue in India.

Post Nehru, Violent Protests
After Nehru’s death in 1964, the next Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, and home minister Gulzari Lal Nanda issued a circular about Hindi becoming the principal language of India and English being used as an additional language for all purposes. With precedence of anti-Hindi sentiments, Madras state was agitated again, and five people burnt themselves in violent protests, further aggravating the situation. Shastri, coming from the Hindi belt, had a soft corner, unlike Nehru. Still, the language controversy had gone beyond control, and retraction to Nehru’s position was the only way to control the damage. They threw the issue on the back burner, and no other government in the future dared touch the language chord again. Nehru and Gandhi both preferred Hindustani, a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. Historically, all key BJP leaders have taken pride in speaking Hindi, pushing for it in 2018 for UN entry as an official language, which was opposed vehemently within the Indian parliament.

Not National, Official Only
Article 343 of the Official Languages Act declares Hindi and English as official languages. Article 351 states that it is the duty of the government to promote the spread of Hindi to express India’s composite culture. Hindi is neither the national nor principal language but is surely predominant in significant parts of India and spoken by more than half the population. India had a constitutional obligation to have its own language and periodically assess how much it has spread. This internet age makes it all the more relevant to discuss how our national identity is strengthened on international fora reflecting our rich culture. Appointing Hindi teachers in the alienated regions of the northeast region and making Hindi compulsory in school education is but an effort to bring these regions into the fold of the linguistic and cultural mainstream. As per the last census of 2011, India’s 44% population speaks Hindi, and it remains the fastest growing language. Acceptance of diversity remains India’s larger identity, but Hindi is already a connecting language. Indian cinema and entertainment industry has pushed its dominance, acceptance, and symbolic cultural construct.

Home minister Amit Shah states that 70 percent of the Cabinet’s agenda is prepared in Hindi. However, opposing voices have already been raising the issue of Hindi imperialism in a country with sufficient linguistic diversity and more than a thousand mother tongues. India needs to preserve its dialectical heritage and ensure Hindi rules the heart without rushing to invite resistance. India’s true flavor is regional accents while speaking Hindi, which must be celebrated to remain linguistically united.

Author profile
Dr. Shipra Mathur

Dr. Mathur is a veteran journalist based in Jaipur, India. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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