18 - 10 - 2019

Hullabaloo over Hindi

NJAn ninne snehikkunnu,’ says the Bhojpuri-speaking wife to her migrant husband who has remitted her some money. If you do not know Malayalam, to know what she is saying you will have to watch the PhonePe advertisement that came out in 2018.

The advertisement indicates that North Indian, Hindi speakers are adept at learning a language other than Hindi, given the right incentive. The wife in this advertisement probably learnt Malayalam on her own in order to communicate with her husband privately, even in the presence of her mother-in-law.

In contrast is the unseemly spectacle of the annual language war on every Hindi Diwas. Soon it transforms into a discussion on the essential characteristics of nation, nationhood and federalism. Fortunately, nowadays, like viral fever, the agitation dies down on its own after a few days.

It all starts with a department of Hindi in the Central government which has been given the responsibility of spreading Hindi across the country. It recruits only those who are MA in Hindi. Called ‘Rajbhasha Vibhag’, it is under the control of the Home Ministry. English too is a rajbhasha, but, there is no department to promote the language. No effort is made to recruit MAs in English to help out in drafting laws, rules, regulations and directives from the government in a comprehensible language.

In the absence of an English vibhag, the language of the laws of India remains incomprehensible even to those who draft it. The intention behind the law may be good, but frequently it requires the wisdom of the courts of justice to make sense of whatever was written in the law. The latest such example concerns the historic law, drafted in English, which Parliament discussed on August 4-5 to partially modify Article 370. It was full of horrific spelling and grammatical mistakes. It took almost a month for the government to issue a corrected version of the law which Parliament had passed.

Central government offices, at least in non-Hindi areas, also have a ‘Hindi officer’, once again an MA in Hindi, whose sole task is to promote the language within that office. In offices where the officer is conscientious, there is also a Hindi board, alongside the one which announces the name, address and phone number of the officer to contact in case of corruption complaints. The corruption board is quasi-statutory because of directions from the Central Vigilance Commissioner. The Hindi board is more of a voluntary effort. The offices of Panjab University, for example, have no such board; but there was one at the Administrative Block, PGI, till a few years ago. On this board, the Hindi officer would put a new word each day, along with its meaning. Apparently in the hope that it would familiarise people with Hindi. 

The rajbhasha department (Centre) initiates the process of promoting Hindi a few days before Hindi Diwas. No one notices its efforts, and there is no visible consequence of its efforts or, at least, none that has been researched or documented. On Hindi Diwas, someone makes what they consider is an uplifting remark in the context of Hindi. This year, it was Amit Shah’s turn. Earlier, Chidambaram, Narasimha Rao, Venkataraman and other Home Ministers have made similar remarks. The only reason why they do so is that the department falls under their charge. Mostly the remark is ignored by everyone, especially when the minister is a South Indian, connected with a Dravidian language.

Then there are times when the remark is followed by furore all over the country. In the mid-1960s, when Gulzarilal Nanda was the Home Minister, it even resulted in riots. All that Nanda had done was to announce in 1965, the departure of the English language from government, and the arrival of Hindi as the official language of governance. The opening of the film Saat Hindustani features one such riot. The anti-Hindi riot in South India used to be paralleled by anti-English riots in the markets of Bihar, UP and Madhya Pradesh. The eagerness to burn property was common. There was no reported desire to learn any language.

Fortunately, nowadays, the acrimony that Hindi Diwas generates is limited to some slogan shouting, and once in a while, as it happened at Patiala, a few Hindi acolytes being asked to apologise for having heaped insults on non-Hindi languages. 

A few weeks later everyone forgets about Hindi. Those who wish to use it, use it; those who wish to ignore it, ignore it. No one really cares one way or the other. A language, after all, is a device for communication between people. This is a point that we need to remember, always. As in the case of the PhonePe advertisement, and in the context of the annual war that erupts in India because someone in the government promises to impose Hindi on everyone else, the point is simply this: there has to be a strong reason to learn a language. Otherwise, no one other than the learned types is willing to waste time learning a new language. In historical times, a common Indian was said to know at least three languages. Most Indians, even today, do. Mahatma Gandhi knew five. Learned Indians, like Narasimha Rao, knew as many as 10 languages.

As for the language of Bharat Sarkar, whether it uses Hindi or English, there is an urgent need for it to appoint a ‘simple language commission’. No rule, law, directive should be issued by the government unless it is written in a simple, commonsensical language, with no convolutions and legalese, one that even a matriculate can comprehend, which by the way, is 90 per cent of all workers in the organised and unorganised sector in India.

M Rajivlochan
Historian