Few things in India capture the seat-at-the-big-table yearnings of the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan as the launch of the new 12-language 24/7 tourist helpline. The hotline was inaugurated on 8th February 2016 by Mahesh Sharma, India’s Union Minister of State for Tourism and Culture. As some aspirational browns want to look and act like whites while retaining Bollywood inspired Hindi-Hindu characteristics aka “Indian culture”, it is important to understand the anti-people ideology than lies beneath some apparently people-friendly initiatives, such as this hotline. By adopting multi-lingual “global standards”, it projects an outward image of inclusiveness – the form. A close scrutiny of this, along with certain other signals and events, reveals the deep ideology of exclusion that lies beneath – the content. The question that lies at the heart of all this is: Which humans the Government of India consider people, and by implication, which humans are considered less-people or non-people?
It is true that information in their mother-tongue would help tourists have hassle-free travel. Hence, the logical focus of such enabling infrastructure should have been helplines in those languages whose speakers exist in the largest number among tourists but don’t have tourist information in the form of signs, directions, or boards in their language. In short, an unmet need. So, Hindi, having near universal presence in most tourist sites of note in the form of Government of India funded boards, signs and Hindi-speaking staff and in all train-stations and airports, is the language whose speakers have a huge tourism infrastructure already available to them, unmatched by none. This is true of English too. Hindi and English speakers should have the least problem in navigating within India, thanks to the already existing public infrastructure funded mostly using non-Hindi people’s money and resources.
In 2013, domestic tourists in India outnumbered foreign tourists by about 163 to 1. Now, looking at the number of tourists (domestic and international), the top tourist languages with minimal pan-India tourist-friendly infrastructure are essentially subcontinental languages like Marathi, Bangla, Tamil, and Malayalam. If the government were to count the number of tourists whose languages have minimal pre-existing pan-India tourism-help infrastructure, and were to choose helpline languages based on that democratic criterion of unmet need, it would launch a helpline in Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bangla, Telugu, etc. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are among the top 5 source countries of foreign arrivals in India. The tourist helpline that Minister Mahesh Sharma inaugurated with much fan-fare has Arabic, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese and Russian languages, none of which figure in the top 10 languages whose speakers travel to India for tourism. Thus, the majority of Tamil, Bengali or Telugu tourist will continue to be as clueless in areas outside their homeland as they used to be. For Arabs and Germans, Government of India has a ready helpline. Even for the far more numerous but brown-skinned Bangla, Tamil or Sinhala speaking foreign tourists, there is no helpline.
Servility to outsiders and dominating less powerful insiders seems to be the path of choice
So, what clues do we gain into Government of India’s ideology and resultant policy from something as apparently mundane as a tourist helpline? One can summarize them as follows. Firstly, all tourists may be tourists, but to external-image-conscious Government of India, concerns of foreign tourists are far more important, even if they are relatively fewer in number. Secondly, a Hindi tourist must not be inconvenienced anywhere in the Indian Union, even if that means adding more tourism infrastructure for Hindustanis in Hindi, in addition to what already exists – that already far, far-surpasses that of any other language, except English. Thirdly, if you happen to be a non-Hindi Indian citizen who doesn’t know English (that is, a majority of non-Hindi Indian citizens) but still would need information, the Government of India couldn’t care less. Fourthly, if you are a foreigner but happen to be brown-skinned, you don’t matter. It is from a certain diseased mentality that Government of India creates better equipped hostels for foreign students, erects visual barriers between poor people’s housing agglomerations and roads that foreign dignitaries may ply upon, and does not allow auto-rickshaws in Delhi’s international airport. Such exclusion is not only about race and building a fake external image. It is also about class. When Air India has a Chennai to Kolkata flight where a majority of passengers naturally understand Tamil or Bangla, not a single Air India announcement is made in the Chennai airport, in the Kolkata airport and most crucially, on board while giving safety instructions, in either Tamil or Bangla. This is where class-discrimination and discrimination against non-Hindi peoples come together in a naked form. The ‘acceptable’ Tamil or Bengali on board a Chennai to Kolkata flight is the one who understands English, if not Hindi. A Tamil lady who does not know English or Hindi does not deserve to be fully serviced at the airport or on board. She is made to feel inadequate and out of place. It is a sad, sad commentary on the diversity-showcasing PR blitz called ‘Incredible India’. Incredible indeed.
It is similarly incredible that no local train ticket within West Bengal or Tamil Nadu has the station names printed in Bangla or Tamil. With its warped vision of what is tourism and who is a tourist, the Government of India has got its priorities all wrong. Nothing in the Constitution of India bans safety announcements in Tamil and Kannada for flights between Chennai and Bengaluru. It is the deep ideology of the Indian Union that does – an ideology that conceives the non-Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan peoples as ill-formed citizens, whose mother-tongues and concerns need to be suppressed, who need to be beaten into a new shape for cohesion and assimilation as equal citizens of the Indian Union. To a self-respecting Bengali like me, this is humiliation designed to show me my place with a hint of what about me needs to change so that I am ‘acceptable’. That the funding for this discrimination actually comes largely from non-Hindi states via central taxation makes it even more disgusting. The rules about official languages that are incorrectly cited in support of Government of India’s Anglo-Hindi formula don’t become a hindrance for the German, French, Arabic, Russian, Chinese or Japanese languages. Only when non-Hindi subcontinental languages are excluded that a smokescreen of laws and logistical limitations is built. Servility to outsiders and dominating less powerful insiders seems to be the path of choice.
This post-1990 fetish of feeling sufficiently international by copying Euro-American scaffolds of homogeneity disregards the reality of tourism India. A large survey from 2002 by the Union Ministry of Tourism shows that about half of all domestic tourists (excluding social travel), numbering more than 100 million, travelled for ‘religious purposes and pilgrimages’. Of the top 10 tourist destinations in India, eight are religious and pilgrimage sites. Of the total number of trips made by all domestic tourists, cultivators or agricultural wage-labourers contribute the largest proportion. More than 80% of all domestic tourists are not college graduates. More than 70% of all tourist trips are made in buses. Let us think about these numbers and realize how deliberately off-the-mark the high-profile tourism initiatives of the Government of India are. That would give us an idea about who it serves vis-a-vis who it ought to serve. That is the context in which Mahesh Sharma’s multi-lingual helpline has to be seen.
In the post-1990 scenario, when public utilities in the Indian Union are shrinking and the public space is becoming increasingly exclusionary, the Anglo-Hindi reshaping of the public space has the stamp of approval from big money and powerful urban cosmopolitan elites. While Ahomiyas, Meiteis, Maithilis, Bengalis, Tamil or Marathis have no place in this new Indian ideology, it has no place for the “officially Hindi” poor Awadhi or Bhojpuri tourist either. These facts about India in general and about the tourism scene in particular may not be palatable to those whose idea of tourism is some version of firangi orientalism inspired “ethnic” exotica gawking, or firang style backpacking “off the beaten path”. But however unpalatable it may be to certain miniscule yet powerful sensitivities and self-conceptions, it is important to keep it real.