While Hindi imposition by the Union government is as old as the Indian Union itself, there has been a certain ominous desperation in the speed and breadth of Hindi imposition under the current Union government. While Hindi imposition by Union government has accelerated since Narendra Modi’s ascent to power, it also led to growing unease in general about the significant section of the non-Hindi populace of the Indian Union. Most recently, the Presidential stamp of approval on a slew of measures aimed at the imposition and promotion of the Hindi language, recommended by a parliamentary Official Language Committee, have now created a situation of political show-down. And the clash revolves around the issue of forced homogeneity in the incredibly diverse political entity that is the Indian Union.
The Hindi imposition question is not new. In 1965, more than 200 Tamils were martyred at the hands of primarily forces under the control of the centre, when they protested forced Hindi imposition. Since then, Tamil Nadu has been looked upon as the odd one out, a thorn in the beautiful path of linguistic uniformity via Hindi. This formulation was convenient because by portraying Tamil Nadu as an outlier, it implied that the rest were on board. It is precisely this false portrayal of the opposition to Hindi imposition being a Tamil issue that now has been shred into pieces. Strong voices, both from the political field and from civil society, have arisen from many non-Hindi states, including multiple non-Dravidian states. West Bengal’s Bengali-speaking MP from the Trinamool Congress Saugata Roy, DMK’s Tamil-speaking leader M.K.Stalin, Janata Dal (secular)’s Kannada-speaking leader H.D.Kumaraswamy, Lok Satta’s Telugu-speaking leader Jayaprakash Narayan and many more have spoken out against Hindi imposition in the last one week. Newspapers as varied as the Delhi-headquartered English daily Indian Express to the Bengaluru-headquartered Kannada daily Vijaya Karnataka have run editorials against Hindi imposition moves that were approved by the President. In the past week, civil society and social media protests against Hindi imposition have happened in Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and elsewhere – and have received significant media coverage. Of late Twitter hashtags like #StopHindiImposition, #StopHindiChauvinism and #StopHindiImperialism have been extremely popular. None of these originated in Tamil Nadu. It is no longer Tamil Nadu versus the rest. Far from being a source of disunity, the protests against Hindi imposition have united many Indian citizens across linguistic boundaries. It is now Hindi versus non-Hindi in a non-Hindi majority Indian Union.
In short, the republic may be multi-lingual and have a non-Hindi majority but its executive branch is requested to speak to non-Hindi people in Hindi
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a non-Hindi speaker who does not know Hindi and imagine that your friend is a Hindi speaker who does not know your non-Hindi mother tongue. You are both citizens of a republic with equal rights to a level playing field. Also remember the fact that a majority of the citizens of the Indian Union do not know Hindi and have expressed no demand to know it. Finally remember that it is the non-Hindi states who generate a stupendous majority of the so-called “Central funds” and are forced to subsidise the Hindi states, not vice versa. Hindi being one of the two official languages of the Indian Union, let us be clear what the purpose of an official language is as per the Official Languages Act. Official languages are “languages which may be used for the official purposes of the Union, for transaction of business in Parliament, for Central and State Acts and for certain purposes in High Courts.” Public announcements (including websites), academics and education and such are not official purposes. Neither does the constitution make Hindi a pre-condition for the unity of the Indian Union. No Presidential order can override laws made by parliament like the Official Languages Act. With this context, let’s look at some of the parliamentary Official Language Committee recommendations that have received Presidential approval.
Perhaps the most audacious one is that “all dignitaries including Hon’ble President and all the Ministers especially who can read and speak Hindi may be requested to give their speech/statement in Hindi only.” Already, no non-Hindi MP can give speeches in parliament in his/her non-Hindi mother-tongue without permission, but as a Hindi MP can of course freely speak his/her mother-tongue. This order seeks to force Hindi onto all Ministers who represent a non-Hindi-majority republic. In short, the republic may be multi-lingual and have a non-Hindi majority but its executive branch is requested to speak to non-Hindi people in Hindi. Also, the recommendation that “Hindi should be made a compulsory subject up to tenth standard in all schools of CBSE and Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan” was accepted “in principle”. Thus, forcing students to learn Hindi in non-Hindi states has been agreed to, “in principle”. The CBSE and Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, funded by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, incidentally is again funded mostly by revenue from non-Hindi states, like any other “central” entity. Thus, non-Hindi people will have to fund Hindi imposition onto themselves. By Recommendation 47’s approval, Hindi has also been made compulsory (Bengali is not) up till class 10 in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where less than 20% speak Hindi and Bengali is the most widely spoken language. But who cares about Andaman? Many of the recommendations (Numbers 3, 5, 9, 10, 83, 84 and 99) have to do with spending time, money and human resources on training personnel in learning Hindi without mentioning why exactly that is relevant to the work they do. Recommendations numbered 22, 23, 26, 41, 62, 67, 75, 89 and 90 create a huge number of jobs and incentives specifically for Hindi-knowing people, primarily paid for by non-Hindi people’s revenue and taxes. While anyone can know Hindi, it is well understood as to people from which linguistic background will benefit from this!
What better use of a superior officer’s time in the Income Tax department’s office in Maharashtra or West Bengal than setting targets about Hindi use in the office and checking up on them?
The dangerous Recommendation 11 calls for surveillance of underlings by superiors over their use of Hindi in their office work in any department: “senior most officer of every office should be assigned the responsibility to review the work done in Hindi by his subordinate officers on any day of the last week of every month.” But of course! What better use of a superior officer’s time in the Income Tax department’s office in Maharashtra or West Bengal than setting targets about Hindi use in the office and checking up on them?
Recommendations 34 and 35 call upon the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to “work out an action plan for implementing Hindi teaching scheme in all Universities/Higher Educational Institutes” and also asks the ministry to “take note of such Universities and higher educational institutes where there are no Hindi Departments” and “encourage” (such encouragement typically translates into either extra funds or threats of fund cuts) such institutions “to establish Hindi Departments so that these departments could extend help in imparting education through Hindi medium”. Thus, the MHRD wants to promote Hindi-medium higher education in non-Hindi states! Nowhere is Hindi-medium higher education more prevalent than in the Hindi belt. In the MHRD’s own ranking of excellence of higher education institutions, the NIRF rankings, the Hindi belt states altogether had 21 institutions in the top 100. 26 out of the top 100 places went to Tamil Nadu, where Hindi-medium education is practically non-existent. Thus, the Union government aims to drag down the level of academics in educationally advanced non-Hindi states to a level that exists in the Hindi states.
It is not surprising if such moves are seen as a conspiracy against the future progress of non-Hindi people. Amidst all this talk of Hindi departments and Hindi-medium education, the MHRD has never come up with proposals to introduce, say, Bengali or Tamil as mediums of education in any higher education context. I mention these because these two languages had a robust vernacular language higher education scene that was world-class. And then 1947 happened.
Recommendation 36 gives a Hindi option in exams and interviews in non-Hindi states while a Tamil or Bengali option will be absent in Hindi states, thus expanding job opportunities for Hindi speakers in non-Hindi states but discouraging the opposite. Various recommendations call for any advertisement from the government to compulsorily have a Hindi version irrespective of which state it is aimed at, compulsory buying of Hindi books for libraries, making airline announcements in Hindi but not in Kannada or Bengali (even if it is a flight fully within Karnataka or West Bengal), paying money to the Hindi publishing industry through bigger advertisements, special incentives to government officials for creative writing in Hindi, mandatory printing of railway material using the Devanagari script, compulsory Hindi announcements in railway stations of non-Hindi states, incorporating Hindi in all government websites (but not other languages), the facility of applying in Hindi for a passport, the usage of Hindi in Air India tickets, providing examinees the option of Hindi in all the examinations conducted by UPSC (but no such option of mother language for non-Hindi examinees) and so on. Finally, the Union government will bear the huge costs associated with making Hindi an official language of the UN (because presumably for the Union government, Hindi is India and India is Hindi) and “posts of Hindi should be created in subordinate offices/Embassies etc of the MEA situated in foreign countries”. One must assume again that the best use of MEA money in the Bulgarian or Nigerian embassy is this and Hindi is the only face of the Indian Union that the Union government wants to project to the world – lest the world wake up to the fact that non-Hindi speakers also exist in the Indian Union. The said committee was originally led by P. Chidambaram and approved by Pranab Mukherjee and the positive side of these recommendations is endlessly touted by Venkaiah Naidu. All three are non-Hindi politicians who are politically irrelevant in their home state and play the same role for the pro-Hindi Delhi establishment as the Muktar Abbas Naqvis and Shahnawaz Hussains do for the BJP.
This extensive set of recommendations has an underlying ideology. It wants to beat a multi-lingual union into a monolingual entity. The underlying reason is “unity”. Thus, diversity is looked upon as a threat. No wonder, the Official Languages Department is placed under the Home Ministry and reveals exactly the mindset from which the Indian deep state operates. The recommendations favour Hindi speakers for jobs and create hurdles for non-Hindi citizens in almost every walk of life which has anything to do with the Union government – effectively making them second-class citizens of the Indian Union. Incentivising Hindi and disincentivising non-Hindi for all governmental purposes, discriminating against non-Hindi speakers and favouring Hindi speakers in matters of jobs – this is the sort of thing that was also practiced in Pakistan after 1947. That led to a reaction from the Bengali people of what was then East Pakistan against the imposition of Urdu by the state. They sought to ensure that a Bengali speaker had exactly the same rights in every aspect as an Urdu speaker. Denied their political and cultural demands, they adhered to the principles expressed and eventually it all resulted in the creation of the independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
The Indian Union has no national language precisely because it is a union of various linguistic nationalities. To make it a Hindi nation is a threat to the unity of the Indian Union itself, as M.K. Stalin has presciently pointed out. The political rhetoric of the present Union government vis-a-vis religion and the actions on the ground by its supporters are making parts of the Indian Union look like a Hindu mirror image of some of the most troubling aspects of Pakistan to its west. So, in its determination to impose the use of the Hindi language, the Union government will have to decide whether it wishes to relive the horrific experiences of Pakistan and Bangladesh from 1971.
Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at hajarduari.wordpress.com