On the 23rd of June, the Indian Union’s Hindi-speaking Union Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj announced that from now on, all details on the passport of Indian citizens will be also be in Hindi, in addition to English. Already at present, the cover page has Hindi, the registration details are in Hindi, a “Caution” note underneath is in Hindi, a Presidential order printed in the passport is in Hindi, all field names such as Type, Country Code, Passport number, Name, Surname, Nationality, Sex, Date of Birth, Place of Birth, Place of Issue, Date of Issue, Date of Expiry, Name of Father/Legal Guardian, Name of Mother, Name of Spouse, Address, Old Passport number with Date and Place of Issue and File Number – all these are in Hindi. So what changes? Now the content inside those fields will be in Hindi in Devanagari script. So for example, under the field “Name” and “Surname”, my name and surname will be printed in Hindi in Devanagari script. These details are at present printed only in English. To justify the introduction of Hindi and Hindi only along with English, Sushma Swaraj said, “All Arab countries have their passport in Arabic, Germany makes it in German and Russia makes it in Russian. Why can’t we make it Hindi?”
The examples that Sushma Swaraj cites are clever because the statement makes perfect sense to people in areas from where her party, the BJP, got more than 70% of its seats in the Lok Sabha elections, that is, the Hindi-speaking states. However, it does not make sense to the majority of the citizens of the Indian Union who are non-Hindi. Hindi is in fact the mother tongue of less than 30% of Indian Union citizens and that too after many independent languages in the so-called Hindi belt are wrongly counted as Hindi dialects. Thus, when Sushma Swaraj says “Why can’t we make it Hindi?” the ‘we’ is not Indian Union citizens, but simply Hindi citizens of the Indian Union. Compared to that less than 30% of India’s population that Hindi people constitute, more than 95% of the people of Germany speak German as their first language and more than 96% people of people speak Russian in the Russian Federation. Thus, when Sushma Swaraj compares Russia or Germany to the Indian Union, she either has in mind – at best – only the Hindustan area of the Indian Union or worst, what she wants the Indian Union to become. Majoritarianism is bad enough. A minority espousing majoritarianism is a delusional recipe for disaster – apart from the indignity that such ideologies mete out to non-Hindi linguistic nationalities of the Indian Union. What is interesting, though, from Sushma Swaraj’s examples is that she understands that it is language that makes a nation. But pushing that simple and obvious understanding in the Indian Union’s case would mean multiple sovereign linguistic nations. And that’s where the brute assertion and imposition of Hindi by the Hindi minority makes its power felt.
Majoritarianism is bad enough. A minority espousing majoritarianism is a delusional recipe for disaster
If Sushma Swaraj had taken her eyes away from these practically mono-linguistic nations to nearby Sri Lanka, she would have seen that Tamil along with Sinhalese and English is embossed on the passport cover, even though Sinhala is the mother tongue of 74.9% of the people. She could have also studied another multi-lingual formation (it’s hard to call these nations) like Switzerland whose passport has 5 languages on the cover (Switzerland’s population is 8.2 million, the Indian Union’s population is 1,311 million). Thus, feasibility is not an issue!
Sushma Swaraj claims that she has received several complaints about the fact that the content of the passport field was in English. She, however, did not clarify or give any details about who these complainants were or what is the mother tongue of these complainants. Still, one should take her statement at face value. What, then, is the likelihood that these were Hindi speakers? I, for one, can’t imagine a Tamil or a Bengali who wants his name to be in Hindi as opposed to Tamil or Bangla because he/she has some problem with English. Does it mean that if non-Hindi citizens of the Indian Union also complain to the Ministry of External Affairs, they shall also get their language in addition to English in their passports – assuming, of course, that they are equal citizens of the Indian Union? In fact, on social media and elsewhere, non-Hindi people have already done so by tweeting her, emailing her ministry and so on. However, Sushma Swaraj has not responded to these complaints with the same earnestness as she did for complaints that made her Hindify the passport. Since English is internationally understood at immigration checkpoints (the primary spot where a passport is usually ‘read’), it’s unclear how Hindi helps here – except for helping Indian Union’s Hindi citizens understand their passport. Why do non-Hindi citizens of the Indian Union not have the right to the same understanding in their mother tongue?
The fact is that the denial of equal linguistic rights in the Indian Union and imposing Hindi on non-Hindi peoples is not a technocratic decision. It is a political decision.
Other expressions of this political decision are the repeated assertion by Union Ministers of the BJP that Hindi is “our” national language. But it is not. It never was. But see how it sounds. Super Indian nationalistic, right? Now, if I say, “Bengali is my national language,” how does it sound? Almost anti-national, right? The way these two completely equivalent assertions have come to sound so different is the old project of ethno-cultural flattening called Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. The Hindi in passport is just the newest expression.
A passport is a brand stuck to a person – it is like ownership not unlike how chattel was branded by owners. The language of branding is the language of the owner, the ruler, the master. In the case of the Indian Union, it is Hindi which is as foreign to non-Hindi people as English is – as the Gujarat High Court as observed. Still, unconstitutional assertions about Hindi being the “national” language continue. This actually points to an apparent paradox that is not so much of a paradox. The world over, nations are linguistic entities. Some of them have sovereign states, some don’t. The Indian Union certifies itself to be a nation. It is surely a sovereign state but not necessarily a nation in the sense that Germany or Russia are. It is a union of multiple nations, like the United Kingdom or Spain. This is the reality that Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan-nationalists want to obliterate. The continued survival of non-Hindi languages in spite of their absolute marginalisation is the biggest obstacle to this political project of cultural and linguistic ethnocide in the service of an imperial vision of Indian nationhood.
Thus, Hindi Day is observed in Indian consulates all over the world, but never one for, say, Tamil or any others. Thus, Hindi study classes and scholarships are given to foreign citizens by the Indian consulate – but never Bangla or Telugu. The Ministry of External Affairs has specific posts for Hindi speakers but not for speakers of any other language. This structural marginalisation seems to be working outside the Indian Union as more and more heads of state now seem to greet Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Hindi on social media!
The reality is that Hindi can never represent me in any way or be my face to the world. Personally, I am a Bengali citizen of the Indian Union. My Bengali ancestors of West Bengal chose to join the Indian Union republic with a certain obvious understanding –the guarantee of equal opportunity for all linguistic backgrounds and no special favours or discrimination towards any specific language. New Delhi has broken that agreement right from 1947. Since 2014, the pace of that process has taken the form of a deluge that aims to obliterate the plural character of the Union. New Delhi is breaking its part of the deal and pushing the envelope on Hindi hegemony. In reaction, forces are being unleashed that New Delhi will find hard, if not impossible, to contain. Islamabad learned that lesson very bitterly in 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