A Roman hunch: A people’s language     

Balraj Sahni

It suits our present ruling classes to preserve and maintain the social order that they have inherited from the British. They have a privileged position; but they cannot admit it openly. 

I would like to tell you about a hunch I have, even at the risk of boring you. A hunch is something you can’t help having. It just comes. Ultimately, it may prove right or wrong. May be mine is wrong. But there it is. It may even prove right – who knows?

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has admitted in his autobiography that our freedom movement, led by the Indian National Congress, was always dominated by the propertied classes – the capitalists and landlords. It was logical, therefore, that these very classes should hold the reins of power even after independence.

Today it is obvious to everyone that the rich have been growing richer and the poor have been getting poorer. Pandit Nehru wanted to change this state of affairs, but he couldn’t. I don’t blame him, because he had to face very heavy odds all along. For our present purposes, it is enough if you agree with me that in today’s India, the propertied classes dominate the government as well as society. I think you will also agree that the British used the English language with remarkable success for strengthening their imperial hold on our country.

Now, which language in your opinion would their successors, the present rulers of India, choose to strengthen their own domination? Rashtrabhasha Hindi? By heavens, no. My hunch is that their interests too are served by English and English alone. But, since they have to keep up a show of patriotism, they make a lot of noise about Rashtrabhasha Hindi so that the mind of the public remains diverted.

Men of property may believe in a thousand different gods, but they worship only one – the God of profit. From the point of view of profit, the advantages of retaining English to the capitalist class in this period of rapid industrialisation and technological revolution are obvious. But the social advantages are even greater. From that point of view, English is a God-sent gift to our ruling classes.

Why? For the simple reason that the English language is beyond the reach of the toiling millions of our country. In olden times, Sanskrit and Persian were beyond the reach of the toiling masses. That is why the rulers of those times had given them the status of state language. Through Sanskrit and Persian, the masses were made to feel ignorant, inferior, uncivilised, and unfit to rule themselves. Sanskrit and Persian helped to enslave their minds, and when the mind is enslaved bondage is eternal.

It suits our present ruling classes to preserve and maintain the social order that they have inherited from the British. They have a privileged position; but they cannot admit it openly. That is why a lot of hoohaw is made about Hindi as the Rashtrabhasha.

They know very well that this Sanskrit-laden, artificial language, deprived of all modern scientific and technical terms, is too weak and insipid to challenge the supremacy of English. It will always remain a show piece, and what is more, a convenient tool to keep the masses fighting among themselves.

We film people get a regular flow of fan mail from young people studying in schools and colleges. I get my share of it and these letters reveal quite clearly what a storehouse of torture the English language is to the vast majority of Indian students. How abysmally low the levels of teaching and learning have reached! It is not necessary for me to comment on the efforts being made to strengthen English in every sphere of life, despite assurances to the contrary. They are all too obvious. It is admitted that English is too alien and hence too difficult to learn for the average Indian. And yet, it helps the capitalists and industrialists to consolidate their position on an all-India scale.

Perhaps, today we need a messiah to give us the courage to abandon our slavishness and to create values befitting the human beings of a free and independent country so that we may have the courage to link our destinies to the ones being ruled, and not the rulers – to the exploited and not to the exploiters

This was my hunch and I confided it one day to a friend of mine, who is a labour leader. I told him that if we are serious about doing away with capitalism and bringing in socialism, we have to help the working class to consolidate itself on an all-India scale with the same energy as the capitalist class is doing. We have to help the working class achieve a leading role in society. And that can only be done by breaking the domination of English and replacing it with a people’s language.

My friend listened to me carefully and largely agreed with me.

“You have analysed the situation very well,” he said, “but what is the remedy?”

“The remedy is to retain the English script and kick out the English language,” I replied.

“But how?”

“A rough and ready type of Hindustani is used by the working masses all over India. They make practical use of it by discarding all academic and grammatical flourishes. In this type of Hindustani, “Ladka bhi jata hei” and “Ladki bhi jata hei”.

Today, in this bazaari Hindustani, the word ‘university’ becomes univrasti – a much better word than vishwa vidyalaya, ‘lantern’ becomes laltain, the ‘chasis’ of a car becomes chesi, ‘spanner’ becomes pana, i.e. anything and everything is possible. The string with which the soldier cleans his rifle is called ‘pullthrough’ in English. In Roman Hindustani, it becomes fultroo – a beautiful word. ‘Barn-door’ is the term the Hollywood lights man uses for a particular type of two blade cover. The Bombay film worker has changed it to bandar, an excellent transformation.

This Hindustani has untold and unlimited possibilities. It can absorb the international scientific and technological vocabulary with the greatest of ease. It can take words from every source and enrich itself. One has no need to run only to the Sanskrit dictionary.”

“But why the Roman script?” my friend asked.

“Because no one has any prejudice against it,” I said. “It is the only script which has already gained an all-India currency. In north, south, east and west, you can see shop signs and film poster in this script. We use this script for writing addresses on envelopes and post cards. The army has been using it for the last thirty years at least.”

But I couldn’t convince him. I gave more arguments, including the one that Netaji Subhash Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru were both strong advocates of Roman Hindustani, but that too failed to convince him.

The question is not whether the comrade or I was right. Perhaps, I was wrong. Perhaps, my thinking was utopian, or “mechanical” – as he called it. As I said before, you can never say whether a hunch is going to be right or wrong. But the fun lies in having it, because to have a hunch is a sign of independent thinking.

Needed, a revolution of the mind

When Gandhiji went to the Round Table Conference in 1930, he remarked to British journalists that the Indian people regarded the guns and bullets of their empire in the same way as their children regarded the crackers and pataakaas on Diwali day. He could make that claim because he had driven the fear of the British out of Indian minds. He had taught them to ignore and boycott the British officers instead of kowtowing to them. Similarly, if we want socialism in our country, we firstly have to drive out the fear of money, position, and power from the minds of our people. Are we doing anything in that direction? In our society today, who is respected most – the man with talent or the man with money?

Who is admired the most – the man with talent or the man with power? Can we ever hope to usher in socialism under such conditions? Before socialism can come, we have to create an atmosphere in which possession of wealth and riches should invite disrespect rather than respect. We have to create an atmosphere in which the highest respect is given to labour whether it be physical or mental; to talent, to skill, to art, and to inventiveness. This requires new thinking, and the courage to discard old ways of thinking. Are we anywhere near this revolution of the mind?

Perhaps, today we need a messiah to give us the courage to abandon our slavishness and to create values befitting the human beings of a free and independent country so that we may have the courage to link our destinies to the ones being ruled, and not the rulers – to the exploited and not to the exploiters.

This is the third part of a three-part article that first appeared in National Herald on Sunday.

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