While Hindi chauvinists abandon the language and opt for ‘English’ medium, its isolation from Urdu weakens it

Even as the most ardent Hindi chauvinists abandon Hindi and opt for English, Hindi is being weakened from within by attempts to isolate it from other dialects and Urdu

While Hindi chauvinists abandon the language and opt for ‘English’ medium, its isolation from Urdu weakens it

Mrinal Pande

DMK Member of P a r l i a m e n t Kanimozhi triggered a fresh debate on Hindi when she asked last month if knowledge of Hindi was required to be an Indian. At an airport she had apparently told the CISF personnel that she did not speak Hindi, provoking one of them to ask if she was Indian.

The controversy touched a raw nerve in Tamil Nadu, where outraged Tamilians rose to protest against ‘imposition of Hindi’, many sporting T shirts with messages that they did not know Hindi.

Even as the controversy rages, the attempt by the Government to promote a ‘pure’ and Sanskritised form of Hindi, excluding Urdu and Persian words and words from various North Indian dialects is weakening the case of Hindi as the language spoken by a large section of Indians, if not by the majority. This is happening when even leaders espousing the cause of Hindi are opting to send their children to English medium schools. So, what is the fuss all about?

Ironically, India before the 20th century was a multilingual nation. Each region had a language, each language had its own tradition of oral literature and also local dialects that fed into the pool.

In the Hindi belt, there exists a particularly fractious history of Hindi vs Urdu. For long Hindi, Hindvi or Hindustani in spoken form had been the people’s language in the area. Controversy and bitterness first surfaced after Bhakha Munshis appointed by the British carved out two languages from Hindustani. One was Hindi written in Dev Nagari (or Nagari for short) script borrowed from Sanskrit. The other was Urdu written in a slightly indigenised version of the Persian script. Gradually Hindi and Urdu thereafter were promoted (through school texbooks and governmental correspondence) as the languages of Hindus and Muslims respectively.

The word Bhasha that BJP uses forcefully to mark its Hindu territory, is baffling. Bhasha or Bhakha is actually the term for an inclusive mélange of dialects spoken in the northern plains: Braj, Awadhi, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Urdu and Khadi Boli. Since around the 13th century, this mélange of Hindi has been trickling slowly down South, first through streams of pilgrims and Sadhus singing the exquisite poetry of Bhakti poets (a movement that Ramanand brought into the North from the South), then poets from the Deccan and later through literature in translation and even later by Bollywood and TV.

Like Elizabethan English, the Hindi Urdu mix has always been more of a liquid bubbling with steam, fumes and a certain fury. Independently, both were seen as divisive and supremacist. But outside the Government, languages flourished with mutual respect. One example was when Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi led Hindi writers, playwrights and doyens of Hindusthani music to return state awards to protest against the persecution and killings of fellow Tamil, Kannada, Bangla and Marathi writers.

The Hindi that the government today wishes to crown as the national language, is a different kettle of fish. It is firmly moored to Sanskrit with all its casteist baggage intact. And its vocabulary is being purged of thousands of words it had acquired and assimilated through the centuries from dialects as well as Islamic and European languages.

The agenda is to create a ‘purist’ template for a Shuddh and sanitised Hindi. Since then many of those connected with this effort have been recruited to fill posts in major governmental Hindi committees, educational boards, research bodies and canon-driven publications.

Ironically, the young in the Hindi belt are willingly abandoning Hindi en masse for English, with both parents and children in agreement that vastly superior job opportunities and upward social mobility are accessible only if they master English first. It is a different matter that the youth are turning out to be ‘bad English-speaking cultural dim wits’ with no connection with their roots.

While Hindi-Urdu must regain the lost space, the pity is that most of our incisive historians, social scientists, philologists and feminists continue to write almost exclusively in English. And those who are from the non-Hindi speaking areas, while cursing Hindi imposition, rarely reflect why they have failed to write their own books in their native Bangla, Tamil, Kannada or Oriya.

As for literary historians of Hindi and Urdu, they too have remained trapped into writing angry competing historical narratives for Hindi and Urdu. A calm, composite, comprehensive history of Indian literature that spans both Hindi and Urdu as peoples’ languages differing little but in scripts, is yet to be written.

Why have regressive and divisive policies returned to haunt us and threaten our future? The answer lies in one of the cruelest questions in Mahabharata that Krishna asks Gandhari, as she curses him for causing the death of all her 100 sons.

Cheernam charasi Kshatriye?

“Why wail, O brave Kshatriya Queen, over that which your own arrogant and deliberate myopia had ordained?

(The author is a well-known author, critic and editor. She is also the Group Editorial Advisor of National Herald )

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