Every now and then, I am asked this question by well-meaning friends, former colleagues and other media watchers.
Maybe it is not put so crudely, but the double-edged credentials challenge is only too palpable. If you are not a Hindu Rashtra (nation) supporter or a victim of linguistic discrimination, why on earth are you still hanging in there? Does the field have a potential that we have missed?
In a society with language and caste-class divisions, as in one with a racist, male supremacist one, building genuine and functional coalitions is very tough. But contrary to its usual manifestations in racist countries, language-based racism in India has a benign (but no less lethal) form. It is not violent, does not lead to housing or job discrimination, but it quietly ensures that while discussing the hiring or training of personnel, or the promotion and observance of ethics in the public sphere, only those who are proficient in English may call the shots, dictate terms and set priorities. I’ve known a lot of academicians and journalists who seriously believe that because they are eminent intellectuals they cannot be racists. As if being the one automatically rules out the other. In seminars and workshops, most of the time worthy speakers will denounce sexism, communalism, casteism and regionalism and emphasize the need to retain our cultural roots. When the question and answer session begins, I hear them use their socialism or feminism as a disclaimer against charges of social segregation and I know the questioner is being sold a ticket. It is a lot easier listening to the religious fundamentalists who claim they have found the right path; they acknowledge at least to having earlier been on the wrong one!
It is surprising that linguistic racism has never properly been debated in our urban feminist forums. Most Indian feminists who defend equality for women in all spheres continue to do so in English, which less than 3% of women understand. They are either unable or simply unwilling to recognize and confront this as an internal problem. Long innings in college staffrooms have also made me realize that while we all know that a tight segregation of students based on their proficiency in English exists on campuses, most of us would not admit to it within our own profession. So north Indian feminists decry south Indian feminists and vice versa, media critics from Bengal keep on complaining about a Hindi-Punjabi bias in the government-controlled media and academies, viewers from the North-East complain about Hindi belt states hogging prime-time slots on Doordarshan, and all ultimately cop out by blaming it on “those politicians” and “those bureaucrats”.
Once upon a time I worked in a decrepit old Hindi language news agency, where we often used the backs of the embassy handouts to write our copy, and editors borrowed money from peons who borrowed it from the cycle tyre repair-wallah, since we were usually paid (partial salaries) biannually. Then, fresh from the English department of an eminent girls’ college of the University of Delhi, I often thought I would do this for a few years and having proven that Hindi Can, return to my secretly non-conformist “real” life (which I then vaguely visualized as consisting of free-lancing for various Hindi journals and dailies, and teaching English literature). This was because in those days I nursed a naive faith that to identify an injustice is to cure it. Today I know differently. To make a real difference, you must step out of your comfortable sphere and risk stepping into an uncomfortable one where you will not be easily accepted. And you must make this move not out of a sense of charity, but a genuine understanding of the issues involved. I realize that when it comes to racism in one form or another, all of us Indians are victims, hostage to history and the vicious insidious complex that all colonized peoples are doomed to carry within them. But inasmuch as all intelligent and rational Indians will disagree with the Karma theory that all you will get here is what you will be given, we must also accept that neither linguistic racism nor sexism is inevitable legacy and can be challenged if only we stop being in denial about them.
Interestingly, the corporate world, having realized the market potential of the vernacular media as a vehicle for reaching the consumers in India’s small towns and rural markets, is now busy putting its money where its mouth has actually always been. This has ensured an era of plenty for Indian languages, particularly for Hindi, whose footprint covers 11 populous northern states. Caste-based reservations have also ensured by now that the majority of India’s legislators get elected from the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and the backward communities. This means that the vernaculars have also (for the first time in our history ) become the language of power discourse within Parliament and the legislative assemblies. Today, when leaders with unshakable vote banks such as Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar or M. Karunanidhi speak, they do so in the vernacular. And no one grimaces or smirks, everyone listens. When Karunanidhi’s daughter speaks in Hindi or Sushma Swaraj tries to speak in Kannada, people again nod appreciatively.
They quietly slot them as leaders with a pan-Indian appeal. Even in popular TV shows on English language channels, vernacular audiences frequently speak up in their own tongue now and are applauded for their views. No longer forced to accept that the topics and attitudes of the English media are the only standards of judgement; they are now far less prickly when fielding naïve queries about Urdu papers’ stand on Kashmir or the quality of Hindi journalism or Marathi blogs.
Frankly, Indians have had it up to here with petty politics in the name of language and region. What they now want is a healthy pan-Indian fusion of languages, ideas, ideals and, yes, markets.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org