The politics of culture and language
I have written previously in these pages on the various forces tugging at the bonds tying our Union together: first and foremost, a widening and potentially dangerous economic divergence between “have” and “have not” states. These trends are exacerbated by a range of other potential fault lines, many of which have come into focus in recent days and weeks.
The much publicized pushback in Bengaluru against Hindi signage on the new Metro is but one instance in which the centralizing tendencies of the Union run against the grain of local cultural (including linguistic) predilections. There is clearly a tension between a legitimate desire to build a sense of national unity around Hindi as an alternative to English as a national language, on the one hand, and an equally legitimate reluctance of non-Hindi-speaking states to embrace a language spoken by a plurality, but not a majority, of Indians, and one which has little or no linguistic connection to many languages spoken in the south or the North-East.
What queers the pitch in this debate is that it intersects, and cuts across the grain of, the economic divide already noted. Thus, as my IDFC Institute colleague Praveen Chakravarty has recently documented, four large western and southern states—Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu—account for 50% or more of Central government revenue. As it happens, none of these are Hindi-speaking states, although Hindi is, arguably, less problematic in the former two states, whose languages are cognate. But either way, it is hard to escape the impression that the numerically dominant “have not” states of the Hindi heartland are attempting to impose their regional language—if only as a “third language”—on the “have” states of the south and west.
In more general political economy terms, when political dominance and economic dominance are in congruence, the danger is that the dominant grouping (however defined) rides roughshod over others; by contrast, when, as in India, political power is concentrated in one sphere and economic power in another, there is less likelihood of domination, or a greater likelihood of pushback in the event of putative domination.
To put it more sharply, a Tamilian or a Kannadiga may well ask why they should be expected both to subsidize the people of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh while at the same time taking dictation from them on the prerequisites for nation-building. From another perspective, those that are numerically dominant may wonder why they should make concessions to linguistic or other minorities. Such conflict can only be accentuated when the political support base for a governing party is dominated by one or another grouping.
Thus, in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies swept the Hindi heartland states, along with Gujarat and Maharashtra, and rode this to an electoral majority, doing relatively poorly in the south and east. The promotion of the Hindi language might play well in areas where the BJP polled well in 2014, but it is unlikely to be of much help where they fared poorly. This does raise the interesting question of whether the Hindi promotion campaign is intended to double down on its 2014 electoral strategy and forego the possibility of significantly deepening its footprint elsewhere in the country.
The twisting intersections of culture (in particular, language) and politics are not unique to India. In Canada, for instance, the electoral map is such that a winning party generally must do well in the French-speaking province of Québec, which is a minority language and culture in the country as a whole. This, historically, has given Québec an effective veto over important decisions at the centre, and ensured that more than an even share of the spoils find their way to that province. This lock was only briefly broken under the former Conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper, who managed to weld together a majority from the remaining nine English-speaking provinces, largely bypassing Québec. But under the current Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we are back to the old equilibrium.
Meanwhile, on matters of signage, Québec still has on its books a famous (or infamous) “sign law”, brought in by an erstwhile separatist government, which mandates that commercial establishments choosing to include English on signs must ensure that the English text is smaller and less prominent than the French, which is mandatory. It is noteworthy that even ostensibly federalist governments in Québec have chosen to retain this illiberal law, widely seen as part of a package of policies necessary to preserve the French language from drowning in a sea of English. Other policies include an active promotion of French cinema, theatre and the arts, which have yielded much fruit in the form of an efflorescence of French language culture in North America. And all this, in turn, has helped stave off the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada.
Our overzealous putative centralizers in Delhi ought to ask themselves whether it is wise to attempt an exercise of cultural and linguistic hegemony in a context in which there are already enough economic and political tugs at the bonds of our Union, lest the fabric, already fraying, rips apart.
Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist and resident senior fellow at IDFC Institute, Mumbai. Read Vivek’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/vivekdehejia