The linguistic state project was about plurality, not merely language. Does the south still remember?
When Gandhi, Patel and Nehru thought of linguistic territories, their intent was to first unite India and then flourish as a federation of autonomous cultures
Bengaluru: Seconds before wrapping up his now controversial comment on Hindi, on 14 September, home minister Amit Shah caveated it. He said many languages and dialects of this country are “not a burden as perceived by many", but are in fact its biggest strength. However, he reasoned, there was a necessity to have one language to ensure that “no other foreign language makes a place for itself" on our soil. It is with this intent that our nation-builders picked Hindi as the official language, he deduced. (Prime Minister Narendra Modi too brought up the language debate in his Houston speech on Sunday, hoping to end the agitations by saying “all is well" in eight languages.)
The avalanche of reactions that has followed Shah’s comment actually picked up only the Hindi part, but left out everything else. But what was left out contained his mind and method. If one were to deconstruct his words, he spoke of Hindi as a “protector" against the possible aggression of foreign tongues, that is, he was imagining as an enemy. He was also saying that other Indian languages are not a “burden", by which, he means their existence as exclusive linguistic territories is not under any threat as long as they seek the patronage of Hindi, the notional elder brother. He is also referring to the perception of a majority about this, which means, he is merely echoing their opinion and not offering one. This is also an indirect way of reminding that Hindi has stupendous numbers.
It is amazing that this grain of a statement carries within it an entire universe of the nationalist project that we have now become familiar with. If Hindi is nationalism, then all other Indian languages represent subservient sub-nationalism. It is made to appear like a neat, agreed arrangement. A central command with subsidiary regimes. Therefore, we need to be sure if the outburst of linguistic pride that we have been witnessing is a minor contestation, or quibble, about language as a medium, a mere transport truck for thoughts. Or is the resistance about something else… the negation of an alternative cultural cosmos and worldview embedded in the heritage and guts of Indian languages.
On most issues, the technical architecture of nationalism, especially the way it has been applied in the last few years, has forced us to think like one nation—from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. We may have different scripts and lexical choices, our idioms may not be portable, but in a clipped way, we have been pushed to emote in a similar manner—be it about an enemy or a hero, a surgical strike or a moon mission, or even gods. It is one nation and one emotion, never mind which language.
A legitimate question to ask then would be: has nationalism and sub-nationalisms come to mirror each other? Has nationalism clipped or flattened the vibrant alternative cosmos of Indian languages, including Hindi. According to the 2011 census, there are 56 different varieties of mother tongues within what gets labelled as “Hindi".
The Sena model
The interplay between nationalism and sub-nationalism has been a project in the making for some decades. It could be safely designated as the Sena-model. The stated ideal of the Shiv Sena, since its rise in the 1970s, was to create a Maharashtra exclusively for Maharashtrians. They vented ire first against South Indian migrants and Gujaratis, and by the time they came to political prominence, they had fresh targets in new migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Also, what began as a fight for an exclusive linguistic territory, by the end of the 1980s, officially became part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) pan-national Hindutva stream. Once this happened, religious minorities too became outsiders in the Sena’s eyes. There could not have been a better model and a deadlier combination to scale political business. The philosophy of exclusion had sharpened on borrowed plumes.
Interestingly, now, when there is an inferno hashtag against Hindi (#HindiImposition), the Sena kept its Marathi concerns aside to associate itself with the Hindutva cause. On 18 September, launching a biography, Uddhav Thackeray demanded Bharat Ratna for Savarkar, the Hindutva icon. Like Gujarati is Shah’s mother tongue, Marathi was Sarvarkar’s, but that is irrelevant in the melee of a larger cause.
Anyway, the Sena model has spawned imitations in other linguistic geographies. In Karnataka, for instance, Kannada protection forums and assorted armies took over from benign language activism, led by predominantly literary figures in the 1980s, and gave it street aggression. They mainstreamed the slogans of exclusion. They repeatedly targeted Tamil, Hindi, and Marathi speakers. However, these organizations have neither gained political foothold like the Shiv Sena nor have they developed a defined affiliation with right-wing ideologies. But in principle, they borrow second-hand strategies from the nationalist project.
As early as October 1994, when Bangalore Doordarshan introduced a 10-minute Urdu bulletin, there were riots in which people lost lives. It was read as Muslim appeasement by a Congress regime. One of the loudest Kannada voices at that time, Prof. M Chidananda Murthy, later developed an affinity to the Hindutva project.
In a changing world where migration may be the norm, the argument of primacy for Kannada in Bengaluru may sound anachronistic, but the fear it generates offers economic sustenance for activism. After all, Bengaluru generates over 60% of the state’s revenue. Fear has become central to both nationalist and sub-nationalist plots.
In August 2019, six people belonging to a Kannada outfit were arrested for tearing down a Hindi poster outside a Jain community hall. The Bangalore South BJP MP Tejasvi Surya tweeted: “Deeply hurt over attack on our Jain brothers in over Hindi on a banner of a temple by a few rowdy elements. They however never question the use of Urdu in Bengaluru. Assaulting peaceful Jains who contribute to Karnataka brings infamy to genuine Kannada lovers and activists." Following up on this tweet, he argued that many Kannada authors of classical vintage were Jains. His tweets may appear undecided about loyalties but attempts mischief by stirring the pot with nationalist and sub-nationalist themes (Jains are peaceful, unlike Urdu speakers, was the implication).
There is an even deeper association that one can spot if one looks at how the Kannada goddess, Bhuvaneshwari, has become an extension of the Bharat Mata idea and image. The Kannada flag with vermillion and turmeric colours also endears itself to the Hindutva iconography. Years ago, in an interview, Kannada superstar Rajkumar said: “We call our language Raja Rajeshwari and Bhuvaneshwari. Some people say we should not address our language as mother or god. But this is not something that we created. It was passed on to us by our elders… If you consider Kannada Mata wrong, then Bharat Mata would also be wrong. How is that possible?" This innocent cultural exposition has now reached an intersection where it is being exploited for political gain across the nation. Bhuvaneshwari across the border becomes Telangana Talli (Telangana mother). So, when people speak of linguistic pride, they also need to simultaneously reflect on the nature of their linguistic nationalisms. Can the two be separated?
Decline of the linguistic state
The Telugu territory in recent times has signalled the near demise of the linguistic state as we understood it in 1952 when Potti Sriramulu forced then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s hand to set up the States Reorganisation Commission. The division of Andhra Pradesh into two in 2014 (when the demand was for a three-way split) was on a cultural basis. When the linguistic element becomes secondary and the cultural element takes precedence, then the interplay between the national and sub-national is bound to have a fresh dynamic.
In Karnataka too, the absence of an emotional bond between the culturally distinct northern and southern parts of the state has periodically threatened to end linguistic unity. The northern districts with Lingayats as a dominant force have been faithful to the BJP for two decades now. The 2018 Lingayat religion movement, which tried to wean the community away from the Hindutva project, did not offer electoral dividends. The larger question to ponder is if the linguistic state has slowly started taking a back seat over cultural and economic ideas? Are linguistic communities, which have geographically spread out and technologically connected, thinking beyond the linguistic state?
The Tamil country is always cited when it comes to linguistic debates. It may still be the strongest bastion against the imposition of Hindi, but with the dilution of the Dravidian ideology, with Dravidian icons gone, and Dravidian parties having shared power with the BJP, only nostalgia of the 1965 anti-Hindi protests has so far spurred statements and political action. There is no innovation. For every forceful statement of Stalin and Kamal Hasan, there is the ambiguity of Rajinikanth. On 18 September, he said: “Be it whichever country, a common language will help in a country’s growth, development, and unity. Unfortunately, in India, you cannot have a common language." It is not resistance that stands out here, but regret. Regret that there cannot be a single language.
Need for ethical majority
September happens to be the month of the birth anniversaries of both Periyar E. V. Ramasamy and C.N. Annadurai, the Dravidian stalwarts. For them, linguistic resistance was part of a larger cultural and ethnic scheme. But now, language is being viewed as a stand-alone piece. Speaking in the Rajya Sabha in 1963 on the Official Languages Bill, Annadurai said: “Apart from political arithmetic, this august House will pay some attention to political ethics and democratic liberalism, for democracy does not mean merely majority rule." On Hindi being spoken by a majority, he argued: “The 42%, entrusted in a compact area, cannot be taken as an index of ethical majority. It is merely an arithmetical majority."
In 1962, Annadurai had pleaded for a separate Dravida Nadu when he spoke for the first time in the Rajya Sabha: “I am pleading for separation of Dravida Nadu not because of any antagonism, but because, if it is separated, it will become a small nation, compact, homogenous and united… Then, we can make economic regeneration more effective and social regeneration more fruitful (quoted in M.J. Akbar’s ‘India: The Siege Within’)." He gave up the secessionist demand in 1965 after an amended Article 19 made secessionist parties ineligible to contest polls.
With Kashmir and Assam having become the new axis of nationalist and sub-nationalist experiments and exclusion, one has to closely watch how these ideas percolate into other linguistic and cultural territories within India.
When Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Nehru initially thought of linguistic territories, their intent and purpose was to first unite India and then flourish as a federation of autonomous cultures. Like the secular, liberal idea of Kashmiriyat was forged, each linguistic territory adopted a benign, lofty purpose. Recently, historian Chitralekha Zutshi wrote about the demise of Kashmiriyat: “(It) has to be placed in the context of the concomitant demise of the secular consensus in India as a whole. The trajectory of the rise of the BJP, and along with it Hindu majoritarianism, can be traced to the same moment as the beginning of the Kashmir insurgency, which in many ways embodies its own majoritarianism." This has resonance for other linguistic cultures too.
On 18 September, Amit Shah offered a concession more than a clarification to his earlier statement by saying Hindi could be the second language. But on the same day, he reiterated that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will be applied across the nation. This may remain a threat but the mechanics of its utterance is about keeping a central theme, a common narrative, going for the entire nation beyond linguistic divides.
Technically, there may be linguistic diversity but what if all Indian languages pick up the vocabulary of the NRC, the foreigner courts in Assam, and detention centres? Therefore, linguistic pride and resistance should urgently recover and rediscover independent knowledge cosmologies, worldview, and rootedly cosmopolitan traits of their linguistic cultures. The game has gone beyond symbolic street and social media protests.
Sugata Srinivasaraju is a senior journalist and author.
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