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Photo: Mint

Opinion | Hindi is not yet a language that fetches economic gains

Indians are not trapped by language barriers, but by economic, regulatory and caste barriers

Hindi maaloomnahin" (I don’t know Hindi) is a polite chant I remember from my childhood. My grandfather had moved to Delhi to live with us. Having spent all his life in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, he did not speak Hindi—and would practise this chant in case a stranger spoke to him. My sister and I would giggle at his three Hindi words, the slow pronunciation, and the emphasis on maaloom. In his crisp white veshti, he stuck out like a sore thumb while strolling in a Delhi neighbourhood park filled with second-generation post-Partition transplants who spoke Hindi and Punjabi with dazzling fluency. However, he was armed with his three Hindi words.

As I look back at those days, I realize how gentle and politically sensitive he was in his interaction. He spoke English fluently, having received his BA in the early 1930s at Annamalai University. He had spent his career as a reporter in Bengaluru working for English newspapers such as The Indian Express and Deccan Herald, and was also a reporter for Dinamalar and Malayala Manorama, leaders in the Tamil and Malayalam press. Yet, he never chided strangers he encountered in Delhi in English. He didn’t expect them to speak Tamil, which was his native tongue, nor English, which was his main way of communicating with non-Tamil speaking Indians. He didn’t pontificate on the glory of Tamil and also did not quote Shakespeare and Dickens to anyone other than his granddaughters. He understood that he needed to find a way to communicate with people in their chosen language, even if all he could convey was his inability to communicate. When he needed help, he asked others to translate.

Depending on one’s point of view, he was either a tragic victim, orphaned at a young age and living in poverty during two world wars and colonial oppression, or an elite, upper caste gentleman, fortunate enough to receive an English education and capitalize on an ability to speak fluent English in colonial and newly independent India. However, seen through the lens of linguistic politics, he is every Indian. He spoke of the difference between one’s native tongue and the languages one learnt to make a living. Tamil was always his native tongue. He spoke English as fluently as a native speaker, but it was still the language he needed to earn a living, not the language of the family or the soul. He spent most of his working life in Bengaluru, but only learnt the minimum smattering of Kannada necessary. He didn’t struggle much. Most people in his circles were multilingual. Bengaluru, especially before the birth of linguistic states, was a city where almost everyone spoke at least two South Indian languages. English was always his currency at the workplace.

We all learn proficiency in our native language very quickly. We pick up a second language if what is spoken in the neighbourhood, city, or school is different from what is spoken at home. If we ever move or need to learn another language for work, we just learn it to the best of our ability. Even those who only speak one language use a different version at home, a different one with their friends, and yet another one at the workplace. That we adapt our tongue to our needs is no surprise. This is the way both free movement and a linguistically plural society have survived in India.

India’s linguistic plurality is neither a boon nor a curse. It just is. Many have argued for a national language to help Indians coordinate with each other and find a unifying identity. What they fail to understand is that Indians do not need a common language to enable coordination, but an incentive to coordinate. When there is a benefit in speaking a different tongue, Indians make the effort to do it. If there is no perceived benefit, they shun a foreign language.

In a country where less than 20% can speak English, a small elite have colonized their own people by drafting everything important in English, be it forms to fill in, instructions on packages of products ranging from medicines to electronics, or top-level announcements of government policy. This has caused a backlash among some citizens against English and in favour of Hindi. To a native Tamil speaker, English, Hindi and Bengali are equally foreign. The imposition of any of these would feel coercive. Of the three, English has the least number of speakers. It ranks as the 44th most widely spoken language by Indians. Yet, Indians tolerate it because learning English appears to be a skill that translates to upward social and economic mobility. English fluency commands a premium in the labour market. It provides Indian elites with special access, and, when coupled with access to the internet, has the greatest potential to connect one with the world.

What advocates of Hindi fail to realize is that non-Hindi speaking Indians will be far less tolerant of Hindi imposition. Hindi speaking regions are generally poorer, provide less economic opportunity, and virtually no upward mobility. If this were not true, Hindi would already have been adopted more widely in non-Hindi speaking regions.

What traps Indians is not language, but other barriers. Economic barriers on land and capital prevent Indians from leaving regions where they are less productive, as experienced by farmers. Regulatory barriers imposed by myriad labour laws prevent Indians from changing professions easily. Caste barriers prevent social mobility. Those are the barriers that the government needs to eliminate. Indians and Indian languages will evolve on their own.

Shruti Rajagopalan is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US

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