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Sands of time and the missing future tense of Indian languages

Our languages carry the burden of identity (Photo: iStock)Premium
Our languages carry the burden of identity (Photo: iStock)

In a piece he wrote a few decades ago, the Hindi writer Agyeya had apparently said, “Indians understand the sweep of time but not its immediacy.” The person recalling this brilliant line in the light of a new biography of the writer, wasn’t able to place where and when he had read it but it had inscribed itself on to his memory.

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In a piece he wrote a few decades ago, the Hindi writer Agyeya had apparently said, “Indians understand the sweep of time but not its immediacy." The person recalling this brilliant line in the light of a new biography of the writer, wasn’t able to place where and when he had read it but it had inscribed itself on to his memory. 

Even without knowing those details, one can read the paradoxical life of Indian languages in that line. Currents of time have swept them to the shores of the present, but we do not know how modern they really are. What is the test of modernity for Indian languages? There has never been a barometer. Some may suggest that a quick adaption to the world of gadgetry and new media could be a measure. But that is an indeterminate test because technology is merely a carrier. It is like Unicode for Indian languages, an information technology standard that ensures portability on all 21st century digital platforms, including social media. However, what is mostly traded on social media and through sophisticated smartphones is the past.

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 The role of Indian languages has been confined to recollections; to have a fringe role in the economic activity of the present, where English has clipped all their wings. In other words, Indian languages have become mostly a preserve of emotions, of relationships, of the local, of kinship. In contrast, reason, science, business, diplomacy are transacted through English. The walls have grown taller and thicker. 

In a Kannada essay written as early as 1993, linguist KV Narayana wrote: “Kannada has guarded its specific qualities while co-existing with Sanskrit, Prakrit, Persian and Arabic languages. But it cannot be said that the same will happen even with English. No language, which confronted Kannada, had modern and global interests like English. It will not destroy Kannada but will clip its wings. Its imperial power will endeavour to retain the ethno-specificity of the language, but with an English countenance." This resonates for every Indian language.

There is an additional burden for the local languages, which is to carry the embedded codes of identity -- caste, linguistic, geographic, tribal, ethnic or religious. Not for them the easy flutter of a variety of cosmopolitanism that English demonstrates. 

How many Indian language lexicons have seen updated editions in recent decades, capturing and accommodating new realities that get updated faster than newer editions of smartphones? Such lexicographic exercises should have been a permanent and ongoing one, but how many state governments or autonomous cultural bodies pursue this? The lexicons we still rely on in many Indian languages are those that missionaries or Indologists put together in the 19th century. The linguistic states unleashed some new enthusiasm about updating our languages between the 1950s and the 1970s but all of it started losing steam after the 1980s.

For a small period in the 1990s, language universities revived the idea of pride. But they could not anyway be scientific or technological centres. Their operations were confined to humanities and social sciences, and there too the methodologies and areas of work were being influenced by English and a couple of other global languages. For the western intelligentsia, local knowledge through Indian languages became an enormous resource or raw material for anthropological, ethnographic and literary studies in English. Indian languages enriched the worldviews of English. 

Simultaneously, crude versions of language activism, which spoke of exclusion rather than reconciliation and negotiation with the world, took over. One could categorise it as the Shiv Sena model.

As economic liberalisation and migration became more pronounced in the last few decades, some of the exclusionary ideas of the linguistic states became suddenly redundant. To overcome this crisis, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra combined speaking for the Marathi identity with speaking against Muslim identity. The most recent spilt in the party has animated this difference. The Eknath Shinde faction said on record that the Uddhav Thackeray faction was giving up Balasaheb Thackeray’s Hindutva ideas. However, nobody asked Shinde: What if the Hindutva and Hindi that the BJP propagated threatened the Marathi identity? 

This notion of threat from Hindi and Hindutva hegemony has been eloquently packaged by the Tamil Dravidian parties. The federal and economic autonomy of the linguistic state, it is argued, is a robust counter to the centralising impulse of the nationalist parties. But one cannot ignore that sub-nationalisms of linguistic states also speak a language of exclusion and exclusivity. They somewhat normalise hate. They identify an ‘other’ to isolate and blame. The pride in Indian languages is not about being modern but about reviving the glory of an imagined past. 

This is not how linguistic cultures really were or need to be. They have a nucleus that accommodates the universe. They have a nucleus that accommodates the universe—that blends with the world, expands its charm, yet remains independent. Many early 20th century writers across Indian languages offer proof of this. Rabindranath Tagore remains the finest symbol of this eclecticism and rooted cosmopolitanism. 

In the beginning of the new millennium, many Indian languages aspired to the condition of a ‘classical language’ alongside Sanskrit. They became more interested in showcasing their antiquity. It was strange that living languages in the Eighth schedule of the Constitution began to seek a grand mausoleum for themselves. It started with a demand by Tamil, then Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Odia followed. Soon, to confer the classical language status became a political act for the Union government.

Nearly two decades later, if one surveys what these languages have pragmatically achieved, other than flaunting pride, the results are pathetic. For instance, a question was asked in the upper house of the Karnataka legislature, in March 2022, on central grants for the Kannada classical language centre at the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) in Mysore. The response was that the state government had reminded the Centre about it in January. 

It appears that while the linguistic states are lost to pride, the Centre does not want to disturb the hegemony of Hindi. According to the 2011 census figures, Hindi speakers had grown from 36.99 % of India’s total population in 1971 to 43.63 % in 2011. The migration of people from the north to the south has led to a greater presence of Hindi in the southern states. In Tamil Nadu, the size of Hindi speakers nearly doubled between 2001 and 2011. Meanwhile, English registered a 15 % growth in speakers in the same period across the country. Among those who are bilingual or trilingual, there is a jump in English being recorded as either their first or second subsidiary language. If the Census is held now, these trends would have established themselves further. 

English is perceived as the highway to economic progress. Not surprisingly, influential sections of the oppressed and the backwards in the last decade have demanded English medium education over instruction in their mother tongue. When the National Education Policy in 2020 spoke of greater emphasis on Indian languages, writer and activist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd argued that “the common argument that English medium education will alienate people from Indian culture has proved to be deceptive propaganda." 

Not surprisingly, many state governments reoriented their policy responding to the demand. The Andhra Pradesh government in 2019 introduced English medium education in all government schools. Similarly, in 2018, Karnataka introduced English medium sections in government schools while arguing for 1,000 English medium schools in semi-urban and rural areas. 

In this milieu, we return to the modernity question of Indian languages. What should it be? Perhaps, they should escape the trap of exclusionary nationalism of linguistic states to embrace the wider world. In order to grow, Indian languages need to interact and borrow as much as they want to give. It may serve them well to think of cosmopolitanism as philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah constructs it: “There are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance." The linguistic states have often created a conflict between the two strands. 

The writer is a senior journalist and author.

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