If you can’t fight, you can join. That seems to be the language policy of the Modi government. There was a time when the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party, equated Hindi with Hindu. When it realised that Hindi can prevent it from growing in the south, the east and the northeast, it stopped advocating Hindi as the national language. Like English, it is an official language.
The policy paid dividends as the BJP has gained strong roots in all the regions of the country and it has been ruling the nation for the last eight years. It has a government in Karnataka, though created in a hotchpotch manner.
It never tried to impose Hindi on the nation, unlike some language fanatics, who started an agitation for Hindi in northern states in the early sixties.
The best story I remember of those days was when Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon was stopped by the “Hindiwallas” somewhere in UP. He had the habit of sitting in the front seat.
Menon inquired what the matter was in chaste English. Someone told him that he should change the number plate of his car from English to Hindi.
Menon came out of the car, shook hands with the leader of the group that stopped his car. He had a close look at the wristwatch the leader wore and told him in his raised voice, “The moment you change the Roman numerals on the watch to Devanagari, I will change my number plate too”. Immediately, the crowd dispersed and Menon could continue his journey.
Many years later, in the early nineties, I was invited to take part in a seminar on Hindi held in Lucknow. The chief guest was Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. When it was my turn to speak, I began in English and said I did not have adequate proficiency to speak in Hindi.
The Chief Minister advised me to speak in my mother tongue. I responded to his advice in this manner: “If I speak in Malayalam, nobody here would understand but if I speak in English at least some people would understand”. I continued my speech in English.
When it comes to language, one should be practical. When I go to China, I can’t insist on speaking Malayalam. I would rather use the sign language when the person I speak to knows only Mandarin. That is why the BJP never touched on the subject during the last eight years since Narendra Modi came to power at the Centre.
Maybe because of the super-confidence the BJP has that it would be able to overcome any obstacles to its pet policies and programmes, despite the setback it suffered on the three farm laws, Home Minister Amit Shah tried to test waters by articulating his views on Hindi.
He advised the people of the country to use Hindi when they spoke to one another. He said it would strengthen national integration and development. He also said Hindi was a vehicle of progress and development. Shah is a smart Alec but he could not envisage that he would soon get a retort.
A political leader in Tamil Nadu asked rhetorically whether it was a sign of empowerment and progress that many Hindi speakers were doing menial jobs in Tamil Nadu. For once, the BJP realised that any undue promotion of Hindi would be counter-productive. The party has been making amends.
Recently, Modi went to Chennai to inaugurate some Central schemes and said something to please Chief Minister MK Stalin. He showered fulsome praise on Tamil, easily one of the greatest languages of the world.
Let me quote Modi, “The Tamil language is eternal and the Tamil culture is global. From Chennai to Canada, from Madurai to Malaysia, from Namakkal to New York, from Salem to South Africa, the occasions of Pongal and Puthandu are marked with great fervour”.
I can paraphrase his statement in this manner without fear of contradiction, “The Malayalam language is eternal and the Malayali culture is global. From Changanasseri to California, from Mallappally to Malaysia, from Kollam to Kuala Lumpur, from Nanthancode to New York, the occasions of Onam and Vishu are marked with great fervour”.
No, my contention is not that Malayalam is greater than Tamil. Vallathol Narayana Menon was a great poet. He wrote a poem titled Ente Bhasha (My Language). It should be read by all language lovers. Someone may say that he was promoting sub-nationalism.
Be that as it may, the poem speaks about the greatness of his language that owes a lot to Sanskrit and Tamil and concludes in these words: “If we do not weave into our own tongue/ Threads of varied thoughts,/ What other cord is there to lift/ Our land from this pitch-dark pit?”
Unlike many other countries which have a single language policy, India does not have any one language that can be called a national language. We have two languages, English and Hindi, which are called official languages. There are 23 recognised languages, including these two. Besides, there are hundreds of dialects which do not have a script of their own.
Many of these languages did not have any official recognition. During the Mughal period, the court language was Persian, which only the elite understood. The common man could not understand it. When the British replaced the Mughals, they felt the need for a language the people could understand. Of course, they transacted official business in English.
The real promoters of the Indian languages, including Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali, Assamese etc were the Christian missionaries. They were the ones who created dictionaries, introduced printing and translated books like the New Testament and the Ramayana into many Indian languages.
They were also the first to print newspapers and journals in these languages. The first newspaper in any Indian language was invariably published by the missionaries.
The most popular book in North India is the Ramacharitamanas (Sacred Lake of the Acts of Rama), written by Tulsidas. It was written in Awadhi. Hindi was a latter-day construct, essentially by the British administrators, aided by the missionaries. Those days, Sanskrit was the language of the Hindu elite, meaning Brahmins. Bengali, for instance, was considered an inferior language.
Even today, 75 years after Independence and despite all the efforts made by the Central and state governments to promote Hindi, 50 per cent people still do not speak that language. What Shah said is true about, say, Biharis. Some of them speak Maithili at home but when they speak to someone who speaks Bhojpuri at home, they use Hindi.
If you leave out all those who speak languages like Urdu, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Santhali etc the number of the Hindi-speaking population will shrink further. Amit Shah would have done well to popularise learning of Hindi among the North Indians. There is a strong case for making the nation 100 per cent literate for which Hindi needs to be taught to those who are illiterate.
As mentioned, language is an emotive issue, anywhere in the world. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought to solve the problem by introducing what is known as the three-language formula in 1968. It is the accepted national policy. It has been “implemented” in all the states, barring Tamil Nadu, where the government, whether of the DMK or the AIADMK, follows the two-language formula.
It does not mean that Tamil Nadu has any objection to the teaching or speaking of Hindi in its territory. The other day, I spoke to a vendor at Kanyakumari in broken Hindi. Fifty-four years have passed since the three-language formula was implemented. It is time to take stock of the situation.
What the formula envisaged was that students in non-Hindi states like Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal, Assam and Odisha will learn their mother-tongue, English and Hindi. It also envisaged that students in Hindi-speaking areas like Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand etc will learn Hindi and English, besides one modern Indian language.
Has that happened? I studied in Kerala and I can speak in Hindi, though I do not care for the gender rules that form part of the Hindi grammar. In fact, a majority of the students who study in Kerala can follow Hindi, though they may not understand the nuances of the language for which they have to go to the North to study or to work.
After 54 years of three-language formula, how many people in UP or Haryana or Madhya Pradesh can speak a language like Tamil or Malayalam or Bengali? I have come across Marwaris in Kerala who speak excellent Malayalam.
There are four Kerala Schools in Delhi where Malayalam is the third language which is compulsorily taught. Once I attended the annual day function of the Kerala School at Vikaspuri where the top scorer in Malayalam was a Sikh. He was also the topper in all other subjects.
Is there any student studying in a north Indian school who can read, write and speak a “modern Indian language”? So, how is the three-language formula implemented in north Indian states? Does Modi have any minister from the north who can speak a South Indian language?
Instead of choosing a language like Malayalam or Tamil, they are encouraged to choose Sanskrit or French or German or Spanish. Ask any student in the North why he chose Sanskrit as the third language. He will invariably say that it is easy to score marks in that language. The teachers are liberal in giving marks. Where is the teaching of “modern Indian languages” in the North?
The Modi government has been going out of the way to promote Sanskrit. It is definitely a great language. Some say it is the oldest living language. Some say Egyptian is the oldest language. Whatever be the case, it is so poetic that if one uses it to abuse another person, the listener may think that he is chanting some sacred mantra.
Under the new education policy the Modi government has formulated, modern Indian language has been virtually replaced by Sanskrit. In other words, it is the same three-language formula that will be continued.
It is also time to find out whether 54 years of following the two-language formula in Tamil Nadu has caused any adverse effect on the state. Tamil Nadu is one of the most developed states in India. On all social and economic indices also, the state has been doing much better than not only Bimaru states like UP and Bihar but also states like Gujarat and Maharashtra.
The shrewd politician that Modi is, he knows that he cannot impose Hindi on the people of Tamil Nadu. That is why he has been praising Tamil to the skies. Tamil Nadu’s two-language formula was formulated and introduced by Annadurai, the great Dravidian leader. It has stood the test of time. Singapore is one of the countries which follows the two-language formula.
Chief Minister Stalin made a request to Prime Minister Modi when they met in Chennai. It can be summed up in a question: “Why can’t Central government offices in Tamil Nadu use Tamil as one of the languages besides Hindi and English?” I have no idea how Modi has responded to Stalin’s demand?
Why should an income tax payee in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka or Assam get a notice in English or Hindi. He should get it in Tamil or Kannada or Assamese, as the case may be. Any attempt to impose Hindi on non-Hindi states will be as disastrous as Pakistan’s attempt to impose Urdu on the people of East Pakistan and Sri Lanka’s attempt to impose Sinhala on the Tamils.
Sanskrit can never be the lingua franca of the country. It is a great language that should be learnt by those who want to read the great ancient texts like the Vedas in their original language. There are many Indologists in Germany, for instance, who learn Sanskrit for its academic value.
All languages are great and classification of languages on the basis of religion like Urdu is for Muslims and Sanskrit is for Brahmins is absurd. They are like different plants in the same garden!