Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hindi vs India?

A few days back - after a really long time - I saw an excellent debate on NDTV about Kapil Sibal's controversial 3 language formula that seems to have rekindled old anti-Hindi passions. Now, being a 1980s-born guy, I haven't had first-hand experience of the anti-Hindi agitations in the 1960s. I do know Hindi was to become the sole official language in 1965, and I also know there were large-scale protests against this, especially in Tamil Nadu. For those not in the know, Kapil Sibal has proposed that schools adopt a three language formula, with English and Hindi as two of them. Though the matter has been extensively debated and written about, I feel compelled to put my two cents in. I'll beat around the bush a little first and come to the formula later.

Hindi and National Integration

When Vallabhbhai Patel set about integrating 562 kingdoms and numerous provinces into what we know today as India, our leaders were keen to identify, and establish, opportunities for national integration. This was a time when secession from the Union was a very real threat, thus prompting the likes of Nehru and Gandhi to try and integrate the country in spirit, and not just politically. This, and the urge to uproot all things colonial, spurred the efforts to replace English with an Indian language. Gandhi pushed for Hindustani -the utilitarian blend of Hindi and Urdu- as the national language. Even Rajagopalachari was in favour of establishing Hindustani as the national language. Nehru, the eternal democrat, proposed that linguists evolve a simplified version of Hindustani that South Indians could learn with ease.

Post-partition, however, the Jana Sangh and other Hindi groups pushed for the 'purification' of the language by ridding it of its Urdu influences. Eventually, after the violent protests in Tamil Nadu in 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri, himself an advocate of Hindi, permitted the use of English alongside Hindi for conducting business in India. In addition, states were left free to conduct their business in the language of their choice.

Circa 2009. Apart from secessionary tendencies in some North-Eastern states and J&K, India is largely a united nation. While the motive of designating a national language made sense in a volatile and brittle post-partition India, the current obsession with establishing a "common link" stems from a puerile notion of national integration. National integration is not about making Tamilian children learn Hindi, teaching Malayalis to do the bhangra, or forcing Gujaratis to eat maacher jhol. National integration is about tolerance; about peaceful coexistence of culturally diverse communities; about every Indian acknowledging every other Indian an equal citizen- an ideal I think India has achieved (with the caste system and occasional riots as notable exceptions).

Isn't it better to have Hindi rather than English as the universal language of communication? At least it's not a foreign language.

No. When you have 22 national languages and want to make one of them the sole official language, efforts by one language to assert itself will obviously be seen as one-upmanship. This is exactly what happened with Hindi. In such an environment, it's best to let the language of global commerce stay as the language of communication within the country and let the regional languages develop and spread to other parts of the country through cinema and literature, which Rajnikanth and Bollywood do with tremendous success.

English is the undisputed language of global commerce, and hence the ultimate functional language, as most panelists in the debate agreed. Those who cite examples of France and Japan perhaps don't realize that a lion's share of our GDP comes from services, and that's thanks, in no small measure, to the urban youth's knowledge of English. So all the "foreign language" sentiment against English fails in the face of practicality and convenience.

Sibal and the three-language formula

Kapil Sibal, the poster-boy of radical education reforms, mooted the idea of teaching children three languages, two of which should be English and Hindi. The first pleasant observation is he understands knowledge of English is necessary; the second pleasant observation is the room given to students to learn any language of their choice; the third observation is what's causing all the hungama- why Hindi?

Hindi, as an early critic of the Hindi movement said, is just another regional language. It is the most-spoken language in the country, but is by no means a language of the majority of the country. It does not even serve a functional purpose; so it is absolutely pointless for a child in a remote Tamil Nadu village to learn five paryayvaachi shabd for 'elephant'.

A common grouse among all Indians is their inability to communicate in the southern states. Shouldn't there be a language all Indians should speak? Doesn't it give us a national identity? Yes, there should. No, it doesn't. It will be nice if a Haryanvi can communicate freely in Kerala, but it's not the government's business to decide what that language should be. Anyway, are things really that bad? Some people in every state do know Hindi and English, and I've never heard of anybody unable to survive in an Indian state because of a language problem. And about national identity, isn’t our national identity the multitude of languages? Isn’t it something we boast about to the firangs?

The three-language formula, stripped of its specifics, is an excellent proposal. It is a great idea to teach children two Indian languages. It is good not only for their individual development, but also for giving regional languages a pan-India appeal. I know Sibal is not a Hindi hardliner; he just has a misplaced notion of establishing linguistic uniformity in a country that takes pride in its linguistic diversity.

For me, the best way to structure the three-language formula is to let the children learn any 2 Indian languages. I have absolutely no doubt many parents will choose Hindi. But if a Kannadiga family is living in West Bengal, it might want its children to learn Bengali and Kannada- something the current formula does not allow.

Finally, as Mukul Kesavan said in the debate, there is a difference between learning a language and being literate in it. People watch Hindi movies and understand rudimentary Hindi without knowing the Devnagri script. That should suffice. Must every child in the country be able to read Premchand and Maithili Sharan Gupt?