Nationalizing Hindi and the Use of Language as Discourse by the Center
By Sindhura Dutta
Center means people in power, a group who rule. They actively participate in controlling the rest of the population. This population is again divided into two halves, one which supports the center and the other which doesn’t. There is another invisible group that belongs to the minority community. To them, supporting or restraining support to the power or the center doesn’t make much difference. Firstly, because they are smaller in number and secondly, because they belong to the class of people who don’t contribute to the country’s economy that will make a difference. For every community, their mother tongue remains a mode communication and a matter of pride. India has 22 major languages and Hindi is one of them. To declare Hindi as a national language, given its newness, it will be unfair to the rest of the 21 major languages. Moreover, such linguistic imposition appears to be an attempt by the centre to homogenize the country’s population.
The debate of whether Hindi should be made the national language of India seems to be the trending topic after the central government proposed the idea of making Hindi the national language of India. Why the debate? Hindi is already an official language of India. Hindi is an Indo-Aryan language spoken in the region that is known as the Hindi belt of India. This belt only includes the northern plains of India. Hindi is spoken by 43% of Indians but only 26% of Indians use Hindi as their mother tongue (The Hindu). The 17% difference between the active and passive speakers of Hindi is governed by the factor of necessity and nativity. For example, in West Bengal, Bengali is the language of the majority with numerous dialects spoken in several districts of Bengal. Almost 86% of the population speaks Bengali as it is their mother tongue, with 6.9% speaking Hindi, 2.6% speaking Santali, 1.8% speaking Urdu and 1.2% speaking Nepali (Populationu). Making Hindi a compulsory language in all states and unions of India is controversial for several reasons. The states where Hindi is not their mother tongue and have been communicating without any linguistic barrier in their geographic area perceive Hindi’s entry as an intrusion of a foreign language in their space. This poses the risk of wiping out the indigenous languages and dialects spoken in the interior villages of the country. Such residents already struggle to cope with the recognized language of the state, for example, the Munda language struggles under the colonization of Santali, Santali under Bengali, and Bengali under Hindi and English. Furthermore, the problem with the imposition of Hindi in non-Hindi-speaking states is the political agenda of the center. Hindi is relatively new compared to native or regional languages such as Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi, or Bengali. Non-Hindi-speaking states see it as propaganda by the ruling party to colonize the non-Hindi-speaking states in terms of language. Language is an important factor by which our ideologies can be changed. For example, English got the status it has today because it was used and propagated by the white colonizer as a means of cultural subjugation. Nobody can understand it better than us.
As Michel Foucault writes, power is propagated through knowledge and the individuals under this power are subjects. Foucault had mainly established this idea in relation to the western power structure and how it operates. A language is a form of discourse that operates by using its power to control its subjects. For example, when western countries colonized the East, language was a tool to implement power. In this case, English is the language of power (West). Similarly, anyone with the objective of implementing a language to control the masses is their use of language as power. Likewise, power is a central figure in any country’s government. Deleuze and Guattari, in their work Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, write that the minor uses the language of the major to bring attention to the problems they face, and to resolve the oedipal conflict. They formulated the idea based on the works of Kafka and Joyce that both these writers wrote in English although English was not their native tongue. Kafka’s native tongue was Czech (minor) but used German (major) to write his works. Joyce was Irish (minor) but used English (major) to write his works. Likewise Hindi (major) is the official language of India and by default the language of the major. When a non-native (Bengali, Konkan, Bodo, etc.) speaker in India uses Hindi as his language, he uses it as a mode of conversation with the center or the major. Center means the majority, and it uses its ideology to control the masses around it, and at the margin. When the center in India proposes to establish Hindi as a national language, the masses’ liberty to use the language of the major to draw attention to its problems is gone. He is subjugated to learn the language of the power.
Declaring a language as national doesn’t mean only a declaration but involves its inclusion in the education curriculum. When a non-native speaker (child) of Hindi will learn the language as a part of her curriculum ignorant of the historical past of the country, he or she is bound to unconsciously imbibe the thought that Hindi has always been what it is, just like his mother tongue, which may be Marathi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Bengali, etc. Such arbitrary inclusion will make him oblivious to the historic past of the country. By the time the child will grow up to learn the political agenda behind such declaration and implementation, the pride the child would have felt for his mother tongue will be the same for Hindi. However, such unbiased love for Hindi and the nationalistic pride will taint the cultural pride they are supposed to have for their native tongue. Meanwhile, English as the official and global language cannot be kept out of consideration. Given the power English has on a global platform and coping with the confusion of mother tongue versus Hindi, the child is bound to feel isolated, not knowing the true value of neither his own native language nor Hindi, because either way both are not as important as English is international.
The debate is divided among the supporters and the dissenters, and both are guided by the difference in meaning and ideology behind the two words “official” and “national”. The supporters either belong to the Hindi speaking belt and therefore favor Hindi as a national language and are convinced by the glory of nationalizing Hindi for the greater good. Another reason for supporting Hindi as the national language is the shared idea of nationalism which is in relation to the idea of nationalism propagated by the center. Homogenizing the country’s population will help the center to control the population better, particularly if the population is linguistically as diverse as India. Therefore, imposing Hindi on non-native speakers means colonization of the non-native speakers with the language of the center. When a Bengali is compelled to make Hindi its national language, it hurts her pride and makes her own mother tongue alien. It compels her to learn about new cultures active in Hindi-speaking states. For people who might take this claim as a shocking accusation, replace Hindi with English. When the British colonized us, it was not just a language we learned but also the culture and ways of the British (center). We were convinced that English was better and our mother tongue inferior. Today as I write this essay, I am using English. That is not a complaint, but I did learn certain English ways of living or a handful of western ideas of progress. We ought to remember that language is not just a medium of communication, but a discourse through which civilizations are controlled. Discourse, as Michel Foucault writes, is a way by which institutions impose certain ways of conduct, ideology, and manner on the person to whom the discourse is applied. When a language has different cultural and historical pasts and customs, those traditions leak into the culture of the non-native speaker’s culture, thereby homogenizing the population of a country. This is a classic way to colonize or spread the idea of nationalism as perceived by the center.
India has 22 languages recognized in the eighth schedule of the Indian Constitution. Both Hindi and English are the official languages of India. However, Hindi as an official language is not as controversial as Hindi as a national language is. The reason lies in the convenience of communication, official work, and its shared position with English. Each state likewise includes its native tongue such as Marathi, Bhojpuri, Nepali, Bengali, etc. as its official language besides Hindi and English for the convenience of the people of its state. Let’s look at one English literary text as a case study to understand the problem of agenda-fying Hindi as a national language which as believed by the center, will magically knit a culturally diverse country under one single power structure. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is written by James Joyce and was published in 1916. Joyce was an Irish from Ireland who took upon self-imposed exile because of the irrevocable difference he met in Ireland due to the propagation and rise of Irish nationalism as a method to counter British dominance over the country. Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of the novel, is all of us who struggle to make meaning of nationalism guided by the revival of the past in a country previously colonized by the British. Throughout the novel only, Stephen finds himself amidst a chaotic identity crisis because he is an ambivalent resident of a previously colonized country. Ireland gained independence in 1937 and the nation thought it fitting to revive its glorious past. The nation guided by its politicians sought an Irish revival in which they started Celtic revival and the study of Gaelic. Like Stephen, Ireland during the early 20th century was tossed back and forth between the different ways of representing temporal experiences and two different historical developments. On one hand was the Irish Renaissance, for which real improvements could be achieved only through the revival of cultural values of the bygone era, and on the other hand was progressivism, according to which the hope of the nation lay in the break with the past.
Stephen leaves because he believes himself to be a true Irishman by birth and not by nationalism. His identity of being an Irish doesn’t come with the condition of participating in the revival of Gaelic. He understands that the revival of the past will not erase the historic past of colonization of his nation. Gaelic revival was an attempt to revive the Irish language and culture to counter English, which by the end of the 19th century had become the dominant language of Ireland. Douglas Hyde in his lecture to the National Literary Society expressed the idea of de-anglicizing Ireland as Ireland had imbibed too much of the British culture during Britain’s rule in Ireland. The issue of language had become so controversial that even the Irish Literary Revival founded by W. B Yeats and Lady Gregory was heavily criticized because their works were written in English. This mono-logic perspective of nationalism in 19th century Ireland influenced Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen, until he realizes the drawbacks of trying to fit in with the nationalistic ideas of his country, faces dilemmas and confusion. When he realizes the problems of aggressive nationalism he concludes, “This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.” Stephen yearns to escape from the politically and socially constructed idea of the nation-state.
By forcing Hindi onto non-Hindi speakers, we would only make millions and billions of Stephens. The pride of using Gaelic globally, out of sheer choice would be much more in the case of Stephen than to be compelled to speak Gaelic because a national leader wants it. In the case of India, because Hindi is too young to be given the priority that national leaders in the center are attributing to it, its merit is questionable. Indigenous languages, for example, the languages native to the tribes of Nagaland have been homogenized under Nagamese, which lies under the shadow of Assamese syntax, lexicon, and grammar. The pain of letting go of one’s native tongue for the sake of national representation and expression is indescribable. Everyone deserves recognition and representation of their mother tongue, but that is far from reality. Because the current debate was sparked when a Bollywood actor proclaimed Hindi to be our national language, another debate surfaced on social media. In a parliamentary argument, our ex-Minister of External Affairs Late Sushma Swaraj justified that Hindi couldn’t be officialized as a language in the United Nations because making Hindi an official language comes with a cost that needs to be shared by all member states of the UN. Because such measures are not cost-effective, members hesitate to contribute their votes to make Hindi an official language in the UN. Shashi Tharoor, the Member of Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram, criticized Swaraj for her comment that the Indian government (center) was willing to bear any amount of money to make Hindi an official language in the UN. He debates that Hindi is not spoken by half the population of India something that has been previously established in this essay as well. Therefore, spending public money for recognition of a language in the UN that is not even spoken by half the country is absurd.
For cultural glorification, a non-native speaker of Hindi will use his mother tongue. For the purpose of global recognition, he will use English. Hindi, therefore, becomes insignificant to the non-native speaker. Before concluding, I would like to quote an excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nationalism:
India never had a real sense of national of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that idolatry of the Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.
Tagore’s idea of nationalism was different from what the central government is trying to propagate today. With the adoption of western ideas of progress, institutions in the center have also learnt the ways to colonize the people surrounding the center (neo-colonialism), and the margin. Language as a discourse, therefore, becomes a tool to homogenize and manipulate dissent into supporting the center. Our national anthem is written in Bengali though many words are taken from Sanskrit. Why Tagore wrote the song in Bengali was probably because he could express what he wanted to express only in his mother tongue. If Hindi were to become the national language of India, would we sing it as a translation in Hindi?
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Riordan, Arthur, and James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Methuen Drama, 2018.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Nationalism. Kessinger Publishing, 2007.
The Hindu. “What Percentage of People Prefer to Speak Hindi across States?”, The Hindu, 18 Sept. 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/data/what-percentage-of-people-prefer-to-speak-hindi-across-states/article27451589.ece.
Sindhura Dutta is an MPhil Research Scholar at the Department of English, Vidyasagar University, India. She is working as a Guest Lecturer at Asleha Girls’ College affiliated to the University of Burdwan and Heritage Institute of Technology, affiliated to MAKAUT. She has done her Masters in English from the University of North Bengal. Her other research interests are art movements in literature, modernism, post-modernism, dystopian science fiction and eco-criticism.
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