The Hindi quagmire

By W L Hangshing

History has seen that any imposition of language through state patronage has not succeeded. Be it Pali, Arabic or Persian, the language that was patronised at any point of time survived only superficially and only till the lifespan of the patron.
In the ancient Magadhan court, particularly during the reign of Emperor Ashoka, for probably three to four hundred years, Pali was patronised as the literary language. It didn’t survive the patronage. Persian was patronised by the Mughal court for 335 years and before them for more than 300 years by the Delhi Sultanate. It didn’t survive the dynasty. Even before that, Arabic was a popular literary language in the sub-continent but never took root with the masses. Was English ever forcefully imposed?
The lesson learnt is that, a language, to be popular and to survive, must belong to the masses and that can happen only by a natural process. It cannot be imposed by a diktat from above. English is the national language of the UK but it is not declared as such and never needed to be declared so because by a natural process it was already the national language. The same is true of English in the US, Australia etc. It has to be a natural process. The fact that India needed to declare Hindi as the official language or push it to become the national language only proves that it is ‘NOT’ the national language.
I once played host and guide in Delhi to an acquaintance from Chile. I took her around to Jama Masjid and to other interesting nooks and corners of the city. We came upon this municipal building and she noticed something which we locals never see. The signboard was written in four different scripts — English, Hindi, Gurmukhi and Arabic. She was amazed when I told her that every state in the country had its own language and its own script. She concluded that India was actually a lot of countries put together. Rightly concluded.
India is not just a country, it is a sub-continent of diverse cultures, languages, of diverse ethnicities and of diverse races with a criss-cross of all the DNA strains of the world. The various geographical regions have their own historical narratives, which in their own dance and in their own trip only occasionally converge with the historical beat of a larger empire.
Each little corner of cultural diversity, like the flora and fauna, all contribute to the richness and strength of the nation. It is difficult to imagine the country being pounded into one language, one culture and all marching in one colour. That would be the end of its intrinsic beauty in diversity and variety. Imagine the flora where the little water lily, the wild berry and the jasmine are all trampled into extinction and of the fauna all that roamed and roared be the Lions of Gir!
In the northeastern states of Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya, Hindi is a language that is seen only in Bollywood movies. The ears otherwise hardly ever encounter any sound of Hindi. Even the words Hindi and Hindu are often confused.
There was a time in the 60’s when parents in the North East would encourage children to learn Hindi with the reasoning that it would be needed when at one time or the other they went to Delhi for studies or for work. Hindi movies and songs were popular as always and was an added incentive to learn the language. It was a natural process no doubt.
Even as late as 1985, we were travelling, co-probationers and I, from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Madras (now Chennai). There was a Tamilian couple with their little daughter who was probably 2-3 years old. I noticed that they were conversing with her, with deliberation, in Hindi.
It was obvious that they wanted their child to grow up with Hindi and I pointed this out to my two other batchmates who were also Tamilians. They were both amazed. There was no coercion there and it was a natural process.
Hindi was catching on as a popular language of mass communication. There was no need for the aggressive imposition of Hindi. Any such imposition will have its backlash. It can only have a reverse effect. It will be seen as a means of dominance and control by the owners of the language, a threat to regional identities.
The anti-Hindi agitations in the south, Maharashtra and the North East have even taken violent proportions. These states have even gone to destroying and burning anything to do with the Hindi script. In Manipur, the underground outfits have gone to the extent of banning Bollywood Hindi films. That little sapling of Hindi that was in its own gentle and natural way gradually taking root was pounded to death by the fist of imposition.
The irony of the government’s Hindi policy, so zealously promoted by the Hindi zealots, is that it is so fervently imposed in the Hindi speaking states where there is no need to, and it has met with violent reaction in the non-Hindi speaking states where it only needs to be gently nurtured and allowed to grow in the natural way.

(The author is former chief commissioner NE zone, GST/Customs)

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