How powerful is language? It can help discern the most complex thoughts if used correctly. It can also divide a nation and create war. It can awaken deceptive sentiments to the extent of self-destruction when twisted by a demagogue. It can also spread love and spiritualism in vicious times. To be precise, it has the power to make or break.
In the case of India, a multilingual country that takes pride in its ‘unity in diversity’, language is creating palpable differences prompting debates and raising questions about freedom of expression. The impact can also be felt in Meghalaya.
The epicentre of the problem over language here is the state Assembly and the trigger is none other than Governor Ganga Prasad. Originally from Bihar, Prasad is not well conversant with English, a colonial language that has been embraced by Indians with open arms. And so he chose Hindi, his mother tongue, to deliver a crucial speech before the new state government could start its House business. A translation of the speech, though not in toto, was provided to other members of the House, most of whom are not so familiar with Hindi.
However, the governor, unlike Prime Minister Narendra Modi, did not get a standing ovation for his Hindi speech. Rather, it ruffled a few feathers for ignoring the state’s official language, English. In protest, a few legislators spoke in their respective mother tongues on the floor of the House the next day.
Is speaking in Hindi in the state Assembly illegal? Not really, provided the speaker circulates a proper translation of his or her speech. Then why is the furore? Because “the people fear the Hindi hegemony”, feels educationist Ananya S Guha.
“The groundswell of opinion in favour of using local languages was triggered by the recent address by the Governor in Hindi,” says Guha.
The fear is not unfounded considering the recent unfolding of events. The Centre, run by the right-wing BJP-led alliance, has been lobbying hard to make Hindi one of the official languages in the United Nations. It is also ready to spend crores (according to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the government can spend even Rs 400 crore) to make it happen. It sounds disturbing especially in a country like India where over 1,600 mother tongues are spoken, Hindi being one of them. This is the reason why the Constitution does not give Hindi the status of national language but calls it the “official language”. There are 22 official languages in India.
There were also incidents where leaders from the mainland had time and again spoken in Hindi during public addresses and media interactions leaving the local populace and several media persons grappling in the dark. There were reports about the Centre trying to spread the domination of Hindi.
At this juncture, it is only natural for non-Hindi speakers of the state to see an ulterior motive in the governor’s speech. The question also arises why the Union government would put someone as governor without any knowledge of English in a state where the foreign language is the binding force. It can be a case of language discrimination and an intended one.
A professor of English in a city-based college says for business in the House, only that language should be used which the other members can understand.
“English is the medium of education too in the state. Local languages like Khasi and Garo are usually not used in the Assembly simply because not everyone understands them. English is the prevalent language and I feel it should be used in the House,” says another professor of language, Jacqueline Marak, at NEHU-Tura.
Marak, however, adds that in case a speech is delivered in any language other than the official one, a proper translation is necessary.
“I think local languages which are the official languages of the state should be permitted in state assembly discussions. One language such as English may not be comfortable to all. It is also not a native language. The diversity of Meghalaya in terms of having three official languages will make choices wider in the use of language. In the case of understanding another tongue (Khasi/Garo) interpreters may be used,” says Guha.
This is another clause that may require more clarity. The translation of the governor’s speech was not an exact one but an elaboration of the topics he spoke on and had intended to speak on. But as per the rule the translation has to be of the words uttered and not of the unuttered. This only creates suspicion in the minds of those who have little knowledge of the language.
It is not demeaning for anyone to speak in his or her mother tongue. It is also not demeaning to not know English, which is a foreign language. In fact, there are many countries in the world, for example Japan, where the respective local languages are used as the medium of education, in official work and even when interacting with the world, points out Kolkata-based translator Bhaskar Roy.
“The difference is that those countries have singular languages. When you come to a country like India, you find a hue of languages and dialects being spoken. And some sections of the population are completely ignorant even of a popular language such as Hindi. English, which we have learnt from our colonial rulers and is often criticised by right-wing politicians as foreign, is actually the lingua franca. You go anywhere in the country and speak broken English like a lost foreigner, you will get more attention. This is a theory propagated by GB Shaw and has been tried and tested by many, including me,” says Roy with a hint of humour.
The heterogeneity of languages must be respected and there is no reason for giving undue importance to any one language only because it is spoken by a large section of the population in the country. It is laudable to promote a local language on the global platform but not singularly.
So when Modi speaks in Hindi at Davos, the Centre speaks up for official tag for the language at UN or Bollywood popularises Hindi heartland, there is no harm in that but only partisanship. Promoting Brand Hindi is not promoting Brand India.
“Ours is a richly diverse country not only in terms of the whole nation, but even within states we find linguistic variation. This rich linguistic pluralism in the country should be taken advantage of in terms of communication, in the Lower House, state policy matters are discussed, (and) there must be linguistic appropriateness and freedom,” says Guha and at the same time, adds, “The decision to use local languages must be taken but not out of political will or expediency. It should be the people’s choice.”