In the past few months, India bore witness to a slew of events that have given new teeth to an endemic narrative of linguistic autonomy and regionalism.
The re-emergence of the Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling, located in the north of the east Indian state of West Bengal, during the first week of June 2017 was triggered by the decision of the West Bengal government to make Bengali compulsory a compulsory language in all schools across the state. In July 2017, AR Rahman, India’s Oscar winning music composer, got unnecessarily embroiled in a controversy for performing more Tamil than Hindi songs at a concert, resulting in furious fans walking out.
While the recent unrest in Darjeeling hills has various other political dimensions to it, and the reason cited by AR Rahman’s fans for their disappointment appear grossly dubious.
An Age-Old Debate
The case for and against linguistic autonomy has recurrently captured space in mainstream discourses since the very inception of India as a nation-state, giving rise to various forms of social and political turbulence. The ‘barrier’ of language has often served as a pretext for political regionalism, and even secessionism. This phenomenon goes back to the post-partition times when the uncomfortable question of multilingualism had been deferred by Jawaharlal Nehru until the formation of the States Reorganization Commission in 1953.
Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965 was a strong proponent of Hindi as the official language at heart, but had to give in to the demands of the non-Hindi speaking states of the south, under compulsion to consider the fact that the unity of the country was under immediate threat because of the widespread backlash in the south. There was also support coming for the cause of linguistic autonomy from the east, most notably from N.C. Chatterjee who had observed that the greatest integrating force at that time was the juridical and legal unity of India, which was validated by the fact that the top courts functioned in English.
Linguistic chauvinism is often just another component of majoritarian impulse, be it at the level of state or nation. At the level of the nation, equating the Hindi heartland, the northern and central region of our country forming a quadrilateral ranging from Himachal Pradesh in the north to Chhattisgarh in the south, Rajasthan in the west to Bihar in the east, with the idea of India itself, is definitely problematic. This notion finds reflection in various cultural prejudices as echoed by the remarks of an ex Rajya Sabha MP:
“If we were racist, why would we have all the entire south…Tamil, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra…why do we live with them?”
While his comment was undoubtedly directed to the notion of skin color (in the wake of the attacks on African students) and not language, such prejudices have their own detrimental implications on the question of language as well.
The sardonic reply by Tamil Nadu’s first chief minister C.N. Annadurai to the argument favoring Hindi as the natural lingua franca of the nation on the basis of its majority status is worth a light hearted revisit:
“If we had to accept the principle of numerical superiority while selecting our national bird, the choice would not have fallen on the peacock but on the common crow.”
In the recent past, there have been various other instances, such as the protests against the use of Hindi signage in the city of Bangalore’s metro, which have reiterated the need for a clear language policy.
Harold F. Schiffman has argued that due to the lack of a symbolic national language, there lies a propensity for English to take over as the instrumental language in India. Replacing English, which is our coloniser’s language, is a part of the nationalist decolonising project. But, the strength and pertinence of this project in the times of multinational corporations, the global capitalist market, and inter-state migration is debatable.
In the 1990s, Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal had admitted to his “historic blunder” of trying to impose Bengali and scrap English in the primary education, the blunder which had cost the Left Front its middle class electoral base.
Since a language policy can lead to either consolidation or fragmentation of the nation, a careful, balanced and comprehensive approach is needed. The States Reorganisation Commission had concluded in its 1955 report that linguistic homogeneity is an important factor conducive to administrative convenience and efficiency, yet it is not an exclusive and binding principle, over-riding all other considerations.
A cautious perception-building and setting of the scenario is required for framing a language policy that not only leads to the containment of explosive and disruptive tendencies of this discourse but also clearly resolves them. Containment and management is invariably a temporary way out, and conflict resolution cannot take place if the projection of Hindi as the nation’s lingua franca gets perceived as a part of the project of building a ‘Hindu Rashtra.’
As Professor Sanjib Baruah has observed, “the Indian Constitution makes breaking up and creating new states relatively easy,” one must give credit to the constitutional flexibility that allows for redrawing of states on linguistic lines.
Whether this will ensue in fragmentation or consolidation, will largely depend on political leadership and mobilisation, both at the level of the centre and state.
Manjima Misra is a student of English Literature and Political science at Delhi University. In the past, she has worked as a content strategy analyst at Qruis, and has volunteered for the United Nations in the domain of sustainable development and gender equality.