“Hege dira? Naanu chennagideeni.”
“Nimage tea beka? Nannage tea beda, ondu plate idli beku.”
For the last month, my coworkers and I have been sitting down for two hours every week to learn spoken Kannada. During the class, we’re all children again – our extensive vocabulary suddenly reduced to sentences like "Ramesh’s house is in Jaynagar but his office is in Ulsoor".
The classes have made life a little easier. I now make an attempt to converse with auto drivers and shopkeepers in their language – briefly – before giving up and lapsing into another language I’m more comfortable with. But at least I’m trying, and I’d like to think the people laughing at me are also secretly pleased with the effort.
Multilingualism is normalcy in India. How many other countries take third-language exams? And yet, when my mother taught me Tamil, she would say, “Your mother tongue is next to your motherland and your mother – that’s how much respect it deserves.”
My mother is not alone in this sentiment. Across India, language is placed on the pedestal with your nationalism and filial piety. And Bengaluru knows this dictum as well. It is a city of many languages: Kannada, Hindi, English, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam are all spoken here. This multilingualism works in its favour. My adopted city is easy to manoeuvre and generally friendly to outsiders.
But once in a while, the city loses its shit. Recently, it was over the signboards that adorned the recently completed Phase I of the Bengaluru Metro, which were written in three languages: English, Hindi, and Kannada.
“Why would the signs be in Hindi – a language still spoken only by few in the city – when the boards are already in English?” asked indignant sons of the soil. “Why not any of the other South Indian languages which still have more traction?”
Not content with asking questions, they went ahead and painted over the Hindi signs at Majestic and Chickpet. A campaign was started against Hindi imposition and the hashtag #NammaMetroHindiBeda (No Hindi in our metro) quickly become very popular.
For states that have been birthed on the basis of language, it is only natural that language has been and always will be a prickly issue. There have been constant tussles between the Union and State governments over whether the Union is allowed to use its own discretion for utilising Hindi on signboards.
Short answer: It is.
The Constitution favours Hindi in the Devanagari script as an official language. English was accorded the same status only in the 1960s after an anti-Hindi agitation in the South. In fact, Article 351 of the Constitution says the Union has a duty to promote Hindi so that all of Indian culture can have a common medium of expression.
When I went back to the Constituent Assembly debates, I found the discussion on language to be eerily similar to the one that we’re having now: divisive and fiercely contested.
It concluded with an agreement that a single common language was necessary to build the nation. But today’s India is no more socially homogenous than it was in 1947.
We can all yell about whose language is older, purer, and more of a delight to the ear till the cows come home, but it will get us no further than it did our Constituent Assembly. The three-language policy (Hindi, English, and a regional language) that the writers of our constitution finally agreed on has worked relatively well for 70 years.
However, it isn’t perfect.
While states are particular about their majority languages, many choose to turn a blind eye to minority languages and dialects within their jurisdiction. Take, for instance, the indignant Kannadigas of Bengaluru who are outraged over Hindi imposition while making little to no attempt to accommodate their Coorgi, Tulu, and Konkani-speaking brethren, even though they are all sizable communities that are integral to the state.
Since no language can objectively claim primacy, the best possible solution is to put the individual at the centre of language policy. In other words, create a policy that cares less about languages and more about the people who speak them.
The natural conclusion of such an outlook would be a four-language policy that would include the two official languages, the state language, and a local language. Instead of seeking to promote a common language, such a policy would ensure that the government provides fair and equitable conditions under which speakers of all languages can strive for the survival and success of their respective linguistic communities.
It would mean that public signage would prioritise accessibility and be available in as many languages as possible. Imagine a world in which Bengaluru’s Metro has signboards that accommodate Hindi-speakers, and the signage on Pune’s buses don’t discriminate against those who don’t speak Hindi, and public documents in a village in Goa are in Konkani. Such a policy would truly ensure that you and I are free to pursue the language(s) that gets us jobs, finds us friends, and allows us to live a fulfilling life, free of any sort of governmental coercion.
Political science teaches us that a nation is an imagined community. And in India this imagination is stretched, to say the least. Palaniswamy in Salem and Parvinder in Bhatinda have little in common with each other. But for the last 70 years, we have all found ways to juggle our various identities under the larger umbrella of Indianness.
However, in its attempt to unify the nation under a single identity, the growing trend of ultra-nationalism is having the opposite effect and dividing us further instead. Pushing for Hindi in non-Hindi speaking states is just triggering a backlash – a fear of imperialism and marginalisation.
The government would do well to look around our neighbourhood to see the devastating effect a single-language policy can have on a country. The liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan and the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka were triggered by language policy. Is it really worth tearing a country apart in an attempt to bring it together?
Hamsini Hariharan is a research associate at the Takshashila Institution, a Bangalore-based think tank and school of public policy.
Contact Hamsini Hariharan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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