Some years ago, I was at a literary meeting in Bhubaneshwar. Odia had just been declared the sixth classical language in India, after Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. My scholarly hosts were naturally delighted; one taking particular pleasure in imagining how President Pranab Mukherjee felt when he signed the relevant file, since his mother tongue, Bengali, would never remotely be considered a ‘classical’ language.
That conversation came back to me when, last week, the senior Cabinet minister, Venkaiah Naidu, said that Hindi was our ‘rashtra bhasha’, adding that it was impossible for India to progress without Hindi spreading. The remarks created a storm on social media, where among the most energetic participants was a senior journalist known to be a passionate BJP supporter. His tweets spoke of the ‘total falsehoods of Hindi chauvinists‘, of their ‘jingoistic chauvinism’, of their having a ‘sick, twisted, racist mind’. When someone contested his views, the journalist asked him to ‘keep croaking in your fetid well’.
The language was entirely in character; what was surprising was whom it was aimed at. For the journalist was here unexpectedly criticising those on his side of the political spectrum, who fetishize the Cult of the Great Leader and the Cult of the Perfect Nation, who regularly and routinely vilify Indians who are not Hindus. What had caused him to now break ranks was that his mother tongue was Bengali, which — notwithstanding its lack of antiquity vis-à-vis Odia — was possessed of a modern literary tradition that was unparalleled. A writer reared on Bankim, Tagore, and the like would surely be deeply offended at being asked to accept the supremacy of Hindi.
Notably, shortly after Naidu’s remarks, Sushma Swaraj said that passports would henceforth be in Hindi as well as in English. Existing passports already print text in Hindi; did the external affairs minister mean that the personal details of the passport holder would now be printed in Hindi as well?
The BJP’s predecessor, the Jan Sangh, held that a nation could be united and strong only when its citizens adhered to the same religion and spoke the same language. Ironically, the best — rather, worst — exemplar of this outdated model of nationalism is Pakistan, which the Jan Sangh hated and the BJP hates even more. The Jan Sangh’s slogan of ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ was a direct adaptation to Indian conditions of Jinnah’s idea that only one who is a Muslim and speaks Urdu can be a true Pakistani.
When, in the 1990s, the BJP sought to expand its footprint in the south, it retained its religious majoritarianism while downplaying its Hindi chauvinism. The party now controls Parliament and controls many state governments as well. Why then have some BJP leaders chosen to revive the claim that Hindi is the glue that must bind the nation? Perhaps this is merely a return to origins. The man who made the RSS a national force, M S Golwalkar, wanted Sanskrit to be made the national language. But he knew that vision could not be realised immediately. So, he wrote that ‘till the time Sanskrit takes that place, we shall have to give priority to Hindi on the score of convenience. Naturally we have to prefer that form of Hindi which, like all other Bharatiya languages, stems from Sanskrit and gets sustenance from Sanskrit for its future growth in all fields of modern knowledge like science and technology’.
Pakistan broke up and Sri Lanka experienced civil war because its leaders sought to impose a single language on the nation’s citizens. On the other hand, enabling each major language group to have its own province safeguarded the unity of India. Golwalkar, however, was totally opposed to the creation of linguistic states, which he saw as a barrier to the spread of Hindi. ‘We have’, he insisted, ‘to take to Hindi in the interests of national unity and self-respect and not allow ourselves to be swept off our feet by slogans like “Hindi imperialism” or “domination of the North”, etc.’
Back in the 1950s, when Golwalkar was demanding that all Indians learn Sanskritised Hindi, that wisest of Indians, C Rajagopalachari, termed the ‘greatest fallacy of all’ the ‘notion that unity is brought about by the adoption of Hindi as the official language of the Union. What is brought about is protest, dissatisfaction and discord, not unity’.
The next decade, Rajaji’s fellow Tamils protested successfully against Hindi being made the sole official language. Surely some BJP leaders know something about this history. Surely they appreciate that many other Indian languages have a far richer literary heritage than Hindi, and that the hundreds of millions of Indians who speak, read, and write in those languages are extremely proud of that history. It will be interesting to see whether these remarks of Naidu, Swaraj, et al are merely straws in the wind, or whether they presage a wider assertion of Hindi chauvinism by the ruling party.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India