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Language debate: Let the Dalitbahujan see through oppressive intentions

We need to enrich our languages and make them culturally stronger. Mere devotion to one’s language won’t do. Languages should become vehicles of change by incorporating the literature and style of those who want to transform society, says Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Of late, Hindi versus other Indian languages has become the matter of a bitter debate. Hindi speakers, when confronted with language disputes, often quote Dr Ram Manohar Lohia. It is said that when Lohia went to Germany for research, his professor asked him to learn German, which turned him into a strong votary of Hindi. Treading in his footsteps, Mulayam Singh Yadav blew the trumpet of Hindi in Uttar Pradesh. However, in Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav charted a different course. He realized that the English language would be essential for the students for their progress and growth. It would be wrong to conclude that Lalu’s policy, in any way, insulted Hindi. He insisted on the youngsters learning English so that they could get better opportunities. Proficiency in English is essential for students in this day and age. 

Politics over language is not a new phenomenon in our country. But national parties always maintained a distance from it. After all, they wanted the votes of people nationwide. The Congress was strong in the southern states and so it could not have raised the banner of Hindi nationalism. But BJP had no such compulsion. It is yet to gain a firm foothold in the region south of the Vindhyas. However, the BJP, too, wants to make its presence felt in the southern states and is assiduously working in that direction. 

Language has always been a sensitive issue in India and needs to be handled with care. After independence, the Government of India realized that it had no option but to respect the bewildering linguistic diversity of the country. The genesis of the movements against imposition of Hindi also needs to be understood. Periyar was a leading protagonist of the anti-Hindi movement in Tamil Nadu. But it was not that he had whipped up anti-Hindi sentiment in that state. 

Periyar was not opposed to Hindi per se. He was opposed to the imposition of Aryan culture on Tamil Nadu through the medium of Hindi. He felt that the powerful north Indian lobby was trying to establish its hegemony over Tamil Nadu through Chakravarti Rajgopalachari. Karnataka, Kerala and West Bengal have also jumped on the anti-Hindi bandwagon. However, the debate on the language issue has now assumed wider proportions and many biases have wriggled their way into it. 

The language issue also has casteist undertones. If a person from any of the linguistic groups says that that is not true of their culture, then he is not speaking the truth. 

Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar were on the same page on the issue of the English language. They urged the Dalitbahujans to learn English because they believed that proficiency in the international language was crucial for acquiring knowledge. But at the same time, we should also understand that no international language can take the place of one’s mother tongue. Our own language may have many shortcomings, but one thing is certain – we can express our emotions and thoughts best in our own language. The reason why the people of the southern states want to learn English is the same as in north India. They know that proficiency in English will allow them to seek employment in other parts of the world. Children from elite Hindi-speaking families also learn English so that they can secure high-paying jobs abroad. Thus language is no longer merely a cultural need but also a means to access better opportunities and resources. Wherever resources are in short supply, the people will sing paeans to their mother tongue and speak in their mother tongue in their homes but will learn another language to enter a bigger market. 

Hindi speakers do not want to learn any other Indian language. They want to learn English. The same is true of the southerners, who want to learn English and not Hindi because they feel that knowledge of Hindi won’t give them any additional advantage. Recently, a Tamil Nadu minister even said that one can only sell pani puris after learning Hindi. This was, of course, a disappointing statement. Sellers of street food and landless labourers are found in every linguistic group. It is not that there are no rickshaw pullers or street vendors among the Tamil speakers or that all Tamilians are wallowing in luxury in the United States. The commonalities between the English speakers of the north and south have much to do with caste. In both the regions, the savarnas were the first to realize the importance of English and managed to establish their monopoly over it. 

Delhi University students from the Northeast protest imposition of Hindi

Linguistic nationalism was used time and again as an instrument for grabbing power in different states. For instance, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and other regional political parties confined to south India may benefit politically from an anti-Hindi sentiment in the region. But in north India, the beneficiary will be the BJP because Hindi forms an essential dimension of the nationalist discourse here and has been patronised by the Sangh Parivar as well as the socialists. However, now, language politics has touched a new low. Tamil is older than Sanskrit and has a rich corpus of literature. Periyar used the Tamil language as an instrument for attacking Brahmanism. But were all linguistic movements actuated by lofty ideals? Had that been true, Brahmanism would have been uprooted from the south. Language nationalism is politics, pure and simple, and has nothing to do with ending casteism. Dalits are in dire straits in Tamil Nadu. In Karnataka, too, those hailing their own language would have no compunction in committing atrocities against the Dalits. It is clear that identity politics in the name of a state or a language cannot end caste politics. 

Those doing politics in the name of language forget that languages also bring people together. If we want to keep India united, languages will have to complement each other. Hindi may be a new language but it is spoken by the highest number of Indians. It has not got the status it deserves because of meddling by those in power. Governments cannot bring about the development of any language. Languages run on their own steam and cultural factors also play a role in their development. Bollywood has contributed immensely to the popularization of Hindi. In fact, non-Hindi speakers have played a major role in the growth of Bollywood! Hindi was not the mother tongue of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Devanand, Noor Jahan, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Hemant Kumar, S.D. Burman, Ghulam Mohammed, Kaifi Azmi, Shakeel Badayuni, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kamal Amrohi and many others. Today, Hindi songs are enjoyed by the people in many neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. They are very popular in Pakistan. In Indonesia, people hum songs like “Kuch-kuch hota hai”. All this shows that Hindi didn’t gain popularity and acceptance because the government imposed it. Art and culture have made it popular. Now, regional languages are challenging Hindi in this arena, too. 

The flag-bearers of linguistic nationalism also need to remember that Indian languages have made many dialects spoken by the Dalits and the Adivasis extinct. Hindi has almost devoured Bhojpuri, Maithili, Garhwali, Kumaoni, Rajasthani and Haryanvi. Linguistic nationalism may give rise to sub-linguistic nationalism, which is bound to find a wider acceptance. Today, Bhojpuri has expanded its footprint. But Bhojpuri can’t have any issues with Hindi. Even Bhojpuri has not shaken the roots of casteism or superstition. On the contrary, Bhojpuri is being used to do all sorts of things in the name of tradition. 

Language is also a vehicle of imperialism. We say that English is an international language and is crucial for the progress of mankind. We cannot study science, medicine or go to Space and so on without proficiency in English. But the great proponents of English haven’t been able to explain how Russia has progressed without the aid of English. Is Russia behind others in the fields of science and medicine? Doesn’t it send its cosmonauts to Space? Don’t they study science and technology in France? But these questions should not turn you into a worshipper of Hindi. The fact is that English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German and so on are rich languages. They are also imperialist languages in the sense that they are considered “international” in the countries which were the colonies of the respective nations where the languages originated. For instance, in the African colonies of France, French is still a major language. In British colonies, English became dominant. In countries that were colonized by Spain, Spanish is the working language. Sometimes, language is used to smother your identity. No matter how poor your language is, it is your own and you can best express your emotions in that language. 

A language doesn’t become strong only because those who speak that language are in power. Its literature also contributes to it. That is why, French, Russian, German and Spanish are in no way considered inferior to English. These languages have their own rich literature. The only advantage English has is that it is the most-spoken language in the world. That is why literature in other languages is being translated into English. The only weakness of Hindi is that its literature pales in comparison with the literature in Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali and other regional languages. 

But we also need to understand that Dalitbahujans have rebelled in almost all linguistic regions. That is because the dominant forces used language to further their own political interests. Dalits had no place in the Bhadralok revolution in Bengal. In Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian politics, Dalits were only used as pawns. Can those raising the banner of their language in Karnataka say that they would tread the path of Ambedkarism on caste issues? Those who had committed the folly of describing Jagan Mohan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh and K. Chandrashekar Rao of Telangana as patrons of the Dalits have come to realize the place of the marginalized in the politics of language. 

The implementation of the Mandal Commission report brought about a new kind of polarization in India. A Dalit-OBC alliance emerged and people tried to get to know and understand each other. They may not have known the languages of each other but they did know that oppression has only one language. No matter what games are played in the country in the name of language, what is certain is that it won’t end casteism. Atrocities against the Dalits and discrimination against the OBCs continue unabated in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka. In this respect, Punjab is no different from Bengal. 

At the same time, Ambedkar’s name has united the Dalits across the country, transcending linguistic boundaries. Despite linguistic barriers, the Dalits of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka try to understand the problems of the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh. 

The protagonists of English also know that it will be impossible for all Indians to learn the language. And even if that happens, will we abandon our languages? Will English become our working language? Humiliation of people in the name of language should stop. 

It is imperative that Hindi is not imposed on anyone. It will be best to allow everyone to study in his or her own mother tongue. But at the same time, we need to enrich our languages and make them culturally stronger. Mere devotion to one’s language won’t do. Languages should become vehicles of change by incorporating the literature and style of those who want to transform society. The more one learns, the better it is. Today, it is the market which determines the strength of a language. English is strong because it has a big market. The same applies to Indian languages. But no language should be imposed on people on the pretext that it is the national or the international language. 

Laws and rules can’t achieve everything. This nation will remain strong and united only as long as the people want it to. All the states have the right to promote and strengthen their own languages. But that would happen only if that is what those who speak those languages want. 

We would do well to remember that if the Dalit-OBC literature is going from strength to strength in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh it is because the authors are writing in their own languages. Languages need to be tempered with the values of democracy. The linguistic nationalists will get wider support if they express their resolve to bring down cases of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis and eliminate untouchability and casteism. After all, if we have embraced Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar, it was not because we understood their mother tongues. We embraced them because of their beliefs and their ideology. 

The linguistic nationalists are targeting those who are opposing caste-based society and language with feudal and hegemonic undertones. We need to see through their politics. What should be opposed is casteism, superstitions and untouchability. Voices against these vices are audible in every state and in every language. Languages should not divide people. They should unite them. And this is something which only the intellectuals can ensure. The politicians are always on the lookout for something that would turn our attention away from the real issues. 

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

Forward Thinking: Editorials, Essays, Etc (2009-16)

About The Author

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social activist, author and documentary filmmaker. He has authored 'Dalit, Land and Dignity'; 'Press and Prejudice'; 'Ambedkar, Ayodhya aur Dalit Andolan; 'Impact of Special Economic Zones in India'; and 'Tark Ke Yoddha'. His films – 'The Silence of Tsunami', 'The Politics of Ram Temple', 'Ayodhya: Virasat Ki Jung', 'Badlav ke aur: Struggle of Balmikis of Uttar Pradesh' and 'Living on the Edges' – explore a wide range of contemporary sociopolitical issues.

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