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Quest for Rashtrabhasha

Hindi has been modernised and is endowed with greater literary merit. It has been a force for India’s unity. Does it not have the right to claim the position of the common language of our country? What the Rashtrabhasha advocates do not appear to realise is that even the slightest hint of compulsion revives the controversy and politicises the entire issue.

AK Ghosh | Kolkata |


More than three decades ago, the Central government had decided to celebrate Hindi nationalism in the first half of November every year. Not that it was an ill-conceived idea to revive the latent but divisive language controversy plaguing the nation for quite a long time. However, almost predictably, there were protests from the southern states with Tamil Nadu warning the Centre that the hamhanded attempt to popularise Hindi would lead to serious consequences.

Last month, there was a controversy over Hindi when Amit Shah stirred the hornet’s nest by seeking to assert the need for a common language ~ specifically Hindi. It aroused the fear that Hindi imperialism, which would jeopardise Nehru’s assurances about the continuing importance of English as India’s official language.

There is a myth about Hindi being given the haloed status of the official language of the Union of India by the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. The opponents among the non-Hindi speaking states are considerable.

In fact, Hindi was regarded as a language with a distinct identity in the 19th century when movements were launched to replace Urdu with Hindi as the language of the courts and administration in the North Indian states. Nagari Pracharini Sabha, founded at Benaras in 1893, helped to buttress its cause. Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and intellectuals like Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay paved the way for the acceptance of Hindi as the link language in India. Despite Gandhi’s claim that Hindi and Urdu were but one language written in two different scripts, there was a conflict of interest in the period before Independence.

Hindi won eventually. Members of the Constituent Assembly had no doubts about what it would be like. Article 351 declares: “It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language and to secure its enrichment by assimilating, without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in other languages of India specified in the Eight Schedule and by drawing whenever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages”. Had this been followed faithfully by our Central leaders in the past 70 years, Rashtrabhasha would have by now acquired a true allIndia character.

Initially, there was an attempt to follow this constitutional directive. Then in 1962, BV Keshkar was replaced as the Minister of Information and Broadcasting by B Gopala Reddy, and Persianization(Urduization)of Hindi began. Gradually it became incomprehensible to the non-Hindi speakers, prompting C Rajagopalachari in the South to coin the slogan, “Hindi never, English ever”. Hindi now encounters as much opposition as did English before Independence and on similar grounds.

What the Rashtrabhasha advocates do not appear to realise is that even the slightest hint of compulsion revives the controversy and politicises the entire issue. As the language of almost the whole of North India, Hindi undoubtedly enjoys a preeminent place among Indian languages. It is the language of India’s thriving cinema industry. Its popularity is not necessarily confined to any geographical region. But this has come about because of the natural logic of the market place and not through imposition. It seems, if the Centre left the question of language to economics rather than politics, its purpose would be served gradually, but far more effectively.

Language being an effective tool for communication is also the medium of a nation’s culture and identity. Language can serve as a badge of membership in the community or a means of exclusion. This is an iconic use of language. Hindi or Hindustani served as an icon of Independence, of an anti-British feeling. It was this language which served as a rallying point for the freedom movement. As a language Hindi had a certain iconic value ~ “Quit India”,”Swaraaj”, “Hindusthan”. This is why, most of the minutes of the resolutions of the All India Congress Committee meetings carried the unanimous voice: “Hindustani Yes, English never “.

Language played a dominant role in the agenda of the Congress movement from 1920 onwards, and the question of the national language became more prominent than ever thereafter. However, the necessity for a common language had long been felt. Tilak, the first Indian leader to champion the cause of linguistic provinces, asserted at a meeting of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha at Banaras in December 1905: “If you want to draw a nation together, there is no force more powerful than a common language for all”.

Even in 1925, the Indian National Congress amended its constitution to read: “The proceedings of the Congress shall be conducted as far as possible in Hindustani. The English language or any provincial language may be used if the speaker is unable to speak Hindustani.” Nehru had perceived the iconic strength of a language. He realized this when he wrote in 1935: “Some people imagine that English is likely to become the lingua franca of India. That seems to me a fantastic conception, except in respect of upper class intelligentsia”.

India’s struggle for freedom as expressed in the national movement was to gain political freedom as also to escape from cultural domination. At the root of the cultural domination was the imposition of English. Eventually, the leaders of the Indian national movement enthusiastically declared Hindi to be the country’s national language. They accorded a special status to Hindi because of its inherent potential to become the national language and the language of common speech easily used and understood by all. English could never have been chosen by legislative vote as the national language of India.

Hindi remains today as the lingua franca of northern India which is increasingly being referred to as its homeland. Except Dravidian, the rest of the languages in India have their origin in Hindi and quite a large number of their words are either Hindi or derived from it. Hindi is included in seven prominent languages of UNESCO. It is among the seven languages which are used in the manufacture of URL. Sir William Jones declared Devnagari as the best script in the world.

According to a survey, Hindi is the first among the major languages of the world, Mandarin being the second. Hindi is taught in more than 150 universities in the world.. France is the second biggest nation where Hindi is taught as a compulsory language. Even North America has more than 100 Hindi centres while Russia also boasts a large number of Hindi centres. Interestingly, the World Hindi Secretariat is in Mauritius.

A language of the people develops naturally because it becomes the medium of their everyday communication. In the olden days, Sanskrit became the language of scholars who took pride in considering themselves intellectuals and cultured and, hence, superior, and the masses illiterate and ignorant and, hence, illiterate.

The language became inert for that reason and the masses created a new language for themselves known as Prakrit, which further developed into Hindi. In the subcontinent, it has developed extensively for all intents and purposes for which a language has to be developed. This language claims nearly 60 per cent of the land and 40 per cent of the population of the country It has been chosen by the Constitution makers to assume the pride of being the common language which should be an indigenous one and composite in the cultural context.

Most of our national leaders and celebrities including Dr Suniti Kr Chatterjee, India’s foremost linguist, favoured Hindi as Rashtrabhasha. Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma felt that Hindi is the national language because it is convenient and it represents the Swadeshi movement. Hindi linguist Raghuvira once remarked: “Shall we be anglicized? Shall we be turned into Greeks and Latins and shall we alone pick up a few crumbs thrown to us as refuse by the West?”

Hindi has been modernised and is endowed with greater literary merit. It has been a force for India’s unity. Does it not have the right to claim the position of the common language of our country?