The larger language issue


The protests over inclusion of Hindi in the signboards at the recently expanded ‘Namma Metro’ in Bengaluru and a strident demand for their removal have made a section of people — mostly north Indians — knot their eyebrows in a show of annoyance and ask plaintively: “What’s the problem with Hindi? Why make a fuss over such a small issue?”

Yes, outwardly, it may appear to be an inconsequential issue, but in the context of a systematic, often blatant, imposition of Hindi on the non-Hindi population of the country, it will be clear that it was a matter that was waiting for a trigger to explode.

Namma Metro, run by the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL), is a joint venture between the Government of Karnataka and the Government of India, in which the Centre has invested only about 20%, while the rest of the funding has come from the state and other multi-lateral agencies. The me­tro had a rather quiet opening in October 2011 with just five stations in one line. Initially, the signboards at the stations were only in Kannada and English, as was only natural in a city like Bengaluru.

As BMRCL was gearing up for expansion of the network, an official of the Department of Official Languages in the Ministry of Home Affairs paid a quiet visit to Bengaluru on May 5, 2016 and exhorted the officials to include Hindi in its operations. A fortnight later, on May 19, 2016, the Union Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) wrote a letter to BMRCL asking it to “follow the three-language policy” and include Hindi in all information boards.

Caught in a pincer, the BMRCL asked the state government to get a clarification from the Centre. The Karnataka chief secretary wrote the MoUD, asserting that the provisions of the Official Languages Act “are not applicable to BMRCL as it is not a Central public sector undertaking.” Choosing to ignore this letter, the MoUD sent a circular on December 9, 2016 to all metro corporations across the country, asking them to “implement the three-language policy in their operations.”

The pressure tactics, aimed at BMRCL primarily, worked, as by the time President Pranab Mukherjee came to Bengaluru to inaugurate the 42-km, 41-station, expanded network of the Namme Metro on June 18, 2017, all stations featured signboards in three languages — Kannada, Hindi and English.

Being cosmopolitan by nature, the average Bengalureans wouldn’t have bothered about the inclusion of Hindi in the signboards, but it was the ‘bullying,’ the arrogance and insensitivity of the advocates of Hindi which have irritated them the most.

As a matter of fact, after Kannada, the­re are more Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam-speaking people in Bengaluru than speakers of Hindi, and there’s a legitimate argument that if the metro stations needed to use a third language other than Kannada and English, it had to be one of these languages and not Hindi.

As the public resentment grew, Union Minister for Urban Development, and Information and Broadcasting Venkaiah Naidu fanned the fire by declaring that Hindi was “the Rashtrabhasha or the national language” and it had to be accor­ded due recognition. Naidu was obviously uttering a lie as the Constitution provides Hindi the status of “the official language of the Union”, that too, along with English, and not the national language.

In fact, it is abundantly clear from the recorded debates of the Constituent Assembly that there was fierce opposition to declaring Hindi as the national language. It got the status of the official language of the Union after a compromise called “Munshi-Ayyangar formula,” where it was agreed that English would be an additional official language.

Then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s unilateral decision in the 1960s to give primacy to Hindi led to a lot of resentment in south India and in 1965, Tamil Nadu erupted in violence against “the imposition of Hindi.” Nearly 70 people were killed in the anti-Hindi agitation and the Central government was forced to assure the nation that English would continue as an associate official language so long as the non-Hindi states desired.

Mother tongue

As per 2001 census, while Hindi is the mother tongue of around 25% of the population and another 16% can speak or understand the language, it still leaves around 60% of Indians who speak a language other than Hindi. Besides, what is recognised as ‘Hindi’ itself is spoken in some 13 dialects, which barely resembles Hindi.

A majority of the 29 states do not subscribe to Hindi either as mother tongue or as the first language, and its claim to be treated as a pan Indian language is completely hollow.

Yet, after the Narendra Modi-led NDA government came to power in May 2014, there are not-so-subtle attempts to promote Hindi at the expense of other regional languages. The RSS has always believed in pushing its divisive agenda of Hindi-Hindustan-Hindu Rashtra, with the aim of effectively polarising sections of people.

Though President Pranab Mukherjee has been immersed in Delhi politics for over five decades, he was never comfor­table in Hindi and all his major speeches as President on the eve of the Republic Day or at the opening of the joint session of Parliament, were in English. Still, when he is about to demit office, the NDA government has ‘forced’ him to sign an order approving several recommendations of the Committee of Parliament on Official Languages for the promotion of Hindi across the country.

One of the most dangerous recommendations of the committee is to make Hindi a compulsory subject for all students up to 10th standard in schools teaching central syllabus. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the order is gradually extended to other schools also. It could adversely affect the other regional languages, including the teaching of the mother tongue.

Many feel it’s time to launch a movement for replacing Hindi with the regional languages in banks, post offices, railways and a host of public services, defence and PSU examinations which have disadvantaged children in admission to professional courses in non-Hindi speaking states and in procuring jobs in central government establishments.

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