Tamil particularism

The five-day World Classical Tamil Conference which was held in Coimbatore last week was intended to promote Tamil and highlight its place in the comity of languages. But language took a back seat and it was politics that came to the fore in the speeches and proceedings of the conference. The DMK government wanted to promote its politics more than the language through the Rs 300 crore extravaganza. Languages do not grow with state patronage and sponsorship. They develop organically from the people who use them and from those who study them for their love for them. The history of Tamil, which is a great language spoken by millions of people within the country and outside, is itself proof of that. Some of the claims and demands made at the conference make sense only in the context of the approaching state Assembly elections and as part of an agenda of language politics that goes even beyond.

Many speakers went overboard even with claims that Tamil is the mother of all languages and that it pre-dated the Ramayana. Some exaggeration that rises from pride in the language is natural in such conferences and even scholars, known for objective and rigorous studies, may make debatable propositions. But the demands made by chief minister M Karunanidhi are of a different order and point to an unacceptable kind of language politics. He demanded the status of an official language for Tamil at the Centre, reservation in jobs for speakers of the language and use of Tamil as the language of the Madras  high court.

These are unrealistic and can only lead to similar demands from other states where people are equally proud of their own languages and culture. Governance will be reduced to the state of Babel with too many official languages. The constitutional mandate for English as the language of the high courts is in the interest of all people of a state and to protect the national nature of the higher judiciary. There is no case for reservation on the basis of language as there is no constitutional sanction for it. Nor is it a worthwhile idea to be pursued.

States were formed on a linguistic basis mainly for administrative convenience. The dominance of a language in a state should not be used to promote divisive politics and bigotry. Identity politics, based on language, race or religion, can only hurt national unity, especially in a competitive electoral environment.

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