Hindi, Bengaluru cabbies, and the second hand to clap

Acute Angle

In these feverish times, when mutual suspicion abounds, reversing perspective is a useful device.

Imagine for a bit that Telugu were the favoured official language of the Union and a Home Minister from Andhra Pradesh issued a diktat that all bureaucrats should sign files in his language.

So, a senior Hindi-speaking official – say, a 55-year-old joint secretary – is suddenly forced to learn how to write his name in Telugu. Not wishing to be called ‘anti-national’, he manages to produce a child-like, scrawled version of ‘Somnath Sharma’, cursing his errant right hand when it lapses into a lifetime habit of writing in Hindi.

Then he is told file notings, too, must be in Telugu. He is interrupted mid-speech when he speaks in Hindi as his minister holds up a ring-festooned right hand and says: Telugulo!

Meanwhile, Telugu colleagues are coasting along, politicking away in their mellifluous tongue, while he attends evening language classes in a pathetic bid to come up to scratch. All this on top of his day job overseeing police modernisation, and in the face of ridicule at his pronunciation. Talented as he is, he senses that he will always be at a disadvantage.

Sounds like fun, Sharmaji?

Unreversing perspective to reality, Sharmaji wouldn’t give a toss, because, of course, Sharmaji would actually be Rajagopalan, Rao, Subramanya or Nair, the minister would be from the Hindi heartland and the language sought to be foisted on the joint secretary would be Hindi.

The real Home Minister, Amit Shah, set off a firestorm recently with his ‘One Nation, One Language’ comment, setting the stage for the primacy of Hindi by 2024, the year his BJP goes back to the hustings in its quest to win every vote everywhere, southern India included.

The statement alarmed many because Shah and boss Narendra Modi are not given to loose talk. Their Kashmir policy is debatable, but its single-mindedness stands out. History may – or may not – prove them wrong, but what is clear is that on policy, what the Duo wants, the Duo gets.

The angriest voices against the imposition of Hindi – as usual – came from Tamil Nadu, where there is an odd mix of conviction and political expediency in opposing imposition of the language. But Karnataka CM Yediyurappa, widely seen as being under Shah’s thumb, also spoke out strongly against One Nation, One Language, though state partymen fell over themselves to fall in line with Shah.

When Shah appeared to retreat from his words a couple of days later, few were convinced. The BJP has long tried to push Hindi, driven by its heartland genes (placing your core constituents at a handy advantage in everything is never a bad idea), a class hatred of English, and the views of its ideological parent, the RSS.

The draft National Education Policy made a brief attempt to push Hindi down the throats of students in the South, and the example at the start of this piece was inspired by actions at the Home Ministry under Shah’s predecessor, Rajnath Singh.

What next? Account opening forms for PSU banks only in Hindi? Entrance exams? Replacing English signages? Promotions in government jobs only for fluent Hindi speakers? Why only government? Why not the private sector, which shows less spine to this government than a particularly pliant earthworm?

The question of advantaging a certain group of people at the cost of all others is one major argument against imposition, but not the only one. Do we really need a link language? And, as for showcasing national pride to the external world, we would be equally proud to see Modi addressing the UN General Assembly in Gujarati.

In certain parts of the country, there is a strong feeling that a ‘foreign’ culture is trying to supplant the local one, because language is the vehicle for all forms of cultural expression. English is less of a threat because it is equally foreign to all, and the British rulers of this land are long gone, now battling Brexit and irrelevance. It matters little that a (bogus) figure of 44% of India’s population is deemed to speak Hindi; it is absurd to let numbers decide this.

In reality, it’s unlikely that Telugu, Tamil and Kannada – old, sophisticated and rich – will lose their hold on their states. And there is usually little hostility to Hindi per se. What sticks in the craw of most people is the coerciveness of  “I decree that you shall speak Hindi”, the lazy mispronunciation of southern names and the belief that you can rock up at Bengaluru airport and bark out instructions in Hindi to cab drivers.

On that note, of course, perhaps the cab drivers of Bengaluru hold a lesson for everyone. In one year here, I have come across several cabbies who speak five or six languages: Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and English. Their willingness to learn others’ languages, off their own bat, is a great example for both South and North. The point is this: The South has made some progress on this front, but we know what happens when only one hand tries to clap. What about you, Sharmaji?

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