Hindi debate misses the point

The Z Factor
Last Updated : 08 May 2022, 02:30 IST
Last Updated : 08 May 2022, 02:30 IST

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As some people once more rediscover their love for Hindi, the raucous debate over Hindi imposition misses the crux of the problem. A link language is great, but Hindi as a link language makes no sense.

Indians like to believe that their problems are unique and unparalleled, but politics over language is, in fact, a staple in several countries worldwide. In Africa -- the unfortunate home of civil wars and ethnic violence -- battles over language have consumed whole nations for decades. One unlikely country, though, has steered clear: Tanzania.

A typically hodgepodge nation composed of several ethnicities and languages, Tanzania was also primed to plunge into a lifetime of conflict when it became independent. Politicians enthusiastically devolved into debates over which tribe and whose language was superior. So, in order to unite the people, Tanzania’s first President, the charismatic Julius Nyerere, decided that he had to pick an ethnically neutral link language — one which belonged to no one and therefore could belong to all. He settled on Swahili, a coastal language with no ethnic connotations, developed during the course of centuries-long trade with the Arabs.

The results were striking for Tanzanian nationalism over time: In a 2002 survey, researchers asked respondents, to which specific group they felt a sense of belonging, first and foremost. Only 3% of Tanzanians responded in terms of their ethnic, tribal or linguistic identity — the lowest among the 12 countries surveyed. Over 90% of them claimed to be proud Tanzanians.

The same questions arose during the anti-Dutch freedom struggle in Indonesia — an archipelago of some 1,000 islands, many of whom have their own distinct language. Given that most of the population was concentrated in the island of Java, the most obvious candidates for a national language were Java’s languages: Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese.

But in order to build a wider sense of belonging, Indonesian leaders settled on the ethnically neutral Malay. Since native Malay-speakers were small in number and politically inconsequential, this was widely embraced by several ethnic groups across the country, and speakers of this new “Indonesian” language grew from 40% in 1971 to almost 70% in 2001.

Meanwhile, Singapore -- the poster boy of Asian development -- had other problems. In 1965, that majority-Chinese city-state was born out of a race riot with the Malays. Shortly afterwards, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce committee went to meet Singapore’s new ethnic Chinese Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and demanded that Chinese be made the national language. “You must be mad,” Lee said. “Singapore will come apart.”

Instead, Lee resolved that the ethnic Malays and Indians must also be accommodated, and he granted official recognition to Malay and Tamil.

But even this was not enough for the pragmatic Lee. “Who is going to trade with us?” he asked the ethnic nationalists. To do business with the world, Singapore needed English, Lee argued. He therefore proceeded to declare English as the working language of the government and outlined a four-language policy for a city of less than 2 million people.

The problem with Hindi is that it is neither a global language of commerce nor a unifying, ethnically neutral Indian language. Most native Hindi-speakers are concentrated in just two North Indian states — Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — according to the last Census.

Some nationalists might argue that Hindi is “Indian” — unlike English, the language of British colonialism. They might say that Indian nationalist pride is “hurt” by the use of English over Hindi. But as Lee Kuan Yew asked the Chinese nationalists, “Who is going to trade with us?”

(Mohamed Zeeshan is a student of all things global and, self-confessedly, master of none, notwithstanding his Columbia Master’s, a stint with the UN and with monarchs in the Middle East @ZeeMohamed_)

Published 07 May 2022, 19:06 IST

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