Anglophonic Hegemony and Indian Languages

Anglophonic Hegemony and Indian Languages

In the wake of a statement by Sri. Venkaiah Naidu urging cultivation of Hindi by all Indians, a specter of an anti-Hindi agitation is being raised from some quarters. It is time to understand deeply, some plain facts about the history of Indian languages and how instead of solving conflicts our so called national leaders have muddied the waters. For instance, Gandhi created a lobby for Hindustani, which is no good for any serious use, except purchasing vegetables. Nehru marginalized Sanskrit willfully as part of his anti-heritage agenda and imposed a Eurocentric approach to language on the Indian political map. Let us begin with a bit of history and then offer solutions to the deep tangle.

The European Concept of the Nation State

The place of a language in a country depends upon how her people think about the modern nation state. The rise of the nation state, a rather recent political entity in history, was witnessed in Europe in the 18th century. The European nation state was conceived on the basis of a linguistic territory that became more recognizable after the spread of print culture. As long as the language was a spoken phenomenon, the territory of a French or German language was hazy. But with printed books, newspapers and standardization style for a recognized public, the territory of the English, French or Italian became clearly visible and could be transformed into a political identity not available earlier. Combined with some other factors, such as the rise of the middle class, recognition of democratic and proletarian dreams, notions of ‘ethnic folk’ or ‘ethnic people’, notions of a common cultural identity, a given language could be made the foundation of a nation state. Whereas in pre-modern days, the family line (royal or otherwise), religious sect, financial status and economic alliances made up the identity of a person, the nation state focused heavily on linguistic identity of her citizens.

This new-fangled notion of the nation state was imposed upon a vast number of territories in Asia, Americas and Africa by the Euro-colonizers on their departure, when they created new
nations out of the occupied territories. For instance, with the redrawing of boundaries for Greece and Turkey, all Greek speakers had to leave Turkey and all Turkish speakers had to move out of Greece. Or when Pakistan as an Urdu speaking Islamic State was carved out of the Hindu majority India that
always has had many languages and diverse faiths. The former Soviet Union was split into many Central Asian countries, so was Yugoslavia into five nations. Although this caused immense
misery to the populations, which were grouped and resettled on linguistic or religious basis, the European notions of ethnicity and nationhood have remained unchanged. Chechnya, Kashmir, Nagaland, Tamil Eelam, and many other nations yet unconceived, loom on the agenda of those who espouse this line of thinking. This bias of the Europeans is so deep-rooted and the urge to redraw territories so strong that many Asian countries feel a constant threat of dismemberment.

It is not surprising that according to the hardliners of this thought, India is not one nation, but a conglomeration of many nations all of which should be recognized as sovereign states. They feel that India is an imagined idea espoused by Indian or rather Hindu nationalists who are equating this imagined idea of a single national expanse called India with the territory that the British had occupied and called India. Hence, they say, the British created India, which the Hindu nationalists are now trying to transform into a nation. Some of these Euro-centric thinkers grant that India has been created while others believe that it is never possible. Yet others say that India is a European Union like conglomeration, but for the moment they do not advise dismemberment of the present day Indian State mainly because they do not wish the same to be prescribed for the EU.

Let us, however, examine if there have been other non-European, but workable concepts of nationhood.

The Indian Nationhood

As distinct from glossocentric and historically recent Euro-nationalism, India had begun to think of herself as a nation very early. There is evidence that appellations such as the jambudviipa, bhaarata, bharatakhanda, or karmabhuumi (portion of which was often called aaryavarta) were used to describe the geographic subcontinent of India, well before the Christian era. This was not imagined as a political entity or a religious expanse, but nevertheless as a distinct cultural expanse that shared some fundamental notions of social organization, plurality, life-aims and good conduct and even lineage. This culturally territorial expanse of India extended in the West up to the Persians (paaras) and Greeks (yavanas) and in the East up to the Chinese (chiinas). They were distinctly defined as the outsiders because they did not follow the codes of Manu and others dharma-sutrakaaras. Many periphery cultures such as the aabhiira, dardara, gandharva, saindhava etc., were acceptable as insiders.

In the first millennium, undoubtedly, the earlier cultural and philosophical notions of varna, jaati, vamsha, pancha rina, shaastra-aachaara, loka-aachaara, purushaarthas, were consolidated through a constant instruction of the standard philosophical, literary, artistic and ethical texts called the
ithaahasa, puraanas, kaavyas, and shaastras, taught through a rigorous system of higher learning that was pan-Indian. There was also the practice of utilitarian and fine arts that were patronized sub-continentally. Over and above the sacred sites of every religious sect, their holy river banks and mountains and forests extended all over the land and fostered an unabated movement and resettlement of pilgrims, students, performers and preachers.

The holy sites like Rameswaram, Dwaraka, Kashi, Gaya, or Pavapuri, thousands of miles away, have commanded since very early times and still command the same sense of belonging in an Indian as his or her place of settlement (graama), or origin (muula). The Indian obligation to travel to holy sites, or encourage and assist the travelers to these places, is much stronger than seen in other cultures. No wonder that with every passing occasion miraculous numbers gather at Kumbha and other pilgrimages. This sacred belonging of the Indian to the land as a whole cannot be underestimated even though it is beyond the grasp of modern secular notions of citizenship and state. Political scientists working under Western paradigms cannot count upon the sacredness of the land as a social unifier, just as the conquering Europeans could not understand why the American Indians could not sell their land because they considered it sacred.

This sacred bonding with the whole of India cannot be dismissed as a phenomenon of the past as it is still a major driving force in the lives of Indian people who, including the poorest, overstrain their means and health to make these journeys. Most unfortunately, Nehruvian secularism failed to nurture pilgrimages and pilgrims and thus weakened national bonding and cultural flowering. Devaluation of religion as an article of political faith continues to debar India from using its inherited infrastructure of emotional growth, unity and richness.

Pre-colonial Use of Languages

In a land with a huge number of languages and dialects, political objectification of a single language for representing the identity of a state is impossible. Even small empires on the Indian soil had subjects speaking many languages and the mobility of populations; trade and travel have been much higher in India than in Europe or other continents. Besides, India has sparingly used the medium of writing, resulting in a lack of standardization of vernaculars and dialects. Thus, as a largely orality-based culture, polyglossia was an Indian necessity as well as a fulfillment of its constant urge for diversity. One language for all purposes is a demand of the modern nation state. A different language for a different purpose was the Indian way.

And so we find that while Sanskrit was used for mantra conjoined rituals, intellectual discourse and higher education; the Prakrits were used for music, dance, popular poetry, non-formal speech and simpler instruction. The best guide to who spoke which language for which purpose is found in the ancient plays. Unlike the ancient Greek or Roman theatre, Indian theatre was polyglossic. Instructions for multilingual usage in a single play are detailed by the Naatyashaastra, which saysthat a play should reflect everyday social behavior. It establishes beyond doubt that even a moderately educated Indian was a polyglot and his attitude to language was utilitarian. Notions like ‘mother-tongue’ or ‘official language’ were not existent. The Arthashaastra nowhere mentions the choice of a particular language, let alone Sanskrit, as suited to the needs of the state to be used as an official language. Edicts by the governments were issued not only in Sanskrit, but in many

Sanskrit indeed had a special place of regard as ‘ati-bhaashaa’ because it had a vast repository of intellectual literature and was the language of the Vedas. But very early, non-Vedic sects like Buddhism and Jainism patronized Pali and Magadhii, respectively, which had the same sacredness for their adherents as Sanskrit for the Vedics. In fact, all speech or vaak was considered sacred if it had a valuable meaning. There was no concept of a national literature or a national language.

Other than plays, polyglossic essays or pieces called ‘manipravaala’ were an esteemed literary genre. It was purely a practical approach to language that encouraged the bhakti poets to begin composing their songs in Tamil, Telugu and later in Hindi and all other medieval Indian languages. This tendency was inspired above all by Indian theater and performing arts, which had always used less Sanskrit and more Prakrit to truthfully communicate with the common people. Just as the
Naatyashaastra was valued as the fifth Veda that brought the knowledge of the four Vedas to the ordinary folks, the Prakrits and the vernaculars poets also brought the knowledge of the Vedas and other deeper discourses in Sanskrit to the laity (‘beda mata sodhi sodhi, sodhi ke puraana mati’ as a poet described the enterprise of Tulsidas).

It may be pointed out that the antagonism between Sanskrit and Prakrit does not seem to leave much evidence in the first millennium. In fact, it was much later that certain medieval sects of nirguna and nirmala bhakti poets arose who ridiculed letters and learning and who seem to be anti-Sanskrit. These were no times for scholarship or an intellectual upsurge in any field. A general emphasis on otherworldliness had subdued every other activity and the nirgunis were not alone in ridiculing intellectualism. The acidic lines of some of these ‘unlettered’ (‘kaakad masi lakhyo nahi’) poets like Kabir should not be taken to be anti-Sanskrit but as against dry intellectualism
and hypocrisy.

Foreign Languages as Court Languages

In medieval India, foreign languages became the royal or court languages for the first time. This reflected the distance between the people and foreign rulers. Sanskrit was no doubt an elite language, but by no stretch of imagination disconnected with Indian languages. In fact, it was nurturing them constantly by a continuous process of Sanskritization. But the new class of monarchs and their aristocracy were the first conquerors who, unlike earlier conquerors, neither accepted the local faiths nor the culture. For the first several hundred years, the frequent conflicts between indigenous cultures and a fanatic form of Islam was the order of the day. This aristocracy believed in their racial and religious superiority and considered the locals as well as the class of mixed blood as
inferior. The angst of this mixed class born of foreign fathers and Indian mothers, is best expressed in Amir Khusro’s (a mixed blood person) eulogy of Hindostani things that this class denigrated.

The advent of Turkish with the establishment of the Sultanate of Delhi threw up a new challenge that was met by the Indian mind through the creation of Urdu, which drew upon from Arabic, Persian and other Central Asian tongues as well. It mediated between the rulers and the ruled and was not made the official language till very late. It was essentially the lower administrator’s language and of the Sufi saints. All said and done it was an Indian product. It also worked well to negotiate with the new rulers who had settled here and created only a partial colonization. But there can be no mistake that foreign languages at the Court created the hiatus between the administration and people and this is unfortunately prevalent to this day in India. Indians accepted the hiatus created by English easily as they were used to this gap for the last many centuries.

The Colonial Imposition of English

The Islamic rulers did not wish to alter the indigenous Hindu judicial and educational systems, as there were limits to their power to enforce such a change. They established parallel systems for themselves and the Indian converts to Islam. Their strategy was only to obliterate and harm as much, the Hindu cultural institutions, when it was to be done for political conquest. But the British, with their heavy white man’s burden had not only the Semitic notion of saving souls of the heathens
but also the Enlightenment arrogance to replace the Indian educational, judicial and administrative systems with their own. With the new technology of the printing press and the policy of eliminating the traditional village paathshaalaa system, the traditional system of education along with the old
curriculum was completely replaced by the European system. In the Islamic times, while Turkish, Persian or Arabic were required to be cultivated by only those close to the Islamic courts, the local paathshaalaas were available to those who wished to learn just enough for a vocation and ashrams for those going for higher learning. But in the British times, learning a foreign language, namely English, was not a matter of choice but of compulsion as it was the only language of the only educational system.

The change ushered in by the British rulers was both extensive and subtle. Islamic rule imposed a culture very little of which managed to percolate. Too often the barbarity of imposition created a strong resistance. In spite of their terribly exploitative rule, Muslims could not wipe out the Indian system of education. The British on the other hand, established anglophonic hegemony not only by creating an official language, but also a class of Indians, as planned by Macaulay, which had
a deeper interest in maintaining this hegemony for its own survival and wellbeing. Nehru, as we said, retained the hegemony and the class both.

Formation of Linguistic States in Independent India

Although from the middle of the 19th century with the new Europeanized system, English began to attain enviable supremacy, nevertheless with the help of the printing press the Indian languages also underwent a process of standardization and modernization. They too reached a larger number of readers of the middle class. From the first to the fourth decade of the 20th century every Indian language can boast of great poets, novelists and writers and a huge number of books on a great variety of subjects. Regional literatures were indeed the main vehicles of creating and consolidating the Nationalist movement. In this enterprise the territory of the modern Indian languages and the identities of their speakers was also solidified. Along with Hindi, Bengali, Kannada and other literatures, came the recognition of Hindi, Bengali, Kannada and other ‘people’ and the identity of the regions or pradeshas where these people lived. In other words, the effect of print on the European soil was seen in India too, except that each ‘pradesh’ was not thought of as a nation as the concept of Bharat (the land) and Bharat Mata (the Mother of Indians) had been shaped drawing upon the earlier notions of a cultural unity of the subcontinent.

The newly fabricated regional identities based on language were so strong that as early as 1938, the Nehru Report prepared by the Congress Party had declared that new regional states within the country would be formed on linguistic lines after Independence. And sure enough the Commission for reorganization of states was appointed in the mid-fifties that suggested their formation. This did raise many fears and some opposition but on the whole the idea was a fait accompli. The whole debate of the times is summarized in a booklet Thoughts on Linguistic States that the ailing BR Ambedkar, wrote at home as he could not debate the matter in the Indian Parliament. He thought that linguistic states are good for recognizing the identity of a regional people and their governance but he was apprehensive and suggested that the states should be small (otherwise the big ones shall dominate and UP shall always make a Prime Minister), and that there should be no mixed lingual state like the huge Madras and Bombay Presidencies carrying over from British India. Ambedkar was emphatic that all states should have Hindi as their official language and which should be so for the whole country:

“Linguistic State with its regional language as its official language may easily develop into an independent nationality. The road between an independent nationality and an independent State is very narrow. If this happens, India will cease to be Modern India we have and will become the medieval India consisting of a variety of States indulging in rivalry and warfare. This danger is of course inherent in the creation of linguistic States. There is equal danger in not having linguistic States. The former danger a wise and firm statesman can avert.

“But the dangers of a mixed State are greater and beyond the control of a statesman however eminent. How can this danger be met? The only way I can think of meeting the danger is to provide in the Constitution that the regional language shall not be the official language of the State. The official language of the State shall be Hindi and until India becomes fit for this purpose, English. Will Indians accept this? If they do not, linguistic States may easily become a peril. (1) The idea of having a mixed State must be completely abandoned. (2) Every State must be a unilingual State. One State, one language. (3) The formula one State, one language must not be confused with the formula of one language, one State. (4) The formula one language, one State means that all people speaking
one language should be brought under one Government irrespective of area, population and dissimilarity of conditions among the people speaking the language. This is the idea that underlies the agitation for a united Maharashtra with Bombay. This is an absurd formula and has no precedent for it. It must be abandoned. A people speaking one language may be cut up into many States as is done in other parts of the world.”

What followed was not a thought out policy but the formation of states along linguistic lines according to the pressure that a region could mount on the Center through violent agitation. It seems that during the first half of the 20th century and in the two decades after Independence, not only Nehru or Ambedkar but hardly any leader of consequence had an idea of the total redundancy of forming linguistic states because at no period in Indian history, was language a basis for unity and at no time did the polyglossic situation not prevail strongly. As in so many other things, following Europe was equated with modernity, and linguistic states were blindly craved for.

Throwing to the winds Ambedkar’s warning that regional language should not be the official language, a three language formula for education and governance was evolved, namely regional
language (also called mother tongue) as first language at school and the regional state’s official language, Hindi as link language (so called to reduce it from the status of the national language) to be used by the Center and English as the status quo language till the three language formula was

It is well known that the three-language formula was not implemented in administration except half-heartedly. The actual consequential file-work of the government continued in English and some notices were issued in Hindi at the center and in regional languages at the state level. In the schools and universities, Hindi was taught compulsorily except in Tamil Nadu, which has observed an anti-Hindi ritual to fuel its Dravidianism.

With the advent of Independence and the formation of linguistic states, the earlier desire to use the Indian languages for literary and administrative purposes was replaced by the quest for power and the languages were used as instruments for that aim. While the regional languages got bitterly involved in negotiating their status against Hindi (which is more of a declared than a practicing official language of the country), in day to day practice English even-handedly marginalized all languages of India including Hindi and Sanskrit, not only for maintaining itself as the bureaucratic tongue but as the medium of the judiciary, scientific research, medicine and every other kind of intellectual writing, speech and higher education. The net result of the contest between Hindi and other languages was a serious decline in the growth and status of each and every language of India. While in the pre-Independence era, literary writing in all Indian languages and even their dialects touched great heights, after Independence in spite of the greater awareness of the wider world, the quality of regional writing went down. In less than three decades, English writing far excelled the regional works and became notable on a global scale.

From Anglo-Raj to Anglophonic Socialism

The main reason for the rising hegemony of English has been an elitism that is nurtured by the Indian notion of tradition (paramparaa) that urges the new rulers to emulate their predecessors. The anglophones got away by enforcing an aura of the importance of English on the gullible Indian middle class.

Under the socialist state when notions of excellence were dictated by state controlled universities and elite institutions, this was an easy task. The anglophones have been adept at giving all sorts of reasons to show the superiority of English as a universal language that can keep India pulsating along with international change. The stock phrase was coined by Nehru who called English as ‘the window to the outer world’ and devised an under the surface status quo to keep his government as the inheritor of the British Raj. He kept the Raj going by simply prefixing the deceptive word ‘national’ to the name of every institution created by the British while all institutions kept the colonial aloofness and the bureaucratic superiority that the British had devised to govern India.

The English language was a major medium of keeping this distance between the rulers and the ruled and Nehru deliberately maintained it. His socialist state was as much in need of a domineering bureaucracy. Other than for labour and small business, the state was also the biggest employer in the
country. As it demanded a working knowledge of English, anglophonic hegemony was easily ensured. Ironically, the doctrine of socialism that espouses power to the masses surpassed every country of the world in creating a vast army of foreign language speaking state employees. The hegemony of English is a direct consequence of the socialist regime. If India had chosen a competitive capitalist road, the diversity of business and employment would have used the Indian languages in all their diversity.

Globalization Promotes Polyglossia

After the digital revolution and the globalization of capital and labor through the Internet, anglophones imagine English to be the glossiest feather in their cap. No doubt, the innumerable English medium schools made it possible for its students to migrate to greener pastures and the less luckier ones to work in BPO (business process outsourcing centers) attending to global customers. But this is a rather small part of the burgeoning young population that still faces acute unemployment. For the majority of the people who do not need a window to the outer world such as English, but who work in their languages only, hegemony of English is an obstruction or a
beating stick wielded by bureaucracy and the elite.

So far in one decade of globalization we have seen only the rewards of having a big English knowing population. But the huge market that regional Indian language speakers provide to consumer products from all over the world is yet to be tapped. Very special multilingual skills would be required from the masters of business management in years to come. We have already seen that Hollywood films are translated and subtitled into Hindi and Tamil and so forth. Such translation skills are needed for books, cartoons, videos and a number of products as the middle class grows in India. The Nehruvian policies were determined by the command economy and state stranglehold over schools and universities. However, with the greater privatization of higher education, diversity of curriculum at all levels, the utilitarian approach to education and hence language is destined to replace these strangleholds. The corporate world is still dominated by products of anglophonic
and Ivy League alumni that have not yet realized the indigenous shift on the horizon.

A new commercial growth in India free from state controls promises rosier days for the Indian languages. It is not going to be a situation where offices and schools are the only venues for clerks and teachers of Hindi or Punjabi and the state recognition of a language is indexed by the number of street signs in it. Not the compulsory Hindi at schools but the Hindi cinema and Hindi television has promoted the language across the land. The television revolution cashed upon the little known fact that while forty percent of Indians are Hindi speakers, eighty percent are passive listeners and can hence receive and comprehend Hindi. The emergence of Hinglish on the television suggests that the Shakespeare spouting government officer is a creature of the past. A polyglot with as many
languages as possible is likely to be a better and more popular functionary both in the government and in business.

With the formation of many states like Uttaranchal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, and Telangana, with Bundelkhand and Vidarbha in the pipeline, Ambedkar’s formula of many states with one language has become a reality. Many states have also recognized some languages as their second and third languages. Delhi state has given an official status to Punjabi and Urdu. Thus with the state more or less working in English and giving token recognition to more than one language and with the wider use of Hindi, the actual utilitarian approach to languages shared in India since time immemorial is emerging. The rise of digital technology is also an auspicious event for polyglossia. Transcription and even translation is going to become cheap and widespread. Greater flexibility and freer choice to the
students should be the new policy in schools. What we need is enthusiastic patronization of the languages from the Indian people and minimum interference by the governments.

Dr. Bharat Gupt

Dr. Bharat Gupt is a retired Associate Professor who taught at Delhi University. He can be contacted at