Looking Back At Linguistic Prejudice Against ‘Hindi Medium’ Prime Minister Modi
Note to the readers: On 26 May 2017, the third anniversary of the Modi Government, PM Modi was in Assam where he inaugurated India’s longest bridge and also laid the foundation for an AIIMS and an AIRI for the Northeast region — three small components of the big plan that his government has for the economic transformation of NE India. Realizing that Assam has come a long way since Modi’s ascent to power, I recalled an earlier article of mine, with its own Assam connection, which was published on Niti Central soon after Modi had become the PM. After he became the PM, some people started attacking and mocking PM Modi for using Hindi in international diplomacy. The comprehensive article was a response to the prevailing “language racism,” a deconstruction of the sociocultural politics, the obfuscations, the exaggerations and the ignorance behind the belief that Prime Minster Modi’s personal preference for Hindi was something negative that spelled tragedy for India. The article is still relevant today.
The piece is reproduced below. It examines various facets of the complex and vexed language issue, including one commonly overlooked aspect of the Hindi versus Urdu question, and includes a new tailpiece that broaches the deeper malaise behind the language elitism depicted in the 2017 Bollywood movie Hindi Medium.
What follows below is the script of the original article.
India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to use Hindi to interact with foreign diplomats and other heads of state has apparently ruffled a few feathers in India. Below is a post that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed recently:
TC: Totally disagree with the Modi Sarkaar’s move to make Hindi the lingua-franca of all Govt communication, esp the whole absurd stance of choosing to speak in it at international forums as well…. feeling annoyed.
There were a few comments under the post. I am reproducing them below just as they appeared, without editing anything, and have added only the six parenthetical sic notations:
DP: Let’s just hope this government does’nt (sic) go the route of Hindi, Hindu. Hindustan nd (sic) make India a mirror image of Pakistan.
TC: Well I’m all for Hindi Hindu Hindustan frankly for the right reasons but then this whole Hindi as a language of official communication is just super absurd…
AA: Language was supposed to be an individual choice in India .. and based on your ability to convey your thought .. Why this sudden diktat ???
TC: well the way I see it, nationalism being pushed to absurd boundaries…..
AA: if speaking Hindi is the way to say that you are nationalist .. then what about atlleat (sic) 30% people for whom Hindi is not there (sic) first language .. Strange choice though we keep on harping on small issues like communication langauge (sic) change, airport name change .. and god knows what else Instead of actually changing what we really want to change…
DP: Only 40% of Indians speak Hindi as their first language…it does’nt (sic) qualify as a national language on any grounds
While I found the theorizations in the above exchange quite erroneous and the peevishness misplaced, I could only assume that by “I’m all for Hindi Hindu Hindustan for the right reasons” TC was signaling that the pejorative term that had always been used to ridicule the un-westernized Hindi speaking masses of North India by the English speaking elite had already been upended in the collective psyche after the Mumbai terror attacks and that the new realities of the post 9-11 world order had willy-nilly inscribed Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan in a dialectical context in which its original semantic value as a signifier had shifted to now primarily implicate a new binary opposite – Arabized Urdu-Jihadist-Mughalistan.
Given that two of the people involved in this Facebook conversation were from Assam but were living in Delhi and Mumbai now, what I wanted to tell them at first was that instead of worrying that Modi was speaking in Hindi they should pray that he does something to stop the infiltration of illegal settlers pouring in from Bangladesh so that the ethnic Assamese, who are today precariously close to becoming a minority in their own home state of Assam, do not end up getting driven away from their homes and lands like the Hindus of East Bengal or like the Bodo tribals of western Assam as we saw with great astonishment and consternation in 2012.
I however decided not to intervene in their conversation but to instead write an article to clear the air on the language issue and share some fact-based alternative opinions with a larger audience. There are very good reasons why Mr. Modi’s preference for Hindi needs to be appreciated and supported. I believe that the Mr. Modi’s decision to communicate in Hindi is not necessarily a nationalistic choice but is definitely a strategic one. R. Jagannathan explains this very well in his article Speaking Hindi: How Modi is putting Indianness back into India, so I will not go into that here. What I wish to do is deconstruct the sociocultural politics, the obfuscations, the exaggerations and the ignorance behind the belief that Prime Minster Modi’s preference for Hindi is something negative.
New Facts about Hindi
Linguists and scholars now estimate that Hindi is the third most spoken and understood language on the planet, after English and Mandarin Chinese and ahead of Spanish. The Government of the United States has designated Hindi a “super-critical needs language,” which is the topmost category for languages that it believes will be of great importance in the new century, putting it in the same category as Chinese. As part of its National Security Language Initiative, the Federal Government has called for more US universities to start teaching and more Americans to start learning Hindi so that the United States can better prepare itself for the challenges and opportunities of the new century. China has already introduced Hindi in many of its universities. Hindi is also expected to be one of the five or six languages that will be truly global languages in the rapidly changing world in this century.
While the secularist Congress party led government of Manmohan Singh shirked from releasing the 2011 census data out of political expediency, it is today irrelevant that only 41.62% of the Lok Sabha seats represent the Hindi heartland. Though there is no demographic data available because nobody has ever looked into it or studied it scientifically, one can easily estimate that the overall percentage of Indians knowing and understanding Hindi, using and consuming it either receptively or productively in their everyday lives, would be at least double, i.e. 83.24%. In the under 25 age group this number would be even higher. And this is a very conservative estimate.
Hindi’s reach has always been huge. As someone who spent 4 formative years in a so-called far-flung region of India, the northeastern state of Meghalaya, that too in the early eighties, I found that everybody even there knew pretty good Hindi – from the uneducated rural poor to the educated urban folk. This was more than 30 years ago, at a time when in India education and literacy levels were much lower, there was less movement of people within the country, and no color television, YouTube, Internet or any of the other advanced technologies or communication modalities through which language influences can propagate themselves or isolated communities can sustain interactions with the outside world these days. Even the poor herders and peasants in the remote valleys and villages far from the main city of Shillong, in areas where one often had to trek because there were few roads, could communicate in Hindi. Such was the reach and penetration of Hindi in the farthest corners of the country (and beyond) even back then.
Today, Hindi comes as a natural expression to most Indians, especially those from the younger generation, whatever corner of India they may be from. Tamil Nadu may be the only state today where youth from the new generation might still be being formally deprived of Hindi in schools in many locations, but that is also changing as more school add the language to their curriculum. Overseas, Hindi’s footprint (and that of other Indian languages) has expanded considerably in recent years due to the popularity of Hindi language cinema, music and television, the discovery of Indian culture, cuisine and spirituality by the world, and the growth spurt of the Indian diaspora after the advent of globalization.
Within India however, lingering colonial thought structures and preconceived notions about the presumed intrinsic worth of specific languages have prevented attitudes towards language from evolving at the same pace as the changing needs and realities.
A Flaw in the Indian Education System
When it comes to imparting high standard language skills and communicative competencies, India’s education system on the whole has failed big time. The absence of a strategically crafted, need-responsive, proficiency-oriented policy towards language education has led to a hierarchical compartmentalization where the language of the colonizer, spoken fluently by only 5 percent of the country by some estimates, is still “more equal in power and prestige” than the sum of the colonized indigenous languages which has led to a peculiar hermetic social separation between those who speak and write English truly well and those who speak vernacular more comfortably. In particular, it has led to a mass of Indians who wield neither English nor Indian languages too well and who often have to mix languages to express themselves effectively. If there is a place on Earth where the prediction that “the whole world will be speaking English one day but will speak it badly” will come true first, it is India. Everybody in India wants to know English, as they rightly should, but many, possibly a majority of those who do so, speak and write it poorly. The popularity of privately run English coaching centers across India attests to this reality.
The other aspect of this conundrum is that a lot of Indians can neither speak nor write their own language(s) well, at least at the advanced level, especially if they know good English. And among those who can speak and write really well in their own language(s) there are relatively few who can marshal and demonstrate the same levels of competency in English. This is the irony of India’s much touted bilingualism / multilingualism.
Modi’s popularity as a leader, his communicative preferences and his own proficiency in Hindi, for the first time in independent India’s history perhaps, draw attention to the complex issue of communicative competency of India’s vast bilingual / multilingual population and set a higher bar for communicative achievement for the bilingual/multilingual youth of India. India faces vast internal competency gaps in all areas of human resources development. Skill development has been identified as a priority by the Modi Government and there is no reason why communication skills and language skills should be excluded if India wants to develop its human resources, improve standards and productively tap into its “demographic dividend.”
Will India Ever Be A Pakistan?
Inept comparisons of India with Pakistan predicated on imagined equivalencies are ridiculous. I’d rather draw a comparison with Spain or France. To me, that seems more logical, meaningful and useful. We often imagine France and Spain as monolingual societies, but they are not, though they do not have as many languages as India. Apart from Spanish, Spain is also home to other native languages like Euskara (Basque), Catalan, Galician – all robust and thriving languages – along with smaller ethnic dialects such as Aranese, Aragonese, Asturian, Leonese, Valencian, Extremaduran, Gascon, Fala and the very interesting Caló, which is spoken by the gypsies. About 25 % of the country’s population speaks a tongue other than Spanish as its first language. As for France, even if one omits the overseas departments and territories (DOM-TOMs) of the Republic where Tahitian and some other Polynesian languages, various Creoles and many other local languages exist alongside with French, present day Hexagonal France includes regions that speak Flemish, Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Gallo, Corsican, Catalan, Provençal and Occitan. Both countries also have large immigrant populations, including sizeable Arabic speaking Muslim minorities.
If the Prime Ministers and Presidents of Spain and France feel comfortable communicating in Spanish and French and make the most of their strong suit when communicating with peers and counterparts from other countries without turning their multicultural societies into something resembling Pakistan, why do English speaking, English-educated Indians raise bogus but insidious fears that Modi’s preference for Hindi could make “India a mirror image of Pakistan,” i.e. turn India into an intolerant hellhole like Pakistan?
Contemporary India’s inclusive, plural and liberal linguistic ethos is firmly entrenched. It is much more inclusive and liberal than that of Pakistan. East Bengal/Bangladesh ultimately broke away from Pakistan because, in the final analysis, the West Wing wanted the Bengali language, unacceptable to it because of its Hindu influences, to be wiped out and replaced by Urdu. It was this Islamofascist intransigence that led, in the early years of the formation of Pakistan, to the dramatic end of the honeymoon between the two geographically distant Muslim majority regions of pre-partition India and was the embryo of the ideological differences that would culminate in the genocide of 1971, though the climactic tension took years to build up and was compounded by a couple of decades of colonial style discrimination and exploitation. School children in Pakistan’s most populous Punjab and Sindh provinces are hardly even taught their native language in schools even now. The imposition of Urdu has been so absolute.
India on the other hand, both as a civilization and as a nation state, has been extremely generous, patient and giving to a fault, graciously accommodating even all that which is inimical to it. India’s linguistic ethos is in reality many times more inclusive, plural and liberal than that of any other country, let alone the Spain of today, where regional languages and identities like Basque were violently suppressed till very recently, or the France of today where despite the nation’s lofty ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité, native regional languages are still struggling for official recognition.
India and Pakistan are more different today than they ever were in the past, despite the recent hype created by self-centered, self-serving impresarios who love to talk about “a shared cultural identity.” Pakistan chose a mediaeval Arabized identity as its identity of choice long ago and has stayed faithful to that approach to identity construction. India chose to build on its original, colorful, pluralistic self and has been steadfast in forging and strengthening an identity that is in many ways carnivalesque in the Bakthtinian sense, with multiple paradigms and layers intersecting and undercutting each other in dialogic celebration. It’s a dynamic, composite, multicultural identity, but one that is nevertheless rooted in an irreductible essential Indianness — its ancient and timeless civilizational ethos, its dharma. This civilizational ethos cannot really be captured, but to understand it is to see Pakistan or Bangladesh as former Indias that lost their soul.
Why They Dislike Hindi (And Modi)
So why do so many English-speaking and English-educated Indians assume these airs and raise bogus but insidious fears that Modi’s preference for Hindi is a dirty form of nationalism and might be part of a sinister plan to make “India a mirror image of Pakistan?” Does this posture reflect just a simplistic internalization of secularist fear-based anti-Modi propaganda or does it derive from a mistaken belief that languages in multilingual societies have to have a zero-sum relationship? One wants to ask what status quo they are afraid of losing. Given that they themselves do not have very good mastery over Hindi, might there be a subconscious fear of losing certain privileges if their discursive and social hegemony is ruptured by a national representative who speaks Hindi internationally? India’s public relations, India’s international projections, and the business of carrying on international relations on India’s behalf up until now have always been the preserve of the English speaking elite class and some seem to be resenting that the medium of communication “in international forums” where India is an interlocutor, may change. They perhaps want to hold on to privilege. They possibly see India’s international engagement as their personal territory. Knowledge is power, like Michel Foucault said. But it is equally true that language is power, as all those who study, cultivate and deploy language know from experience.
R Jagannathan writes that “India’s real problem is that our English-speaking elite have steadfastly kept us hermetically sealed from our Indian language roots, our culture and our Indianness. Rootless themselves, they have emasculated us as a nation. I would be the last one to think everything about Indian culture is great or wonderful. We have as much nonsense in our culture as any other. We have to excise the nonsense without losing touch with our core.” I think he hits the nail. I think many also find it perplexing that Mr. Modi is not an actual “Hindi-wallah” in the sense in that he is from Gujarat, speaks Gujarati as his first language and is not even from the Hindi heartland, but chooses, for both domestic outreach and world diplomacy, shudh Hindi, a register which has been especially pilloried in the past by the secularist English speaking elite in their crusade to devalorize and diminish the cultural foundations of India.
Shudh Hindi is a register of Hindi that uses a Sanskrit rich vocabulary rather than Persian/Arabic based lexical items for which Urdu has a predilection; shudh Hindi thus actually brings Hindi and Hindi speakers closer to the rest of the major Indian languages like Assamese, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. It is Sanskrit that links all these languages together and is their foundation by dint of being either a substratum or a superstratum language for each of these.
What about Modi’s Linguistic Rights?
Prime Minister Modi is a skilled orator and a consummate communicator who is choosing to speak in a language that allows him to parlay his abilities. He has as much right to communicate in a language of his choice as those from India’s elite English-speaking, brazenly Hindu-despising, nouveau-riche, fast-track upwardly-mobile, faux-Marxist, secularist intellectual class or the supercilious, often “convent-educated” or élite “public-school” educated, uber-westernized coteries of young professionals who are deeply alienated from their roots and choose to immerse themselves in a heavily mediated lifestyle and entertainment culture of simulacra that turns them into B-grade clones of Americans.
New Direction for India
One other small manifestation of the shoddy workings of the Indian education system in general is the widespread lack of awareness amongst Indians that India does not officially have a national language. Hindi and English are India’s official languages, not its national languages. All the regional languages represented on an Indian currency note can be considered national languages, if one is very attached to the term. When one looks at a rupee bill of any denomination, the value of the note is indicated in 17 different languages. Apart from Hindi and English, 15 other regional languages are depicted. However, the size of the English and Hindi fonts and the preponderance of Hindi and English on the currency are symbolic of the role, importance and status of these two languages, the size of the Hindi text and the preponderance of Hindi on both the sides of the bill reflecting the reality that Hindi, as the main indigenous language of India and the lingua franca connecting everybody is already the de facto national language. It does not need an official label. It already is. So why then should it not be the lingua franca of Indian diplomacy?
Today there are many things that mar the public, cultural and sociopolitical landscape of India, such as the disappearance of genuineness and innocence in people, the shallow life of the celebrities who are seen as role models, the arrogance of the political class, the lack of civic sense seen in people from all classes, the lack of a sense of citizenship in society, the social divisions , the preying on Hindu masses as fair game for religious conversion to middle eastern Abrahamic faiths by predatory evangelical forces, the dysfunctional state and public systems, the ruthless zeal to acquire, become rich, famous and powerful, the degradation of the environment and related stresses, the various kinds of addictions and forms of violence in society, or the general erosion of human values. Yes, there are so many things wrong with India today. But a Bharat Pradhan communicating with a Hamid Karzai or a Li Kequiang in Hindi is not one of them. It is just the opposite. It’s actually a very good sign.
Change is inevitable because India cannot sink any lower than the depths to which the previous government dragged it. Change is already happening. Meanwhile, what should India do? India, especially the layer of India that has championed English and benefitted through English (by gaining access to greater opportunities, wealth, knowledge, technology and better health services), gained a broader vision, new knowledge and ideas, and won personal and social empowerment now has a greater responsibility in ensuring that the whole country gets uplifted without its cultural identity and civilizational wealth getting wiped out. India must accept and own its indigenous languages and culture, just like it has embraced English. Being pro-Hindi does not mean being anti-English or anti-other-Indian-languages. India must learn to be comfortable in its own skin and then seek and build excellence in every way that it can.
The deeper malaise behind the language elitism depicted in the Bollywood movie Hindi Medium
The 2017 Bollywood movie, Hindi Medium, captures the state of India’s decrepit education system and the mad admission scramble quite succinctly. The few elite institutions in the country that impart quality education are extremely competitive and hard to get into. Parents and children have to endure a traumatic selection process in order to have even a shot at getting admission.
Parents who want to, and can muster the means to, provide their children with a good education and a shot at a decent future, invariably opt for private English Medium schools.
This happens because the average Indian school is unable to give children the kind of exposure and education that is needed to compete effectively. Many of them do break-out of their current levels despite all odds, but their struggle is infinitely harder.
What is even more unfortunate is the inability of vernacular education to keep pace with modern teaching techniques. A major reason an “English medium” education is so sought after in India is that vernacular schools are simply unable to deliver meaningful education and communicative skills in any substantial measure. They fail at grooming their students for success in the modern world.
The teachers are often either demotivated due to poor management or are poorly trained and therefore incompetent. The environment in these schools is often orthodox and not conducive to enlightened learning. The archaic and unoriginal learning techniques leverage neither the latest methodologies nor the glorious heritage of India’s past in full measure and the system gets stuck in a vicious cycle of substandard input and output. The products of these schools are unfairly viewed as fit only for clerical or labor intensive work and they therefore lose out on many opportunities to participate in the modern economy.
English speaking Indians aren’t any more intelligent than their Hindi or vernacular speaking counterparts; they just have the benefit of a stronger education and greater exposure to global ideas and trends. This creates a solid foundation and a robust launchpad for a brighter future. Till the time vernacular education is able to foster original thinking and make use of innovative teaching techniques, it will always play second fiddle to English Medium.
Globally, the IB program does a phenomenal job of providing innovative, high quality education that creates independent thinkers. As a pilot project, it might be worthwhile for the government to partner with the IB Board to formulate a Hindi medium IB program and especially adapt it for the primary school level. It could be just the shot in the arm that Hindi (and other Indian languages) need to emerge as viable languages of modern teaching and learning. The movie reminds us all once again that major reformation of India’s educational system remains a dire need.