(This story was originally published on 30 April 2022. The Quint is republishing this piece from its archives on the occasion of Hindi Divas.)
For controversialists, the debate over Hindi as the “national language” is the gift that keeps on giving. When all thought that the outrage needlessly stirred up by Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s tone-deaf advocacy of Hindi had died down, it erupted again, when actor Ajay Devgn, not a noted linguist, waded into the debate feet first – of course in Hindi.
After Kannada actor Kichcha Sudeep had accurately said Hindi is not the national language of India (the Constitution, in fact, does not name a “national language”, only two “official languages”, Hindi and English), Devgn decided to school Sudeep in a tweet written in Hindi: “My brother, if, according to you, Hindi is not our national language, then why do you release your movies in your mother tongue by dubbing them in Hindi? Hindi was, is and always will be our mother tongue and national language.”
Sudeep could have pointed out that Hindi wasn’t his mother tongue, as it isn’t mine, or that of half the country, and that it isn’t our national language either, but was too polite to do so. Instead, he was conciliatory, proclaiming his love and respect for Hindi, but pointedly added: “No offense, sir, but I was wondering what’d the situation be if my response was typed in Kannada!? Don’t we too belong to India, sir?”
Striking While the Controversy Is Hot
Of course, this was impossible for others to resist. Two former Chief Ministers of Karnataka immediately took to Twitter. Former Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy issued a string of seven tweets accusing Devgn of “blabbering” as “a mouthpiece of the BJP's Hindi Nationalism of one nation, one tax, one language & one government”. His successor, Siddaramaiah, said with equal passion, “Hindi was never & will never be our National Language. It is the duty of every Indian to respect the linguistic diversity of our Country. Each language has its own rich history for its people to be proud of. I am proud to be a Kannadiga!!”.
Poor Devgn, who moonlights as the cop Singham (which, he must be aware, is a good Tamil name), probably didn’t know what hit him. Other actors sought to pour oil on the troubled waters, only fanning the flames. Kangana Ranaut weighed in for Sanskrit: “Today within the country we are using English as the link to communicate. Should that be the link, or should Hindi or Sanskrit be that link, or Tamil? We have to take that call. So, keeping all these things in mind, a decisive call should be taken. As of now, Hindi is the national language according to the Constitution,” she said. Wrong, Ms Ranaut – according to the Constitution, it is not, so you were stumped.
Sonu Sood tried to take the debate to another level: “India has one language, which is entertainment.“
Kichcha Sudeep has wisely chosen to remain silent since then.
How a Political Slugfest Ensued
But politicians know no such restraint, and an Uttar Pradesh Minister decided to play arsonist. Sanjay Nishad, founder of the Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal, commonly referred to as the NISHAD Party, and which is an ally of the BJP, declared (of course, in Hindi): “Those who want to live in India should love Hindi. If you do not love Hindi, it will be assumed that you are a foreigner or are linked to foreign powers. We respect regional languages, but this country is one, and India’s Constitution says, that India is ‘Hindustan’ which means a place for Hindi speakers.” Wrong again: the Constitution does not even use the word “Hindustan”, referring only to “India that is Bharat”.
But then, Nishad compounded inaccuracy with offensiveness. “Hindustan is not a place for those who don’t speak Hindi. They should leave this country and go somewhere else,” he self-righteously pronounced.
One hopes his allies in the BJP government of India realise how dangerous such a proposition is. The more than 80 crore people in India who do not consider Hindi their mother tongue and either do not speak it or do so badly, have nowhere else to go. If the likes of Nishad want them to leave, that can only mean they leave with the territories on which they reside – in other words, the break-up of India.
Not Just Hindu Rashtra, But a Hindi Rashtra, Too
Behind Nishad’s imprecations is a deep-seated resentment of English as a language of the elite, linked to the conviction, widely shared across the Hindi-speaking cow-belt of Northern India, that Hindi, as the majority language, ought to prevail in India. Putting aside for a moment the debate about whether Hindi is really the language of the majority of Indians – it only comes close if you assimilate Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithili and several other kindred languages into it as “dialects” – the dangers of this ought to be readily apparent. The forces in power in today’s India are wedded to the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, which they have been seeking assiduously to promote. The linguistic counterpart of this dream is to create a ‘Hindi Rashtra’ as well.
This debate had been settled when the Constitution was written. As Rajaji sagely cautioned the Hindi chauvinists of his era: “Is not just and fair dealing by all the geographically distributed people of this great country as important at least as national pride?” Dr BR Ambedkar, too, had expressed the view that the utility of a single language nationwide in the administration and the justice system required the continuation of English as a matter of practical convenience.
Rajaji also gave short shrift to the argument that Hindi was a language of the Indian masses while English was used only by the deracinated elites: “When the Hindi protagonists are speaking of the masses they are obviously thinking of the masses of the Hindi area only; they ignore the masses in non-Hindi India who are no less in number.” Nationalism, he feared, was being used to conceal the naked self-interest of the Hindi-speakers of the north: “Love of oneself may easily masquerade as love of language, and love of language as love of country. Let us not deceive ourselves or others with chauvinistic slogans.”
The Casualty of Hindi Nationalism Will Be India
But such deception is a favoured political tactic in our country. The first lie is that hoary chestnut the Hindi chauvinists bandy about, that Hindi is the “national language” in India. In fact, all our languages are as “national” as Hindi. The second is that the advocacy of Hindi is an emotional matter of national pride, when, in fact, it reflects the ideological agenda of those in power who believe in a nationalism of ‘one language, one religion, one nation’.
This “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” cause is anathema not just to those Indians who hail from the South or the Northeast, but to all who believe in a diverse, inclusive India, whose languages are all equally authentic. Trying to impose Hindi will divide the country tragically. As I have observed before, language should be an instrument of opportunity, not of oppression. Oppression should, and will, be resisted.
Hindi zealots, like the orthographically challenged Devgn, are unnecessarily provoking a battle they will lose, because the country itself will be lost if they pursue it. Ironically, they are doing so at a time when they were quietly winning the war; Bollywood has ensured that much of India picks up some Hindi because it is the principal language of entertainment. As Devgn pointed out, Kichcha Sudeep and other Southern stars happily dub their films in Hindi to reach northern audiences. Language, after all, is a means, not an end.
“Unity in diversity” is a cliché because it expresses the truth about India. Leave well enough alone, Hindi will continue to grow in popularity. Try to impose it, and our diversity will end up destroying our unity.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)