Hindi Imposition or Harmless Symbolism? Why BJP Has Renamed India's Criminal Laws

The route to the Indian vote market is cultural, and Hindi imposition is not just desirable for BJP but imperative.

6 min read
Hindi Female

Three bills, allegedly overhauling India's criminal laws, have been passed in the Lok Sabha during the Winter Session – and they are baptised solely in mouthfuls of Hindi. The bills had earlier sparked a clamour against Hindi imposition, although the bills' contents were in English, bearing over 80 percent of British legacy verbiage.

The bills – the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita Bill, and Bharatiya Sakshya Bill – would replace the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Indian Evidence Act.

Does their naming warrant an outrage or is it harmless symbolism?

In politics, nothing happens in a vacuum and every move must be examined in context. Why were these bills tabled in the Monsoon Session of Parliament after nine years of government, that too at the end of the session, with errors, without wide consultations, and in the absence of the opposition? Were they a distraction from the Manipur crisis and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's absence in Parliament then?


BJP's Sustained Hindi Push

This is not the first time that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the centre has waved the red flag that is Hindi to divert the bulls charging at its mistakes – and opposition leaders have recognised as such in the past too.

However, there has been an accelerated and relentless push for Hindi domination by the BJP since 2014. This is over and above the special status accorded to it in articles 343-351 of the constitution, and exclusive budgetary allowances for its promotions that predate the BJP.

Ministries in the current government, with disciplined consistency, have been raising the Hindi petard throughout their nine years in power: a parliamentary panel recommending that Hindi be made compulsory in all institutions, the National Education Policy (NEP) prescribing a three-language formula defaulting to Hindi until it was resisted and an erring clause was censored, announcements that Hindi must be accepted as the national language sooner than later, CRPF exams mandating Hindi for 25 marks, and Hindi-only forms and receipts in national public services like railways and banks among others.

All of this has faced backlash and angered sizeable sections of the public, so why does the BJP keep poking the language bear?

Indeed, daily administration was and is, linguistically, a solved problem in India. Bureaucracy is constructed for sub-national integration. IAS officers posted to states have been learning alien tongues quite seamlessly, while state administrative services are naturally language-aligned. Printing of forms and conducting examinations in state-specific official languages, in addition to English, is no rocket science either.

Plus, the political bureaucracy at the ministerial levels are not the ones communicating with people in the states. Their interactions are primarily with state administrative units, in the official languages. Of all the myriad complex problems plaguing our executive, no one has complained about language barriers in administration.

So what is the Modi government's motive here? The underlying reason is entirely political. It always has been.


Hindi and Its Political Implications 

Until the heyday of the British Empire and subsequently the first elections of independent India in 1952, no empire had ever encompassed all of today's India. The Mauryas, Guptas, Marathas – none had the reach into the deep south and the far east, even at their tallest, while they daily reigned over North India and Pakistan, a cultural continuum.

The peoples, especially of the deep south and the far east, were not quite acclimated to Hindi until post-independence and Bollywood, while English has fallen on their ears much more since the 1600s. For many in these states, Hindi is more alien than English, not to mention its relatively low aspirational and economic capital for the effort extracted.

However, there are grave political implications to Hindi. National parties, essentially Hindi parties, have been capturing power over a land that is 43 percent Hindi (including Urdu and Punjabi) speaking (population wise), by seeking direct vote in a language only remotely familiar to some and entirely alien to the rest of the 57 percent. That brings us to the campaign machinery of parties and their linguistic challenges thereof.

While the Congress has a reputation for a centralised high command, its model is regional satraps raking in votes in the name of the supreme leader de jure. Today's Siddaramiah, Gehlot, Bhagel etc, have amassed their own mass base, which they exploit for votes in their own languages, as did yesterday's YS Rajasekhara Reddy in Telugu, and Oomen Chandy in Malayalam, even if in the name of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.


In fact, the Congress central leadership is restricted to Hindi campaigns, mitigated with live translation. The BJP should not have it worse except that their regional leadership, especially in the non-Hindi states, has frayed into party high-command appointees, which means that they command no mass loyalty. The Congress is a bottom-up structure in states; the BJP a top-down hierarchy.

Election campaigns for vote mobilisation are not only in Modi's name, they are by Modi, only in Gujarati and Hindi.

This is even more wicked than what alleviates with live translation. Leaving aside potentially damaging gaffes by translators – like when Amit Shah's drip irrigation was translated as "urine irrigation" by the BJP Tamil Nadu's H Raja – cultural references do not carry.

There is no maa-beti or colloquial Lakshman Rekha phrasing in most languages, usages that Modi tends to favour. Instead, Akka/Thangai-Akka/Thangi/Akka-Chelli (elder and younger sister) or the "the do-not-cross line," are equivalents shorn of the same cultural context. "Cheddam-Chooddam" is unique to Telugu, as "Eduthom-Kavuthom" is to Tamil. They don't travel across state borders either!

Pakistan is not as inimical, as there isn't a locus in the south. And pre-British history is more different than common, between the north and the east or the north and south. As things stand, the BJP's power fades in states away from the Hindi heartland, other than in Modi's home state of Gujarat. They find it difficult to muster an absolute majority beyond where Hindi is able to be spoken, in many cases forming the government against the popular vote by luring defectors.

This means that Modi's appeal loses in translation beyond Gujarati and Hindi; and worse, forces him into competition with local orature, an act deeply infra dig to his Vishwaguru sensibilities.


A Prerequisite for Cultural Propagation

Ensuring Hindi across states is not just about a language for electoral communication. It is a prerequisite for cultural propagation, without which metaphors fall flat, exhortations render as comic translations, and impassioned pleas fall on befuddled ears.

There is no political orature unyoked to lingual literature, and Modi himself recognises that in inserting small cultural references in other languages during his Hindi speech.

But that only goes so far.

Local rhetoric (hence state parties) cannot be surpassed with a culture that is alien to the locals, and so, sub-national sovereign cultures must submit to Hindi, and ultimately efface for communication to carry compellingly.

It has already occurred with the myriad languages across Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana etc., making Hindi's culture the dominant hegemon while secluding and erasing other linguistic cultures like Magahi, Awadhi, Bagheli, Bhojpuri, Bundeli, Chhattisgarhi, Garhwali, Haryanawi, Kanauji etc.

Hindi becomes the medium that can overlay cultural values of north India – the Lakshman Rekhas and the Lal Ankhs – atop sub-national cultures. This metamorphosis fits well with BJP/RSS's ethos for the long game of homogeneity, ably assisted via policy changes like the National Education Policy, revision of syllabi, overhauling the intellectual capital of universities, renaming of criminal laws etc.

The route to the Indian vote market is cultural, and Hindi imposition is not just desirable for the BJP but imperative for them. Hindi is what shifts the balance of power, without which the BJP, with its political sub-units as a top-down hierarchical structure, is but a regional entity.

However, in all the hyper-emotional arguments against the linguistic imperialism of Hindi and for the diversity of the various languages and cultures in India, what one forgets is just how emotive Hindi is for Hindutva. So much so that he calls out MK Gandhi's "sophistry" and "perverse attitude on the question of the national language of India" against "the charm and the purity of" Hindi, as a reason for shooting him dead.

So, as far as the three bills go, the rose by any other name isn't just a rose, it is an assimilationist and colonising superstructure.

(This story was originally published on 17 August. It has been republished with edits in light of the passing of the three bills – the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita Bill, and Bharatiya Sakshya Bill – in the Lok Sabha on 20 December.)

(Tara Krishnaswamy is the co-founder of Political Shakti, a non-partisan group of citizens campaigning for more women MLAs & MPs. She tweets at @tarauk. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  BJP   Lok Sabha   Hindi imposition 

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