India’s Home Minister recently added tadka to the khichdi that comprises the languages of India when he emphasised the importance of Hindi as a unifying force in India. An issue that has exercised us Bharatiyas since the days of Potti Sriramulu and Lal Bahadur Shastri got a fresh lease of life more than half a century later. How could my Tamil friends take this challenge lying down, not to mention other assorted political formations? So we had our latest edition of the Tower of Babel, with every print columnist, channel news anchor and self-declared expert weighing in on both sides of the language divide. Many joules of heat and lumens of light later, the issue remains unresolved, with all parties adamant on their respective stands till “death do us part.” Let me, therefore, offer my humble two-bit solution to the imbroglio.
I must clarify at the outset that I am a truly hybrid product of India’s first post-independence generation. Having settled in the north for livelihood purposes, my parents favoured the usual English-medium education schools as our passport to a comfortable future. English became the lingua franca of communication with family and friends. The second language, Hindi, was learnt with difficulty. It would be unfair to blame the pedagogy of the teachers, our mindsets were probably more to blame. Of the third language, Sanskrit, the less said the better. What we learnt by rote we vomited on to our answer sheets, till we were delivered from it after the eighth grade.
In such a milieu, one’s mother tongue suffers. Far away from Tamil Nadu, with no access to learning aids, one acquired enough spoken skills to pass muster in then Madras and Madras state (now Chennai and Tamil Nadu). Reading and writing abilities in the language were minimal, with the resultant lack of exposure to the rich heritage of Tamil literature. Determined not to repeat this mistake in Maharashtra, the state where I have spent most of the last four decades, I focused on my language skills, through extensive reading, writing and speaking in Marathi. My ego is boosted from time to time by the astonished looks I get from people with whom I interact in fluent Marathi. A recent extended sojourn in Bengaluru has also seen me acquire a smattering of Kannada.
The point I am trying to drive home is that proficiency in a language has a lot to do with one’s eagerness to immerse oneself in a language and its literature, apart from the need for effective survival in the new environment. Not being posted only in Mumbai, interacting with the public over fifteen years in field postings and making file notings in Marathi enabled me to reach my present comfort levels in Marathi.
Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari), as Chief Minister of Madras province, stirred up a hornet’s nest when he introduced Hindi in the province in 1937. The Hindi Prachar Sabhas in Madras were quite popular and made their students quite proficient in the language. My mother is a prime example of a person with excellent command over Hindi, although her school education was in the Tamil and English languages (mea culpa: many of my school Hindi essays, which met with the wholehearted approval of my Hindi teachers, were composed by her). What was significant about this in a state which has unequivocally repudiated Hindi since 1966 was the enthusiasm exhibited by Tamil boys and girls to learn a language which those of them who were not going to move northwards were not going to use to any great extent. The unexpected spinoff came when hordes of Tamilians flooded Delhi in the aftermath of independence to man positions in the Central Secretariat of the Government of India: they could put their Hindi to good use while living and working in Delhi.
The criticality of language has been underscored in the past three decades by the waves of inter-state migration. Sardarjis speaking fluent Tamil, Odiyas conversing comfortably in Kannada and Marwari shopkeepers conducting their business in the language of whichever state they are based in no longer surprise us. Earning one’s livelihood and living peaceably with the local populace require an adaptation to varied languages and cultures.
Of course, Hindi will never lose its soft power, thanks to Bollywood. Salman Khan’s appeal extends to his fans in Bengaluru and Bhubaneswar as much as his Mumbai base. Young boys with barely any acquaintance with Hindi spouting his Hindi dialogues indicate that there is no fundamental mind block to learning any language, provided one gets some dividends from it – aesthetic satisfaction, social integration and/or a secure livelihood.
And yet, language (and the presumption that one among the many is being given a favoured status) will continue to rouse passions. To keep tempers in check, I suggest we stick to a two-language formula (English and the local language), with each non-Hindi state having the option to add Hindi (or any other language listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India) as a third language. The Central Government can undertake correspondence with a state in Hindi or English, as per the wish of that state.
In the ultimate analysis, let us be realistic. A person who migrates for employment from her home state to another state will necessarily need to learn the language of the state migrated to so that she can function effectively. What we need is states offering courses, both online and offline, to encourage people from other states to learn their languages. A state offering attractive investment and employment opportunities will automatically see a rise in demand for its language courses. Let states compete to attract the largest number of Indians (and non-Indians) learning their language, reading their literature, viewing their movies and settling on their soil. Spreading one’s soft power is a surefire path to success rather than forcing people to learn languages against their wishes.