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Why Ramachandra Guha’s Claims About ‘Hindi Revivalism’ Are Logically Bankrupt

The desire for a common Indian language was a national sentiment, also championed by Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar.

20/07/2017 8:46 AM IST | Updated 20/07/2017 8:46 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Notwithstanding the ubiquity of the internet and its instant, facile access to reams of varied information, public awareness remains sketchy. Only an infinitesimal percentage of the population are in the know of historical intricacies as they relate to current events. Therefore, it is imperative that intellectuals who quote history do so with a modicum of intellectual honesty—which means recapitulating past events in their entirety and accurately, sans any ideological twist that could lead to disinformation.

The historian Ramachandra Guha's article "Why this Revival of Hindi Chauvinism" violates every tenet of intellectual honesty. It is a compendium of mealy mouthed half-truths, gross historical distortions and wild, unsubstantiated charges; a rambling tirade that is more vindictive in intent than objective in its construct; a confused exposition that banks on vacuous clichés like "Hindi imperialism" and "domination of the North." The writer leans on outdated slogans like the Jan Sangh's "Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan" to make its point in lieu of hard facts and robust logic.

To characterise the promotion of Hindi as a radical, divisive and dubious policy of the BJP alone is to mislead the public and do a disservice to the nation.

In a rhetorical question that sums up the gist of his article, and is meant to mislead rather than educate, Guha asks:

"So, is this promotion of Hindi an act of Golwalkar-worship, or is it rather a calculated move to further polarise the citizenry, and consolidate the core vote-bank of the BJP?"

Reading Guha's essay one gets the impression that the concept of Hindi as a national language took roots exclusively in the RSS and was the unique brainchild of MS Golwalkar, the Sarsanghchalak who presided over the organisation from 1940 to 1973. Guha quotes Golwalkar as saying, "till the time Sanskrit takes that place, we shall have to give priority to Hindi on the score of convenience."

A perusal of history, however gives lie to this outlandish assertion. The website of the Committee of Parliament on Official Language, the body tasked with monitoring the progress of Hindi as the official language has this preamble:

"Mahatma Gandhi, in his address to the Gujarat Education Conference at Bharuch in 1917 had stressed the need of a national language and expressed that Hindi is the only language which could be adopted as national language because this is a language spoken by majority of the Indians. It has the potential of being used as an economic, religious and political communication link. The Constitution makers had deliberated the issue of Official Language in detail at the time of framing the Constitution and it was decided that Hindi in Devanagari script should be adopted as the official language of the Union."

Article 343 of the Constitution categorically states:

"The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script. The form of numerals to be used for the official purposes of the Union shall be the international form of Indian numerals."

Prominent members of the Constituent Assembly included people like BR Ambedkar, BN Rau, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. None of them belonged to the RSS; the Jan Sangh, the forerunner of the BJP, did not exist at that time, being formed in 1951.The Constituent Assembly had concluded its work by 1950.

Dr. N.G. Ayyangar an important member of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution in one of his speeches said:

"There was one thing about which we reached a fairly unanimous conclusion that we should select one of the languages in India as the common language of the whole of India, the language that should be used for the official purposes of the Union."

B.R. Ambedkar too concurred:

"One language can unite people. Two languages are sure to divide people. This is an inexorable law. Culture is conserved by language. Since Indians wish to unite and develop a common culture, it is bounden duty of all Indians to own up Hindi as their official language."

Therefore, let us be clear about one thing. The desire for a common Indian language was a national sentiment that pervaded almost the entire spectrum of Indian political thought and was a notion championed by Gandhi. Indeed, he endorsed this notion way back in 1917.To characterise the promotion of Hindi as a radical, divisive and dubious policy of the BJP alone is to mislead the public and do a disservice to the nation.

Pejorative phrases like "domination of the North" are intentionally divisive and serve to distract rather than enhance a debate; they are not cogent rebuttals but indicators of logical bankruptcy.

Deliberate disinformation is also at the centre of this recent renewed focus on the status of Hindi. The current controversy was sparked by a routine notification issued on 31 March with regard to a recommendation made by the Committee of Parliament on Official Language advising union ministers and the President to give speeches in Hindi.

This notification was not initiated by the current government. It was a holdover from the previous UPA: in June 2011, the Parliamentary Committee headed by the then home minister and Congress Leader P Chidambaram had forwarded the recommendation to the President for his approval which finally came through this year. The present government merely notified the recommendation on the President's approval.

To stem further controversy, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu categorically stated that no fresh ordinance had been issued and clarified that the recommendation was optional, not mandatory.

This hue and cry about the imposition of Hindi is nothing more than a politically and ideologically motivated ploy; an attempt to craft a conspiracy where none exists. In other words, much ado about nothing.

One cannot deny that a link language in a vast diverse country like India with its numerous languages and myriad dialects is a logistic necessity and a pragmatic reality. To thwart such a move by labelling it as chauvinistic and reflective of majoritarianism is short-sighted and frivolous. Pejorative phrases like "domination of the North" are intentionally divisive and serve to distract rather than enhance a debate; they are not cogent rebuttals but indicators of logical bankruptcy.

Those who fret over the negative consequences of transitioning to Hindi for non-Hindi speakers, expediently overlook the inherent inequities of the current system heavily weighted in favour of English.

Whether the common link should be English or Hindi is the million-dollar question. According to the 2001 census, 53.6% of the population is classified as Hindi speakers with 41.03% listing Hindi as their first language. English is a distant second with only 12.18%. These figures make a strong case for anointing Hindi as this common conduit.

Those who fret over the negative consequences of transitioning to Hindi for non-Hindi speakers, expediently overlook the inherent inequities of the current system heavily weighted in favour of English. The contention of an extra "burden" of acquiring additional knowledge skills is also applicable to the current system but with reference to English.

And the "burden" in the current scenario is borne by close to 90% of our population who are not conversant with English and usually hail from rural areas and belong to the lower socio-economic strata without the ability to send their children to convent schools or high-end educational institutions that charge up to a lakh a month.

The cannibalisation of local languages by Hindi is another myth. I became acutely aware of my own language deficiency (with regard to my mother tongue Kannada) when reading the English translation of the famed Kannada writer SL Bhyrappa's novel Aavarana. The narrative was so powerful and gripping even in its transliterated version that I yearned to experience the magic of Bhyrappa's words in its original format.

[T]he contention that learning Hindi will be a deterrent to the learning of local languages is a far-fetched hypothesis... The single factor that compromised my proficiency of Kannada was not Hindi but English.

While I must take some responsibility for not acquiring the knowledge skills of my mother tongue, the system was to blame to some extent. I was the product of the three-language system with primacy accorded to English, Hindi and Kannada in that order; Hindi was introduced only in the 4th grade and Kannada in the 7th. The single factor that compromised my proficiency of Kannada was not Hindi but English.

Therefore, the contention that learning Hindi will be a deterrent to the learning of local languages and lead to their gradual demise is a far-fetched hypothesis.

Despite the robust rationale for having a common official/national language, the implementation of Hindi as a common language is fraught with difficulties because of cultural sensitivities. The lessons from Tamil Nadu's anti-Hindi agitation of 1965 that took, by some unofficial estimates, hundreds of lives should make us wary of any unilateral imposition. This is a big NO. The process must be one of voluntary acceptance at a pace that is agreeable to all.

Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, who is also the minister in charge of the Department of Official Language emphatically stated in April, following DMK leader MK Stalin's charge of imposition: "We are not imposing Hindi, but promoting Hindi like any other language."

Rumour mongering and blatant misinformation, both historical and current, with the express purpose of obtaining political and ideological advantage at the cost of the good of the nation is unacceptable from anyone, and especially from people given primacy as intellectuals.

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