Even as there is a call to make Hindi a common language across the country, we find out how relevant is the language in various aspects of our daily lives in today’s globalised world
By Bidita Sen
Language has always been the landscape of political power-plays since the bygone era. History testifies how a language broke barriers to unify people with the same tongue and even built barricades of resistance when it came to protecting the sanctity of its pristine form. Unesco declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day in 1999 in a tribute to the language movement by the Bangladeshis. The country stands witness to one of the very rare incidents in history where people sacrificed lives to uphold the dignity of their mother tongue and preserve their cultural heritage.
Back home, fast forward to a couple of decades. The Narendra Modi government in 2019 proposed a draft National Education Policy suggesting that Hindi should be taught in non-Hindi speaking states. Such was the urgency and the threat of resistance in Tamil Nadu, which is traditionally opposed to the compulsory study of English, that the central government had to pull back the draft almost as quickly as it was issued. The revised draft refrained from mandating the languages that students may opt to study at mid-school level under a three-language formula.
The resistance to the Centre’s three-language formula has its roots in a 50-year-old controversy. The system of teaching Hindi took the shape of a policy in an official document, christened National Policy on Education, 1968. It stated that in the non-Hindi-speaking states, Hindi should be studied along with the regional language and English. The 1968 NPE went all guns blazing to promote the language and contended that, “in developing Hindi as the link language, due care should be taken to ensure that it will serve, as provided for in Article 351 of the Constitution, as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India. The establishment, in non-Hindi states, of colleges and other institutions of higher education which use Hindi as the medium of education should be encouraged”.
To quote C Rajagopalachari in Swarajya: “While I strongly protest against making Hindi the official language of India, I equally strongly recommend the inclusion of it in the school curriculum everywhere. English is compulsory in many European states on account of its importance. So also must Hindi be studied by people of all parts of India on account of its importance… But this does not mean that the great injustice should be perpetrated of imposing Hindi as official language of the administration of India.”
But Rajagopalachari has definitely not found many supporters in new India, where the politics of Hindi is too powerful to rebuff. Its influence in north India has almost cornered Urdu, Maithili and Punjabi, rendering them toothless in this fight for prominence — although in the case of the latter three it is more like a peaceful co-existence. Lyricist Javed Akhtar, in one of his media interviews once said, “The status of Urdu is like that of a courtesan. Everybody loves her, but nobody wants to take her home.”
Paul Richard Brass, professor of political science and international relations at the Henry M Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, in his book, Language, Religion and Politics in North India, has traced the trajectory of the battle for Hindi imperialism. Its seeds were sown in 1868. It was the year when Babu Shiva Prasad, an official in the British education department, wrote the Memorandum on Court Characters. In his book, he unabashedly stated that Persian letters of Urdu must be pushed out of courts with Hindi substituting it. He also maintained that Hindi was used synonymously with the Devanagari script. It took consistent agitations and repeated petitions to the British government for the supporters of Hindi to taste first victory in 1881 when Hindi in the Devanagari script replaced Urdu in Persian script as the official language of Bihar.
Thus began the educated Hindus’ drive to secure official recognition for Devanagari to give wings to the cultural aspirations and nurture employment opportunities for Hindus. Educated Muslims, on the other hand, tried their best to hold on to their ground and preserve the official dominance of Urdu to further their aspirations and opportunities. The language tussle continued; it apparently was fashioned to foster a design — create the grounds that would ultimately determine the fate of the two eminent and major-league languages pitted against each other. As Partition happened in due course, Urdu achieved all the supremacy it longed for in Pakistan and became its official language. In India, it was perfunctorily extended an ignominious fate — it should remain restricted to the Muslim minority.
Against the motion
There are conflicting views to the popular notion that Hindi lovers want to impose it on others. Authors like Mrinal Pande think this battle for supremacy between Hindi and other regional languages is one-sided, where Hindi is being treated as a “punching bag”. In a piece in The Indian Express, she wrote, “It is being hit at for imposing its supremacist regime over all other Indian languages, for the rise of casteism, racism, for introducing a string of foul words in polite discourse through Bollywood films and serials on Netflix. Worse still, all Hindi wallahs are increasingly being stigmatised as supporters of totalitarianism whose ideas are fast permeating social media, publishing and the government machinery.”
Rather than a tricky trend in mindset, this pattern of opinion can be tied to a changing society where views are constantly evolving — one view in favour of an idea is always met with another opposing it. A few years ago, the non-availability of Hindi books triggered a feeling of mass contempt. This led to a hasty presumption that Hindi was no longer the choice of the educated. Now, Hindi books are sold by dozens on Amazon and several other e-platforms. At least there is no dearth of availability. But what does this swing in sales suggest — is Hindi back in fashion? Is it faring well as the language of personal choice?
What about the aam admi
Book publishers might sing an upbeat note about the rising readership numbers, but lending an ear to the ground one listens to diverse narratives. Delhi software professional Anjali Singh (name changed) was embarrassed doing her regular grocery shopping when the store owner uttered the final figure in Hindi. She had to turn to her husband for help amid smirks from onlookers. But Singh can’t be blamed. Even after studying Hindi in school, she has lost touch with the language now as she doesn’t encounter the Hindi script in her daily life.
Indeed, no one in India raises an alarm over the popularity of English, even if that comes at the expense of their vernacular languages.
English has always been defended because it’s a lingua franca and because globalisation demands a thorough knowledge of the language of our colonial forefathers to secure jobs. So, we now find a pathetic scramble for admissions into English medium schools. Such is the tendency to flatter and flaunt English knowledge that a teenager’s mother in Noida (Uttar Pradesh) takes pride in telling neighbours that her daughter has forgotten how to spell her own name in Hindi.
Sambath Sasidharan from Kerala, a management student at IMT Ghaziabad, is a contrarian of sorts. He never studied Hindi in school but can read and conduct his professional conversations in the language. He still considers himself inarticulate in Hindi and, in a way, blames his mother tongue for this. “My mother tongue had a dominating influence in making me tongue-tied in Hindi,” he says.
Sanchit Gupta, a manager at Raymonds in Mumbai, has studied Hindi in school and reads the Dainik Bhaskar occasionally. He says mother tongue has a big role to play in day-to-day life, but the language of your profession limits the same. “The fluency factor relies deeply upon usage, it stands true for all languages. Unfortunately, for me, after studying Hindi as a subject in school, I did not use or practice it as much as English.”
For Rachit Mazumdar, (manager, L&T Defence) from Bihar, who can read and write Hindi, his mother tongue (Bengali) helped him become fluent in Hindi. “Learning the similarities and dissimilarities in the grammatical structure of Bengali and Hindi helped me communicate better through Hindi. I think in Bengali and articulate my thoughts in Hindi.”
But again, there are a few who are well versed in the language though it is not their native tongue. Saurabh Yete, quality engineer from Maharashtra, never studied Hindi in school but can read and write it. He is against the view that his mother tongue was a deterrent as far as fluency in Hindi is concerned.
“The surroundings in which a person grows up effects the fluency of language used. Exposure to Hindi at early age influences my fluency and tone.” But, both Mazumdar and Yete would not prefer Hindi over English when it comes to light reading.
Government servant Sanjoy Mallick from West Bengal seconds Yete’s views. He has studied Hindi in school and gorges on Premchand, literally. He thinks his mother tongue (Bengali) had a role in making him fluent in Hindi. “Languages, especially of north India, have several words derived from Sanskrit. So it does help.” Dilip Kumar, a gym instructor in Delhi, is an avid reader of Hindi books and swears by Surender Mohan Pathak. “After college, I, in a way, deserted English and embraced Hindi for serious and pleasure reading. I read whichever Hindi books I lay my hands on, Pathak being my best.”
The academic lag
In times when English language is seen as the key to success, there still are a few who pursue higher studies in Hindi. But is this marginal increase in number of students pursuing Hindi a barometer of its growing popularity? Prabhat Ranjan, who teaches at Zakir Husain Delhi College (Delhi University), says, “The number of students is increasing, but serious students are not willing to pursue higher studies in Hindi. Day-by-day, the quality is deteriorating… students don’t show genuine interest in pursuing Hindi seriously.”
Vineet Kumar, assistant professor at Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar College, DU, sees a common downtrend in language studies in general, and not just Hindi. “The study of literature and language is mostly done by those who do not get admission in other subjects or courses,” adding, “The number of students pursuing Hindi has increased not because of a prospective career or interest in it, but because there is no other option for them. However, there are a small number of students who see literature as a subject and method of living life rather than just a course.”
Ranjan says what is taught in DU is not Hindi literature per se. “It is mostly Awadhi and Brajbhasha literature, and youth is not connecting with it. We are not teaching contemporary literature much. Students today are not connecting with Tulsidas, Surdas, etc, but we are still teaching their works because we don’t want to change the syllabus.” Vineet adds,“Earlier, in our times, study of literature included that of country, society, environment-related works and theories. Now the education is more syllabus-oriented and examination-centric.”
Ranjan says the university syllabus now includes some contemporary, popular Hindi writers, but spots a problem in it at the same time. “The problem is that students are taught by traditional people who cannot generate interest in contemporary literature.”
How much of a choice
Former journalist Sumita Verma, a Delhi resident, says, “Among my generation and my circle, Hindi remains the first choice of language.”
The fact that the Indian Readership Survey for the first quarter of 2019 shows Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran as the highest and second-highest most read dailies, respectively, corroborates her claim. Sumita says, “I am aware that Hindi readership has increased in recent times and so has the authorship in Hindi. Ironically, while it might be dominant in English, social media is playing a big role in marketing and promotion of Hindi books. We are seeing more and more English translations of Hindi writers and other Indian language writers.”
Vaishali Mathur, editor-in-chief, language publishing, Penguin Random House India, says, “If you visit a book fair, you will be surprised at how eager the Hindi reader is to buy new books. Students, families, book-lovers are all there to see the variety that the publishers put out. In genres like self-help and mind body spirit, biography and non-fiction, we see far more growth than other genres. History and religion are also in strong demand.”
Hindi has been the language of some of the greatest writers of all times, including Surdas, Munshi Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad, Bharatendu Harishchandra, Krishna Sobti, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and Devaki Nandan Khatri, among others, who have proudly used it as a medium to further their reformist agenda, and, in doing so, took it to an elevated level. However, till recently, Hindi literature was fighting a slump till the advent of digital media. Like all things rosy and glorious associated with a new medium, the rise of online publishing and social media appears to be inadvertently beneficial for Hindi authors and its readers, especially in the pulp fiction category.
Mathur is of the view that the craze for Hindi pulp fiction is here to stay. “Pulp fiction is popular, racy, easy and fast to consume and is often part of any reader’s initiation into Hindi writing. In pulp fiction, crime regularly forms the premise of the story.” Shailesh Bharatwasi, editor at Hind Yugm, a publisher of Hindi books, however, begs to differ — currently neither crime nor pulp fiction is in demand. “The most-selling category is new-age fiction consisting of romance, campus stories, village-based stories (depicting contemporary rural India) and travelogues. We call our new-age Hindi writing as Nayi Wali Hindi.” Satyanand Nirupam, editorial director of Rajkamal Prakashan Samooh, agrees, saying the changing trend in Hindi reading pattern is discernible. “The demand for non-fiction in Hindi has already increased. Travelogues, memoirs, autobiographies, history, historical fictions and books based on contemporary debates are enjoying all the attention now,” he says.
Readership of Hindi books has witnessed a tremendous increase in the past 10 years. “This is only because of e-commerce penetration in rural areas. As there was previously no centralised distribution system for Hindi books, it was difficult to expand your reach and get in touch with possible readers. It becomes easier with e-commerce,” says Bharatwasi.
Aditi Maheswari-Goyal, who heads the department of copyrights and translation at Vani Prakashan, sees the current readership base spread out in four linguistic belts — Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Maithili and Khadi Boli Hindi. “It is a very diverse group that is majorly expressing and consuming literature in mainstream or “mukhyadhara” Hindi belt. So, there is diversity as well as a sense of uniformity.”
Over the last decade, a large number of Hindi readers have migrated to online content. Much is expected from the field of e-books in terms of consumption and sales. Readers have begun discovering books online very rapidly.
Mathur considers social media as one of the biggest connects one has with the readers from smaller towns and cities as they do not always have a book store to browse new releases.
“This has made e-commerce sites also one of the main platforms from where the readers can buy. The discussions with readers often happen on Twitter and Facebook. Secondly, the Hindi reader looks forward to book fairs and literary festivals which provide them with an excellent opportunity not only to buy books but also to interact with their favourite authors.”
Bharatwasi’s approach to attract new readers is different from the former. “When you publish new authors, it adds new readers to your old sets of followers. I think this is the only way to connect new readers and increase your old followers.”
Politics of a language
While authors and publishers of Hindi literature are doing their bit to contribute to spreading and preserving the language, there still are many hurdles on the road to getting Hindi its due.
It was in 1918 that Mahatma Gandhi had called for Hindi to be given the status of the country’s national language. He had said all talks of a ‘swarajya’ would be meaningless unless Hindi was provided national language status and other regional languages were given their adequate importance.
Every year, September 14 is observed as Hindi Diwas because on this day in 1949, the Constituent Assembly had adopted Hindi written in Devanagari script as the official language of India. Seven decades on, Hindi has 551 million speakers in India, making it the largest spoken language. However, its evolution as a popular communication medium has often sparked controversies over alleged attempts to impose its supremacist regime over other Indian languages.
For politicians, it is hard to ignore Hindi’s electoral significance. The national language is believed to control the political fortune of the country as it is the Hindi heartland, spread over north and central parts, that decides who the next prime minister would be.
This year, on Hindi Diwas, Union home minister Amit Shah pitched for a common language for the country and said as Hindi is spoken the most, it can unite the whole country. The home minister also asked everyone to use their native languages as much as possible, but said efforts will be made to expand Hindi’s reach to different parts of the country. Shah’s pitch, however, met with strong opposition from other parties, who termed it as an imposition of the language.
Despite Hindi’s official status there is still a lack of unanimity on the positives of encouraging all citizens to acquire basic skills in the language. The recent resistance to the Centre’s three-language formula is testimony to the many challenges that lie ahead for making Hindi more acceptable in states where it is not the preferred communication medium. But despite the bitter resistance to Hindi in some parts of the country, it continues to be the most precious symbol of Indian identity.