Hindi Nationalism

Author: Alok Rai

129 pgs., Orient Longman, 2000

As a young boy from a south Indian family being brought up in north India I still remember my puzzlement at what exactly the ‘Hindi’ language was all about. While on one hand much of the local population spoke its own lingo — Bundelkhandi – the ‘Hindi’ that was taught in my school was quite different from the ‘Hindi’ I heard in the Bollywood movies. Adding to the confusion was that learning ‘Hindi’ was easier for me with my Sanskritised Tamil background than for many of my classmates from the northern Indian states! And then of course was the conundrum of what exactly was Urdu — was it really a different language or was it invented to sing ghazals, and organize mushairas ?

In his very absorbing and important work of cultural analysis titled ‘Hindi Nationalism’, Alok Rai not only clears up such confusions but also explains the pernicious politics of defining, redefining, refining and ultimately defiling Hindi as played out in the cow belt states over the last century and a half. At another level Rai, who just happens to be the legendary Premchand’s grandson, neatly links up the history of linguistic battles in northern India with the contemporary rise of political Hindutva and points out the reasons why English-speaking, westernised, Nehruvian ‘secularists’ fail to contain this menace.

To begin with, Rai goes back in history to the days prior to the carefully contrived debate between ‘Hindi’ and ‘Urdu’ when the two had not yet acquired distinct ‘identities’ and were indistinguishable as the most popularly spoken language of the northern Indian states. Born out of a long process of fusion of cultures, local and foreign influences as well as the daily creative talents of the common citizen, Hindi and Urdu were but two names of the same language.

In tracing the ‘original sin’ that led to the schizophrenic split in the Hindi-Urdu unity, Rai’s research naturally goes back to the early days of British colonial rule around the turn of the eighteenth century when a British surgeon and self-styled linguist named John Borthwick Gilchrist took up the task of teaching ‘Hindoostanee’ to newly appointed officers of the East India Company. The College of Fort William set up in 1800, where

Gilchrist was appointed Professor of Hindustani, brought together a staff of Indian scholars and translators who took upon themselves the onerous task of defining what the language was really all about.

Avoiding the cliched charge of adopting a deliberate ‘divide and rule’ policy against Gilchrist, Rai nevertheless points out how his attempts (aided by local zealots) to restore the language to its imagined ‘pre-Mughal’ form ended up in turning out all the Arabic and Persian words in Hindustani and substituting Sanskrit ones. In the words of one historian quoted in Rai’s monograph, “The British — set out to ‘discover’ something which science told them had to be there; not surprisingly, they ‘succeeded’ and soon generated a vast and consequential literature of grammars, dictionaries and lexicographies”.

Once initiated, this construction of a ‘pure’ Hindustani, like a predictable science-fiction monster, took a life of its own. Aided, abetted and fiercely nurtured by self-appointed guardians of the language from the savarna castes of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, this process finally laid the foundations of the unintelligible, highly Sanskritised ‘Hindi’ that has mistakenly been foisted on the Indian people as their ‘national language’. (While still marginally better than contemporary ‘Zee TV Hindi’ which uses phrases like “Pradhaan Mantri ney Parliament mey Vote of Thanks present kiya” or the notorious “Hamey banana hey” of Rajiv Gandhi, there are few – familiar with the living languages of northern India – who would not throw up when our Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani starts off in his ultra-puritanical ‘Hindi’.)

Tragically enough, in a classic example of how one fundamentalism feeds off another, the systematic attempts to de-Persianise and de-Arabicise Hindustani also provoked similar efforts to de-Sanskritise Urdu within sections of the Muslim elites. Ironically, it is this highly Arabicised and incomprehensible ‘Urdu’, that has become the national language of Pakistan and is a mirror image of the highly Sanskritised ‘Hindi’ in the Indian context.

Rai very interestingly points out that in its early stages, in the first half of the nineteenth century, not all of the emerging competition between ‘Hindi’ and ‘Urdu’ was about zealotry. There was, intertwined within this emerging lingusitic battle, also the valid struggle to replace the Persian script– used by the old Mughal rulers and understood only by a minority of both Muslims and Hindus– by the more widely used Nagari (Devanagari) as the language of administration and courts in northern Indian provinces.

Over a period of time, however, it was this campaign to oust Persian and open up employment opportunities for those familiar with Nagari that coalesced with the resentment of the Hindu savarna castes against political and economic domination by the Awadh ‘Muslim’ elite. The roots of the modern ‘Hindu-Muslim’ divide, cunningly exploited by colonial administrators and continued to this day by successive Indian governments were thus embedded in the controversy over language and indeed became part of common vocabulary itself.

Amidst all this depressing history of the decline of the composite culture and lifestyle that large parts of pre-British India was justly famous for, Rai points out, the one movement that could have still nipped the emerging menace of religious sectarianism in its bud was the 1857 War of Independence. But the defeat of the rebels and the massacres of thousands of innocent civilians that the British carried out in reprisal, Rai says, only exacerbated the divide with both the post-1857 Hindu and Muslim elites competing with each other to prove their ‘loyalty’ to their now well-entrenched British ‘masters’.

Comparing these massacres to the Nazi Holocaust, Rai tellingly points out that the only difference between the two events was that in the case of 1857 the ‘Nazis won the war’ and the “surviving victims were condemned to living with the victorious victimisers: the ‘guilt’ of 1857 was visited solely on the victims, while the vengeful victors became also the party of virtue, of progress and modernity”.

One result of the terror unleashed by the vengeful British rulers was that members of the Hindu savarna castes, who formed the bulk of the early Hindi/Nagari agitations, sought to distinguish themselves from the Muslims who had been so ‘unforgivingly disloyal’ in 1857. When Raja Shiva Prasad, one of the early protagonists of Hindi/Nagari, petitioned the British government on behalf of Nagari in 1868 he sought to assure the rulers that the Hindu middle-class would be happy to accept the domination of the ‘fair-complexioned’. “Never will it be safe to leave any district without a fair-complexioned head. It is not the excess but rather the dearth of the fair-complexioned that we have to complain of”. (Raja Shiva Prasad could have been Jaswant Singh, our erstwhile foreign minister talking to his new masters in the United States on behalf of the ‘Hindutva’ middle-classes !)

Rai’s account of the debates in the immediate period after Indian Independence over making Hindi the national language, the anti-Hindi agitation in non-Hindi speaking states and the proliferation of ‘Hindiwallahs’ out to preserve the ‘purity’ of ‘Hindi’ will be familiar to most readers. However, while deploring the repressed, upper-caste nature of official ‘Hindi’, Rai also poses an important question whether the current dominance of English as the language of the privileged is really sustainable.

“English is too much the language of privilege, it is too visible a symbol of a ruling elite whose social base and claim to legitimacy is becoming ever narrower and ever more untenable. English cannot break out of its narcissistic confinement, its historical complicity with a scavenging elite”.

One way out of this dilemma he suggests is to adhere to the goal of democratic and participative citizenship by first implementing governance in different parts of India in the local languages. Very importantly he concludes that in the Hindi heartland, using this principle, means using all the variants of Hindi such as Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithili etc., and not the same old Sanskritised ‘Hindi’ of the upper-caste, urban elites. The needs of communication between different regions he avers will ensure, in the longer term, the emergence of some common language that could be ‘something like Hindi’. But this process cannot even begin till the imposter Advani’s ‘Hindi’ stands in the way!

— Sundaram