language politics

It’s time for the government to stop spreading the lie that Hindi is India’s ‘national language’

It's time to remember that the Constitution specifically avoids such a term.

Last month, the Union government celebrated Hindi pakhwara, or Hindi fortnight, a countrywide mandatory celebration of Hindi at government offices, Public Sector Undertakings, educational institutions and agencies like the Indian Space Research Organisation and National Brain Research Centre that lasted two weeks.

When the celebrations started on Hindi Day, September 14, the hashtag #HindiDivas (Hindi Day) in Devanagari, started trending on Twitter, with most tweets linked to this hashtag coming from Hindi-speaking cities. Almost simultaneously another hashtag, #GOIMakeMyLanguageOfficial, started trending strongly from non-Hindi speaking cities.

These tweets highlighted instances of how rampant Hindi imposition has been taking place for years in non-Hindi speaking areas, how a citizen whose mother tongue is Hindi enjoyed a huge advantage over non-Hindi speaking citizens in terms of government jobs, exams, services and access to information, and how, non-Hindi speaking peoples of the Union are being relegated to the status of second-class citizens. The protestors demanded that all the 21 other languages with official language status be made official languages of the Indian Union alongside Hindi and English.

Linguistic inequality

This might seem to be an odd demand to make on Hindi Day, and some may feel that the demands are inspired by a hatred of Hindi. However, Hindi Day is not a cultural festival. It is celebrated to mark the day when Hindi was made the official language of the Indian Union, thus giving legal stamp to the unequal status of various other languages in the country. It is from this special official status of Hindi that the legal basis of its imposition on non-Hindi speaking people and concomitant discrimination of non-Hindi speaking peoples arise. Basically, Hindi Day is linguistic inequality day.

This special official status for Hindi has been subsequently used by the Union government to propagate the lie that Hindi is the country’s “national language” when it is not.

The Constitution specifically avoids such a term because it tacitly acknowledges that the Indian Union is an agglomeration of ethno-linguistic nationalities that have their own languages. Still, the “Hindi is our national language” lie is peddled by all and sundry – from senior Union government ministers to National Council of Educational Research and Training textbooks to government-issued Hindi advertisements in non-Hindi media.

There is no hue and cry about this blatant Hindification from quarters that are otherwise vocal about saffronisation. This is neither conspiratorial nor accidental, but structural. It reflects on the unstated imperial ideology that views the Indian Union as essentially a Hindi state, with other languages potential disruptors of its unity.

This ideology was reflected in Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement on Hindi Day when he said: “Hindi has been accepted by us as our national language”.

Who is this “us” he refers to, and when the majority of Indian citizens do not understand Hindi, which nation was he talking about?

Singh hinted at the steadily rising calls against Hindi imposition that have surfaced in reaction to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government’s stringent Hindi imposition policy when he talked about those who are “trying to create a rift in different parts of the country in the name of language”.

National and anti-national

This is the classic motif where Hindi is the uniter and those asking for equal rights are creating a rift, when Hindi is national and those against Hindi imposition are anti-national. Even government-owned undertakings propagate such messages. For instance, on Hindi Day, the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited tweeted that Hindi is “a language that unites the nation”.

BJP minister CP Singh, while claiming that “Hindi is our national language”, said on Hindi Day that no other language in the world can take the place of Hindi. These are the signals that inspire people like Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Ashwini Upadhyay who filed a Public Interest Litigation during the fortnight devoted to celebrating Hindi seeking that Hindi be declared the national language.

Though the plea was withdrawn after the court said that the Constitution did not provide for any “national language”, the Union government counsel told the court that the plea was “premature”. The use of that term betrays the government’s long-term designs.

With the official language department being under the home ministry, it is also clear the Union government treats language as an internal security issue. The maintenance of Hindi dominance as a national security priority and viewing calls for equality as a threat to national security echoes the attitude of Urdu imperialists to calls for linguistic equality in undivided Pakistan.

It is imperialism that divides people by preferential linguistic propagation policies. This was apparent in the constituent Assembly too, when RV Dhulekar, a member from Uttar Pradesh, said: “People who don’t know Hindustani have no right to stay in India”.

This anti-pluralist ideology continues to shape politics and policy in its overt and covert forms.

Celebrating diversity

Almost as a counterpoint to the imperial philosophy that inspires celebrations like Hindi Day, came the European Day of languages on September 26. This event is an official celebration in the European Union and is commemorated to raise awareness of the wide variety of languages in Europe and promote cultural & linguistic diversity. It celebrates over 200 European languages, 24 official EU languages, about 60 regional or minority languages and more.

The government of India can learn a thing or two from the European Day of Languages by looking at the reality of the Indian Union with its multiple languages. In India, the “unity in diversity” slogan is more often than not a cover for obliterating diversity by branding it as a threat to unity. It should remember that there can be no unity at the cost of diversity and dignity in a multi-lingual, Hindi-minority Indian Union.

Garga Chatterjee is a brain scientist.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.