In a sharp break from the tradition of not privileging one Indian language or script over the other, the use of Devanagari numerals on the new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes is the first such instance in India’s post-Independence history.

The departure from the past has already triggered a murmur of resentment against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government, which is perceived to have slyly resorted to cultural imposition through the introduction of new notes.

“The demonetisation has also proved to be a cultural opportunity,” wrote Pulapre Balakrishnan acidly in his piece, The New Colour of Money, in The Hindu, on Friday. Balakrishnan was referring to what has always been the project of the BJP – to establish the complete dominance of Hindi with the Devanagari script all over India.

A purification at play

Until now, Indian currency notes have had the note’s denomination written in English and Hindi on one side and in 15 of India’s 22 official languages on the obverse side. However, only Arabic numerals have been used thus far.

A spokesperson for the Reserve Bank of India, which issues currency notes, confirmed that Devanagari numerals have been used for the first time in currency notes. The spokesperson said the central bank had merely implemented the Finance Ministry’s decision. The new notes were introduced overnight on November 9, replacing the old high-value Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes that have ceased to be legal tender.

A professor of economics at Ashoka University in Sonepat, Haryana, Balakrishnan wrote in the Hindu, “In his speech [on November 8] the Prime Minister had invoked the metaphor of a purification of the economy by rooting out black money. But another form of purification can be espied in the action.”

Pointing to the Devanagari numerals in the new banknotes, Balakrishnan lamented, “It is a first. India’s founding fathers had avoided privileging any one language.”

But Balakrishnan isn’t the only one to lament the departure from tradition.

V Arasu, a Tamil scholar who taught for years at the University of Madras, told that the presence of Devanagari numerals on the new banknotes had not gone unnoticed.

“People in South India are already talking about the sudden appearance of Devanagari numerals on the high-denomination currency notes,” he said. “What was the need to prioritise the Devanagari script over the rest? There wasn’t even a demand for it.”

Cultural haste

Balakrishnan told that the Devanagari numerals came as a shocker to him as it summarily set aside Indian parliamentary procedure.

“India’s democratic ethos recognised the linguistic diversity of the country and used symbols in a way that no linguistic group would feel privileged,” he said. “On the one hand, there is our democratic ethos. On the other, you have the Constitution which empowers the government to take the step [on currency notes] it has. By the same token, I have the right to protest. And I have protested [through the Hindu piece].”

Balakrishnan said he is a man of economics, a discipline that emphasises the materialistic aspect of life. “But I am also a cultural being, I have sensitivities,” he said. “The government has shown a great cultural haste in adopting Devanagari numerals.”

In other words, the use of Devanagari numerals is nothing less than publicly privileging one of India’s several linguistic groups.

Though sceptical of the politics of identity, Balakrishnan said a democratic state must be conscious of the sensitivity of communities. “For instance, you can’t allow public banks to organise Saraswati puja on its premises,” he argued.

Tamil scholar Arasu thought that the use of Devanagari numerals is symbolic of the BJP’s intent to establish the domination of Sanskrit.

“The Devanagari script is used by what is known as the Indian-European group of languages,” he said. “It is not so by the Dravidian languages. We in South India can’t accept it.”

This is precisely why Arasu thinks the new currency notes do not augur well for the “integrity of India, for nationalism”.

Old battles revived?

There has always been a battle between nationalists who wanted India to become a version of the European nation-state, which extols the idea of one territory, one religion, one language, and those who wanted the emerging Indian nation to recognise and respect its own bewitching diversity.

The forbearers of the Sangh Parivar’s age-old slogan of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan belonged to the first category, which also consisted of a substantial section of the Hindu Right in the Congress.

Mahatma Gandhi represented the second category. His towering personality and the mass movements he spearheaded pushed the proponents of homogeneity to the margins of Indian politics.

As the Hindu Readers’ Editor, AS Panneerselvan, an avid observer of the Dravidian movement, told, “Late 19th and early 20th centuries marked a particular phase of our polity where social movements strove hard to create space for an egalitarian co-existence of ideas and identities. It was a tough battle against homogeneity.”

Indeed, the tough battle continued well into the early decades after India won Independence. For instance, when the Congress seemed to renege on its promise of reorganising states on the basis of language, there was an outbreak of public fury. The Congress was compelled to accept the linguistic principle to carve out new states from the provinces inherited from the British Raj.

Language became an incendiary issue once again in 1965. It was the year in which the simultaneous use of Hindi and English for official transactions was to end, much to the mortification of people in South India.

A furious debate ensued between the supporters of Hindi and those belonging to the Dravidian movement, which was led by the irrepressible and incomparable CN Annadurai, popularly known as Anna, or older brother.

In his book, India After Gandhi, historian Ramachandra Guha writes,

“In Anna’s opinion Hindi was merely a regional language like any other. It had no ‘special merit’; in fact, it was less developed than other Indian tongues, less suited to a time of rapid advances in science and technology.”

Most found it hard to counter the argument that Hindi must become the official language of communication because it was spoken by maximum number of people.

Not Annadurai, who, in his characteristic acerbic style, remarked,

“If we had to accept the principle of numerical superiority while selecting the national bird, the choice would have fallen not on the peacock but on the common crow.”

Ultimately, violent protests persuaded Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Prime Minister at that time, to work out a compromise. Among other things, Shastri agreed that every state had the freedom to decide in which language it wished to conduct its business, that non-Hindi states could communicate with the Centre in English, and that English would continue to be used for conducting official business at the Central level.

Such sagacious compromises helped weld India.

However, the use of Devanagari numerals in the new notes suggests the proponents of homogeneity are eager to assert themselves.

This is why Panneerselvan lamented, “It is really worrying that we are losing our hard won diversity, elements of which we are losing one by one, in this restrictive democracy of the majoritarian will.”

That the BJP should seek to execute its agenda silently and slyly further compounds the worry.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.