Last fortnight, Union Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, a Hindi speaker, announced that from now on, all details in the passport of a citizen of the Indian Union will be in Hindi, in addition to English. Currently, the cover page of the passport has Hindi while registration details, a “caution” note, a presidential order printed in the passport, and the various fields – type, country code, passport number, name, surname, nationality, sex, date and place of birth, date and place of issue, date of expiry, name of father/mother/spouse/legal guardian, address, old passport number with date and place of issue and file number – are all in Hindi. So what changes?

Now, the content to be provided in these fields will be in Hindi, in the Devanagari script. For example, the passport holder’s name and surname, under these fields, will be printed in Hindi. These details are at present printed only in English.

To justify the introduction of Hindi and Hindi only along with English, Swaraj said: “All Arab countries have their passport in Arabic, Germany makes it in German and Russia makes it in Russian. Why can’t we make it Hindi?”

Just 30% Hindi speakers

What Swaraj said makes perfect sense to people in places from where her party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, got more than 70% of its seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, that is, the Hindi-speaking states. However, it does not make sense to the majority of Indians who do not speak Hindi. Hindi is the mother tongue of less than 30% of India’s citizens and that too after many independent languages in the so-called Hindi belt are counted as Hindi dialects even when they are not. Thus, when Swaraj says “why can’t we make it Hindi?”, the “we” does not stand for all Indian citizens. “We” are the Hindi-speaking citizens of the Indian Union. By equating that minority with the rest of us, she obliterates any stake the rest of us, the majority, have in any idea of “we”.

Compared to the less than 30% Hindi-speaking people in India, more than 95% people in Germany speak German as their first language, and over 96% of people of the Russian Federation speak Russian. So, when Swaraj compares India to Russia or Germany, she either has in mind, at best, only the Hindustan area of the Indian Union, or worst, what she wants the Indian Union to become. Majoritarianism is bad enough. A minority espousing majoritarianism is a delusional recipe for disaster, apart from the indignity such ideologies mete out to non-Hindi linguistic nationalities of the Indian Union. What is interesting though about Swaraj’s cited examples of German in Germany and Russian in Russia is that she understands that it is language that makes a nation. But pushing that simple and obvious understanding in the Indian Union’s case would mean multiple sovereign linguistic nations. And that is where the brute assertion and imposition of Hindi by the Hindi-speaking minority makes its power felt.

If Sushma Swaraj had taken her eyes away from these practically monolinguistic nations to nearby Sri Lanka, she would have seen that Tamil along with Sinhalese and English is embossed on the passport cover, even though Sinhala is the mother tongue of 74.9% of people there. She could have studied another multilingual formation (it is hard to call it a nation) like Switzerland, whose passport has five languages on its cover (Switzerland’s population is 8.2 million, India’s is 1.31 billion). Thus, feasibility is not an issue.

Swaraj said she had received several complaints that the content in the passport fields was only in English. She did not go into details about who these complainants were or what their mother tongue was. Still, one should take her statement at face value. Who are these citizens who complained that they faced problems with an English-detail-only passport and wanted Hindi to make up for that? What is the likelihood that they were Hindi speakers, because I cannot imagine a Tamil or a Bengali wanting his name to be printed in Hindi and not in Tamil or Bangla because he has some problem with English? Does this mean that if non-Hindi-speaking citizens also complain to the Ministry of External Affairs, they, too, shall get their languages added to their passports – because I am assuming that Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi-speaking citizens have equal rights to understanding the contents of their passports and the minister for external affairs represents Hindi speakers as much as she represents Kannadigas or Bengalis? Non-Hindi speakers have already started showing their displeasure with the government’s decision by tweeting and emailing the ministry. But Swaraj has not shown the same earnestness in responding to their complaints.

An Indian passport already has Hindi on its cover while the language is also used to denote the various fields inside, such as name, address and other personal details. The contents of these fields, though, are currently only printed in English. (Credit: YouTube)

A political decision

Hindi in passports would serve no purpose at immigration checkpoints, where English is the internationally understood language. So is this move then solely to help India’s Hindi-speaking citizens understand the details in their passports? If so, do the non-Hindi-speaking citizens not have the right? Why can’t a Bengali or Odia citizen chose Bangla or Odia (along with English) as his/her passport language while applying for it? The technology exists. It is feasible. Denial of equal linguistic rights and imposing Hindi on non-Hindi speakers is not a technocratic decision. It is a political decision.

Other expressions of this political decision are the repeated assertion by BJP ministers that Hindi is our national language. It is not. It never was. But see how it sounds. Super Indian nationalistic, right? Now, if I say Bengali is my national language, how does that sound? Almost anti-national? The way these two completely equivalent assertions have come to sound so different is the old project of ethno-cultural flattening called Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. The Hindi in passports is just the latest expression of this.

A passport is a brand stuck to a person – not unlike how chattel (personal possessions) was branded by owners. The language of branding was the language of the owner, the ruler, the master. In the case of the Indian Union, it is Hindi, which is as foreign to non-Hindi speakers as English is, as the Gujarat High Court has observed. Still, unconstitutional assertions about Hindi being the national language continue.

The world over, nations are linguistic entities. Some of them have sovereign states, some do not. The Indian Union certifies itself to be a nation. It is surely a sovereign state but not necessarily a nation in the sense Germany or Russia are. It is a union of multiple nations, like the United Kingdom or Spain. This is the reality that Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan nationalists want to obliterate. The continued survival of non-Hindi languages inspires their marginalisation and the imposition of Hindi as the biggest vehicle of this political project of cultural and linguistic ethnocide in the service of an imperial vision of Indian nationhood. While non-Hindi-speaking Indian citizens have not signed up to this project, it does not stop the government from misrepresenting its diverse polity, such that what Russian is to Russia becomes Hindi in the case of the Indian Union. Thus, Hindi Day is observed in Indian consulates across the world, never Tamil Day or any other day. Thus, Indian consulates provide Hindi study classes and scholarships to foreign citizens – never Bangla or Telugu classes or scholarships. The Ministry of External Affairs has specific posts for Hindi speakers but not for speakers of any other language. The structural conspiracy is quite deep. This seems to be working outside the Indian Union as more and more heads of state now greet Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Hindi on social media.

Hindi can never represent me in any way or be my face to the world. I am a Bengali citizen of the Indian Union. My Bengali ancestors of West Bengal chose to join the Indian republic with a certain obvious understanding – the guarantee of equal opportunity for all linguistic backgrounds and no special favours for or discrimination against any specific language. New Delhi has broken that agreement right from 1947. Since 2014, the pace of that process has taken the form of a deluge that aims to obliterate the Union’s pluralistic character. New Delhi is breaking its part of the deal and pushing the envelope on Hindi hegemony. In reaction, forces are being unleashed that New Delhi will find difficult, if not impossible, to contain. Islamabad learned that lesson very bitterly in the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war.