For decades now, western Europe has seen little political violence. That is why images beamed from Spain on Sunday shocked the world. As Catalonia, a region in northeast Spain, prepared to hold a referendum for independence, central forces tried to stop it forcibly. Pictures showed an elderly woman with blood streaming down her face, policemen stamping on voters, and a brawl between Catalan fire-fighters and Spanish forces.
The Catalan discontent is driven by economic as well as cultural factors. The province is one of Spain’s wealthiest and subsidises other parts of the country. In spite of this, Catalonia feels slighted politically as well as culturally. The Catalan language has been suppressed by the central government, which has promoted Spanish to further national integration in a country of multiple ethno-linguistic identities. This represents a rather interesting parallel with India. Here too, the most-spoken language is the poorest: Hindi. Moreover, like in Spain, the Indian government sees benefit in promoting Hindi even where it is not spoken. India’s many non-Hindi states chafe at this cultural hegemony, which comes packaged with loss of political and economic power.
Catalan is a Romance language spoken in northeast Spain. Since the early 18th century, after Catalonia was conquered by Spain, Catalan has been suppressed in favour of Spanish. Matters came to a head after the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, when the fascist government of General Francisco Franco brutally imposed Spanish on Catalonia. Speaking Catalan was outlawed and even non-Spanish names were banned. Its position was further weakened by the migration of people from the poorer Spanish-speaking regions to wealthy Catalonia.
The Spanish situation is remarkably analogous to India, where the Hindi belt exerts greater control over the central government even while it is subsidised economically by non-Hindi states.
In India, the battle over language broke out almost immediately after the republic was formed in 1950. Under the British Raj, the presidencies of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras dominated economically. The Hindi belt was a backwater. Yet, in 1947, the Hindi bloc was the largest language group in the Constituent Assembly, and many leading politicians from North India wanted to make Hindi the sole national language. Not only was it a cultural battle, it was also economic. Making Hindi the sole national language would have meant shutting out non-Hindi speakers from central government employment, a highly lucrative source of income and power. In the end, a compromise was reached: English would remain an official language – thereby allowing the old Presidency elite to cling on to power – but Hindi would also be made an official language. This would enable a whole new class of people from North India to aspire to central government employment – an avenue closed to, say, Tamils or Marathis who wanted to take exams for central government jobs in their mother tongue.
Hindi imposition in India resulted in widespread riots in Tamil Nadu in 1965. Like in Spain, Hindi imposition also led to economic extraction. As detailed by the journalist Ranajit Roy, in 1961, for every Rs 100 collected by New Delhi in taxes from West Bengal – one of the most developed states at the time – the state only got back Rs 16.20, the lowest ratio across the Union. In contrast, Hindi-speaking Bihar got back Rs 182.80.
This financial imbalance continues to this day. In 2016, Tamil Nadu complained that the Union government was treating it “unfairly” and penalising “well-administered states like Tamil Nadu”. As in Catalonia, this economic grievance is intertwined with cultural issues. In April, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam attacked the Bharatiya Janata Party for imposing Hindi on Tamil Nadu, using devices such as road signage and movies. The Supreme Court’s ban on the ancient sport of Jallikattu last January also saw Tamil nationalists rise up in arms against what they saw as New Delhi’s interference in their cultural practices. Briefly, the #DravidaNadu hashtag trended on social media in June, resurrecting the Periyarist idea of an independent Dravidian nation.
In West Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee government has made the study of Bengali compulsory in schools. Telangana, Punjab, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra have similarly responded to anxieties over Hindi imposition by making the study of their state languages mandatory in schools. This has also meant that in states such as Karnataka, knowledge of Kannada is now compulsory for some jobs.
Federalism under strain
What makes the Catalan referendum an ever bigger red flag for India is that Catalonia enjoys special rights within Spain; the Catalans are even recognised as a nationality. Indian federalism, on the other hand, has no such safety valves. In 2016, as Parliament passed a new tax regime, the Goods and Services Tax, Tamil Nadu was bitterly opposed to it. The GST was implemented in the state nevertheless. All Tamil MPs could do was stage an ineffectual walkout from the Lok Sabha in protest as their concerns were overridden by majoritarian force.
Until now, India has been able to manage its linguistic and cultural diversity – but only just. Discontent might be bubbling underneath already.
The immediate spark for the rise in Catalan nationalism was the recession of 2008, as pockets were squeezed and Catalonia resented its money being used to subsidise other parts of Spain without any corresponding gain in political power. With a stumbling economy, abysmal development parameters and an exploding North Indian population, federal tensions in India might get similarly heightened. Already, measures by the central government such as the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test will likely make it difficult for Tamil- or Bengali-medium students to become doctors, worsening the dire job situation.
Testing times ahead
Currently, under the 42nd amendment to the Constitution, parliamentary seats are allotted to states according to the 1971 population census. This will remain so until at least 2026. So, for now, the rapid population growth of Hindi states is unrepresented in Parliament. Of course, this cannot be a permanent state of affairs and when the seats are revised after 2026, non-Hindi states such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, with low fertility rates, will see their proportion of MPs fall even as states with high fertility rates such as Uttar Pradesh see a sudden spike.
The United States got around this problem by giving small and big states equal representation in the upper chamber of its federal legislature, the Senate. India will also have to think of similarly creative power sharing solutions if it wants to prevent a Catalonia-like situation where economic grievances manifest into linguistic nationalism.