The outcry in certain quarters (particularly by the Opposition) over Meghalaya governor Ganga Prasad’s Hindi speech on the opening day of the state’s Budget Session on Friday is quite interesting to look into. It is easy to be drawn into false sides in the times we live in. Who said what needs to be carefully analysed before we make judgements. Should the governor have used Hindi instead of the preferred and more commonly used English to deliver his speech? I do not think so. He misjudged how sensitive people in Meghalaya and the North East can be about language. It exposes deep political scabs that should not be picked at. Was his use of Hindi an innocent mistake? Maybe it was. Perhaps the furore raised by the Opposition is a puerile tantrum by a Congress party still sore from being shoved aside (in government formation) by Prasad. Then again, maybe there are sinister underpinnings to his action.
One must remember that governorship is a tool used often by the Centre to effect the results it desires. Also keep in mind that the incumbent is a Right-Wing tool and this sort of cultural posturing (using Hindi everywhere and on every occasion) is what they like to do. But on a crucial level, it is just that – posturing. A governor giving a speech in Hindi does not translate to complete Sanskritisation, Hindification, saffronisation (pick a noun) of the entire state. It is a tremendous jump of the imagination to arrive at such a conclusion.
People are rightly anxious about what these BJP emissaries are doing and the political party’s record bears testament to its “one country, one identity, one armpit” (is that the slogan?) ideology. But in this instance, perhaps finding out more about the governor’s background should be the main point. Maybe he is more comfortable in Hindi, maybe he has an inferiority complex in front of the suave, silver-tongued tribals (oh happy day!), there are many possible alternative answers. We are being drawn into an essentially unwinnable fight, a social media fight, while the real issues – governance, social justice, empowerment – take a back seat again.
In a sense, the governor’s use of Hindi can also be seen as a desperate attempt by the BJP to brand this Meghalaya government, which is led by the National People’s Party, as their own. At the inauguration and swearing-in ceremony, many people commented on social media about how BJP flags were seen everywhere even though the party won just two seats in the 60-member Assembly. This sort of inflated brand image is what the BJP excels at. But this image is hyper-real and not founded on reality. Those who lament ceaselessly about these images should get offline more often. The ground is not so bleak and one-dimensional.
Of course, we do need to critique the governor’s motives but on the other hand, people are not so passive as to simply allow cultural hegemony to sweep over them. To regard people in that way is pessimistic and probably Machiavellian. People do not simply accept something just because some authority tells them to. I do not know who still thinks like this. It would be condescending to imply that our tribal people are innocent, simple, naive bumpkins, which I find troubling.
Now, the Opposition has said all sorts of things. As reported by Scroll.in, Congress legislator PT Sawkmie said the governor’s speech “will create a precedence as members will resort to the use of Khasi, Garo and Pnar languages in the days to come”. For Sawkmie, the use of local languages seems to be a bad thing. As someone who has attended an Assembly session and witnessed deliberations, I must say that many rural MLAs who are not from Shillong seem out of their element when pitted against their English medium-educated counterparts. Perhaps their inability to participate in debates or their lack of interest might be because they are unable to speak in their own languages.
For the benefit of the constituents, should we not encourage the inclusion and adoption of local languages in the Assembly? Is democracy a prerogative of the English-speaker only? I fail to see why MLAs using their own languages in the Assembly is a bad thing. There are a number of Garo, Khasi, Pnar translators who might also benefit from being employed within such as system. Another Opposition legislator, Adelbert Nongrum, actually pushed home this point and stated that he would start speaking in Khasi during Assembly proceedings. He should.
Congress legislator Ampareen Lyngdoh cited the governor’s mispronunciation of Garo Hills as “Gora Hills” as a sign that he did not respect the state’s culture and that his use of Hindi proved this. She might have a valid point here. A governor is expected to know the state of his/her jurisdiction. Prasad should have corrected his mistake as it happened; not doing so shows him in poor light.
However, all this aside, the main takeaway from this episode should be that the Opposition is determined to oppose vehemently. Now, whether the issues are genuine or simply protracted battles in culture wars, we will have to wait and see. I hope for our sake that it is the former.
Avner Pariat is a Khasi Jaintia poet based in Shillong. His latest collaboration, Open Me My Shadow, is available at Poetrywalla.