VD Savarkar, widely considered the father of Hindu nationalism, played a crucial role in reifying the dominant upper-caste narratives through not only his views on Hindutva but through the category of language as well. Savarkar was invested in the debates surrounding Hindi in North India and actively supported Sanskritised Hindi over the dhedgujri (barbarous mixture) of Hindustani.

Taking a cue from his fatherland and holy land description of Hindutva philosophy, Savarkar extended this logic to the world of languages as well. For him, all the languages which originated and were then spoken in India became a part of what he called the Hińdu Bhāshā Sangha. Marathi was seen as an important language of this exclusive group.

Being an active proponent of language purification especially since the 1920s, Savarkar wrote a definitive book on the subject titled Marāthi bhāsheche shuddhikaran. This book was published in 1926 but portions of the text were earlier published in the form of articles in Tilak’s popular newspaper Kesari.

Even though Tilak’s understanding of a religion-induced mass politics differed from Savarkar’s, they shared their concern for preserving the aesthetic value of a pure version of Marathi. The following analysis draws its observations from the third edition of the book published in 1958, with the title Bhāshā Shuddhikaran, brought out by the Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Sanskriti Mandal.

Image Source: Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya and Sankruti Mandal, 1958

Interestingly, the cover page of this edition resoundingly captures Savarkar’s exalted place in the history of Marathi language purification in modern Maharashtra. The first half includes Shivaji, who is projected as the father of the language purification mission. The main reason for this is that he carries a text in his hand titled Rājyavyavahār Kosh, originally written by Pandit Raghuvir, who was a member in Shivaji’s administrative group.

Throughout his writing, Savarkar urges his readers to see this text as the starting point of the drive for Marathi language purification. Next to the picture of Shivaji is a scroll which says, “Now you must follow this noble work of language purification”. The “you” in this statement is Savarkar, who is sitting at his study desk in the bottom half of the cover page, having already started his work on making Marathi “pure” again.

The vertical alignment of these pictures is testament to how the continuation of this noble work has been handed over to Savarkar directly by Shivaji. As Savarkar reiterates early on in his text, “Pandit Raghuvir’s Mahākosh should be taken as the official word on language purification by the Hindu bhasha sangha”.

Urging for a purge

It is important to note that the term Hindu bhāshā Sañgha gains its credence only by anchoring its source in Sanskrit. He emphasises this repeatedly by terms like Sanskrit Nishta Shabda and Sanskrutotbhav Hindu Bhasha. This is significant as it brings forth the key difference between Shivaji and Savarkar’s idea of everyday usage of a Sanksritised Marathi. Shivaji’s quest was to make the Sankritised Marathi the language of his administration, but Savarkar took it one step further by working toward making this language the primary basis for everyday societal affairs.

As Krishna Kshorsagar mentions in the preface, Savarkar seems to have been influenced by the peculiarities of language purification and specifically the tussle between the binary of Sanskritised Hindi and Hindustani in the United Provinces. However, he makes it clear that Marathi must refrain from using even distinctly Hindi words in its everyday communications as it can create “intra-regional” issues of language purification.

Savarkar’s basic definition of Bhāshāshuddhi states how, apart from the Hindu Bhasha Sangha, both old and new non-Hindu words must not be used unnecessarily. The way he sees it, their gradual intrusion into the Marathi language and their propensity to hide like thieves in the corpus of Marathi literature over the years has helped normalise their superiority in everyday communications. For Savarkar, this normalisation needs to be confronted as Urdu is nothing but a vikrut (loathsome) and mlechhākrut (barbarian) form of Hindi.

However, it is important to note that Savarkar acknowledges the existence of Farsi, Arabi and Pashto as different languages, but lumps all of these into the word “Urdu” to make the arguments more accessible for his readers. This point is crucial as Savarkar claims early on in his text that unlike the English, Musalmāns do not belong to one single country.

By giving the example of Turkey’s Farsi-based nationalism, he acknowledges the shift from a religion-induced language (Arabi’s hold on religious discourse) to a nationalism-induced language. Even if Savarkar critiques the folly and fantasy of a religion-induced nature of Pan-Islamism, he is wary of nationalist languages like Farsi, along with its similarities with Urdu and Arabi, for he believes they have turned Hindi and subsequently Marathi into impure languages.

So, in order to navigate through this alien language intrusion, Savarkar suggests that Hindus need to understand the functional approach of Muslim invaders with language. He asserts that as the invaders lacked the greatness of the Hindu Bhasha Sangha, they had to rely on learning the language with their own linguistic sensibilities, instead of waging a war against it. Rather than removing the alien words, the drive was to continue with the shuddhikaran of these words as was started by the ancestors.

A Marathi focus

At the same time, Savarkar poses a caveat, especially to the Marathi- and Kannada-speaking people in the South, to not project everything spoken in the North as Musalmāni bhasha. This is because Musalmāns speak nothing but the language of the “Hindu’s Hindi”. The challenge is to identify and jettison the Parkiya (alien) words from the Swakiya (self) corpus.

Along with the assertion of an etymological purity, Marathi was also said to be different from the Yavani Bhāshā in terms of both aural effects and rhythmic intonations. It was said to be powerful (jorāchè), compact (jomāche) and demonstrative (daulāche) as compared to the humdrum phase of the Yavani invasion. One prime example of the corrupted form of public entertainment is identified as the Shāhiri Kavitā (ballads) because of its use of the mlechha words.

Historically, the word “mlechha” has always been used in a deeply pejorative sense for the Dalit community. In this case, even in terms of language, there is a concomitance between using Dalits and mlechha as a cultural synonym with their “natural” position in the social hierarchy. This point is crucial to understand Savarkar’s caste-induced perception of appreciating creativity. At the same time, it also highlights Savarkar’s role in reifying a pure Sanskritised Marathi as opposed to the more convoluted register of Marathi typified by the emergence of Ambedkari Jalsas from the 1930s.

Savarkar postulates several reasons why the intrusion of alien words has remained intact in Marathi over the years. One reason is that Hindi, which Savarkar proudly claims to be above all languages, had become a haven for alien words to reside clandestinely. Right from the Puranic period of Todarmal to contemporaries like Lala Lajpat Rai, Hindus have fallen prey to the false consciousness of using Farsi, Pashto and Arabi as signposts of knowledge accumulation, asserts Savarkar.

However, in the case of Maharashtra, Savarkar claims that after Shivaji, it was English and not Urdu which took precedence as the most intrusive alien language, especially in the 19th century. As Vishnushashtri Chiplunkar directed his diatribe solely toward English, Savarkar rationalises this narrative by claiming that the threat of Urdu reemerged only by the early 20th century.

This narrative helps Savarkar redeem himself in the context of explaining his absence from the nationalist politics as he “devoted” most of his time to the noble work of language purification. Savarkar underscores the significance of this resurgence by stating how the movement was originally Shivaji’s, whom followers like him were merely imitating.

A new vocabulary

Interestingly, Savarkar provides a detailed list of a Bhāshā Shuddhi Shabdakosh at the end of his book. Some of the words were just being retrieved from the old Marathi canon, whereas most of the words included here are Savarkar’s own suggestions. Divided into sections, Savarkar provides a slew of alternate Marathi words for the existing English and Urdu words under broad categories like “Education, War, Occupation, technology, behaviour, politics, geography & movies”. Some interesting words included in this dictionary include:

  • lecturer: pravācāk
  • reader: prapathak
  • washing centre: Dhaval kendra, nirmal kendra, parit gruha
  • hair-cutting saloon: keshkartanalaya
  • buffer state: kilakrashtra
  • number: kramānk
  • date: dinānk
  • up-to-date: adyavāt
  • date: dinānk
  • up-to-date: adyavāt
  • martyr: hutātmā
  • plebiscite: sarvamat
  • ultimatum: antimotar
  • truce: upasandhi
  • telephone: durdhvani
  • loudspeaker: dhvanikshepak
  • teleprinter: durmudrak
  • mayor: mahapaur

If used consciously in our everyday communication, Savarkar believes these would seamlessly become a part of our everyday vocabulary in a couple of months. This is a crucial step towards Savarkar’s ultimate language fantasy which says, “Our metrical and non-metrical compositions will become a part of the similar forms of the mature Hindi and Bengali compositions as, some time in the future, all the Sanskrit-born languages will get suffused into one single form called the ‘Hindu language’.” Reading this fantasy of a “Hindu language” only through the prism of political Hinduism will be insufficient insofar as it prevents us from forming a direct co-relation between language and caste.

Surajkumar Thube is a DPhil student at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.