Hindi: First Among Equals

In August 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister of India, spoke in the Lok Sabha about the language issue, detailing out what was to become the strategy for imposing Hindi all over India - i.e., quietly, with sufficient deception and nice-talk, and with enough portrayal of a great concern and appreciation for all Indian languages. Said Nehru:
I do think that all the fourteen languages mentioned in our Constitution are our national languages - not Hindi only, but all the fourteen languages. Hindi, not because of any linguistic superiority, but because it is spread over a larger area and for various reasons and facility and the rest, we have said, should be an all-India language; it should become an all-India language gradually and, after a certain period, for official purposes. But, all are national languages. We want to encourage them. And I am convinced that the encouragement of one language in India leads to the encouragement of others. The outlook that we can encourage one language by crushing others is completely wrong from any point of view - literary, or linguistic point of view. In this matter, for instance, I feel that any kind of application, letter or petition of any kind can be presented to courts: it can be done in any of the fourteen languages of India and no court will reject it. It may be, of course, that the court may be unable to deal with it if it is totally unaware of it because no court can keep fourteen translators. That does not matter. It is a matter of convenience. But, a court in Delhi has to accept an application put in Malayalam or Tamil or Telugu or Kannada. Let them get it translated. Maybe, it will delay matters. But it is none of your business to say that you cannot get it. It is one of our national languages.

Nehru with Pamela Mountbatten.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

The first thing to notice is the way Nehru basically tries to startle his political opponents - burst their bubble, so to say - by granting the same appellation to "all the fourteen languages". He is basically saying "Hey, who said Hindi is different? Every one of the fourteen languages mentioned in the Constitution is a national language". Given how naive and outnumbered his political opponents must have been in the lok sabha, it would have come as a great relief to many that even their language has been given the same appellation as Hindi, although the Constitution itself does not mention Nehru's verbal largesse. If Nehru had raised his voice even a little while saying "all the fourteen languages", it would by itself have sent the grey cells of his political opponents to a standby mode. I don't know that he did raise his voice, but he could have, just like his daughter did later, and his daughter's sons did later, and his daughter's son's wife did later, and his daughter's son's son is doing today.

Next, there's this admission that Hindi does not have linguistic superiority over the thirteen other Indian languages. First of all, the term linguistic superiority is meaningless, and one can talk only of literary superiority. The former term would imply the attaching of superiority or inferiority to linguistic features - such as Hindi's attribution of gender to inanimate objects - which is indifferentiable from racism. We don't know what Nehru had in mind, but we will give him the benefit of doubt, given his own admission in his autobiography that he doesn't have a clue about language or grammar.

In any case, his talk of Hindi not having linguistic superiority is a double-edged sword. The first edge seeks to praise the languages of his political opponents - raise them to an illusory high status right there in the lok sabha and make Hindi look like any other language so that the dominator appears no different from the dominated. The second edge seeks to snub any superiority that his political opponents can claim for their languages - such as literary superiority which can at least somewhat be measured (by, for e.g., the number of books published per language per year). By snubbing any superiority that his opponents can claim about their languages, Nehru is simply seeking to avoid the danger of the debate going in the direction of choosing a language with a provable superiority of some kind to replace Hindi. Now I don't write this to say that such a language should be made India's national language, because I don't think there's any need for one language to be given any special status in India. I write this to say that Nehru was only trying to avoid debate and discussion and push his agenda.

Then, Nehru says that because of its larger spread and "various reasons and facility and the rest," he would like Hindi to be an all-India language, and after a certain period the official language. Let's understand this. First, look at the mere verbiage in "various reasons" and "and the rest" - meaningless words which are used to simply prolong the discourse for those who consider prolonged discourses as scholarly and meaningful. The "facility" reason is also equally dubious. Facility for what? Facility to achieve what? Nobody knows or cares, nor is there anything solid behind that word.

The only thing coming close to qualifying as a reason given is Hindi's larger spread. What he is saying is that because Hindi has a larger spread, it must spread  more and become an all-India language. So we see here a clear agenda to make Hindi become the language used for daily life all over India, although Indians weren't orangutans with undeveloped tongues in August 1956. See how glibly he pushes his agenda. Sitting in a room full of politicians where official things are of concern, he makes official status secondary to an all-India status, thereby again warding off any debate about what politicians really care about. Also, notice the adverb "gradually" used to slow down heartbeats. So here again Nehru is appearing like a man in a loincloth begging consideration, and in the process conquering an entire assemblage of nations represented by the unsuspecting and the naive. Of course, we know that the official language status was the one usurped by Hindi, and the threat of Hindi becoming an all-India language postdates that usurpation.

"But all are national languages. We want to encourage them", he says again, adjusting his loincloth and extending a hand pretending to tremble and make a humble plea. "Want" to encourage, Mr. Nehru? What about actually encouraging, and for example, by first not trampling them under your noble Hindi feet? Nobody seems to have asked this question.

And then there's this big farce about how he's only talking about encouraging one language and not crushing others. This is such an oft-repeated argument even today by Hindiwallahs that we need to look at this closely. Look at what he's saying. He's basically saying that he wants to encourage one language, Hindi. Right off the bat, that is undemocratic, imperial. It is none of the business of the central government to encourage any one language. Encouraging one is indifferentiable - get it straight - indifferentiable from discouraging others.

Why? Simply because of the "encouragement" given to one language, all others start losing their place. First, they "encourage" the constitution to be written in Hindi "without discouraging" Kannada, Tamil, Punjabi, or whatever. But hey, you just ensured that every language other than Hindi lost its chance of being there, Mr. Nehru! You can make a stick shorter without breaking it: you just place a longer stick next to it. Didn't Nehru know this? Of course he knew this, and  he even talked of his great love for the shorter stick all the time. "The outlook that we can encourage one language by crushing others" is "completely wrong", sure, and that is certainly not what Nehru proposed to do. He didn't encourage Hindi by crushing other languages. He just encouraged Hindi, and the encouragement itself crushed other languages. It's different, right?

And then he ends his nonsensical paragraph, in an entire speech intended to deceive, by admitting something really, really, really inimical to the interests of the speakers of non-Hindi languages. What is that? Read his nonsense carefully, and you'll see that he's making a big virtue out of delaying justice to those who don't speak Hindi. If you're a Malayalam or Tamil or Telugu or Kannada speaker begging for justice in a Delhi court, he's making a big virtue of the fact that you'll have to wait, perhaps until you're dead, for justice. It is "none of the business" of the courts to say that they can't get appeals translated to Hindi or English, he says, so that they can understand pleas in languages other than Hindi, and "Maybe, it will delay matters", but you'll finally get your justice. After you're dead, "maybe", but "That does not matter. It is a matter of convenience". Hindi speakers, in Nehru's scheme of things, avail justice much faster because India is engineered to accept Hindi all over. Thus, Hindi is equal to every other language, but it only gets to be first. "That does not matter. It is a matter of convenience".

For further reading

"Language Issue", p. 204, Nehru's India, edited by Mushirul Hasan, Oxford University Press, 2010.

I'm going to return to my hibernation after this post. It's been a year since I logged of the blog, and it seemed like the right time to say Hi to my friends here on Karnatique, with a post after one year. I'm still working on the book, and I hit upon Nehru's speech referred to above as part of the research for the book. It will take a few more months to complete the first draft. Keep in touch! - Kiran.