Do we need a national language to unify us? Of course not. The many wonderful languages we have worked just as well.
Playing with language is akin to playing with fire. It pleases me that the Home Minister has clarified that when he said Hindi must be the national language, the link language between all Indians who live in different parts of this country and speak, read, write in their own mother tongues, what he actually meant was that more people should learn Hindi. It sounds like a step back from his aggressive posture earlier but it is a wise step back because we all know how dangerous it is to try and impose a language on the people of a nation who have their own.
Remember Bangladesh? We may like to boast that Indira Gandhi liberated East Pakistan but the truth is Bangladesh was liberated by a handful of brave Bengali students who raised the flag of protest when the attempt was made to impose Urdu, the language of political power in West Pakistan, on them. Their protest was supported by the poets and public intellectuals who lived in East Pakistan and not all the military might of the State could suppress them. Mujibur Rahman provided them the political leadership required to fight for independence but the real battle on the ground was fought by common people inspired by the incredible dare of the students and the impassioned words of the poets that became their slogans and songs of freedom.
I know for I saw it all first hand. It was so inspiring that my friends who accompanied me on my journeys into the battleground—poet Kaifi Azmi and filmmaker Sukhdev—reacted with equal passion. Kaifi wrote some very powerful poems on the struggle for Bangladesh in Urdu, the language he always wrote in and urged young and old Urdu-speaking Muslims on this side of the border to support the students who were resisting the imposition of Urdu in East Pakistan. For those who identify Urdu with Muslims, this was an important lesson in the politics of language. The Muslims of West Bengal, liberal as well as conservative, all backed the Bengali students and demanding that Urdu must not be thrust upon them. Every mushaira Kaifi and I addressed– he in Urdu and I in English– ended with cheering slogans supporting the cause of Bengali—and the creation of Bangladesh.
Sukhdev went a step further and shot a documentary on the war and right in the midst of addressing the students in Dhaka he declared that he was so ashamed of how the Punjabis in the Pakistani army had behaved with the locals that he was rejecting his Punjabi origins and henceforth wanted to be known only as a proud Bengali. I remember the unstoppable applause that greeted his statement.
I know how important being Bengali is to my being. I also believe that to be a proud Indian, I first need to be a proud Bengali as indeed we all need to be what we are before we can even understand what being an Indian is. A Tamilian needs to be a Tamilian first. A Maharashtrian needs to be a Maharashtrian first. A Naga needs to be a Naga first before he understands what being an Indian is. A Sikh needs to be a Sikh first. Our identities are defined by the language we are born into, the culture we inherit, the myths we grew up with, the stories we heard from our grandparents in the language they spoke. Nothing can ever replace that. Certainly not an Aadhar card. Nor a national language.
My mother’s tongue was Bengali. I grew up in English. I learnt Spanish because I wanted to read the poetry of Lorca. And I discovered Hindi as I went along. It was not my language of choice. And I am sure if you ask people across India—particularly in the East and the South—Hindi is not the language of choice of most people. It is a language of convenience. And as for those who claim Hindi is the one unifying the language of India, the truth is that we lump together many Hindis when we calculate those who speak it. The Hindi of Haryana is way different from the Hindi of Bihar. Bihar itself has so many different Hindi dialects. Each one of them has a right to exist the way it is. An evened out version of Hindi would be a disaster for Hindi itself. It would destroy its multiple identities, many of them quite charming.
But the worst would be to impose Hindi as the national language. It will compromise our many wonderful regional languages, the languages that give us our identity, our sense of belonging. A Bengali belongs to Bengal. A Maratha to Maharashtra. A Punjabi to Punjab. A Bihari to Bihar. And yes, we keep migrating from one state to another in search of better education, more jobs, new markets to explore. That is what makes India, India—this migration. And yet it is this migration some of us protest against. It is migrants who built America. It is migrants who are building the new India. They are teaching us we are all Indians when it comes to nation-building.
As for English, we own it. If you were to name ten great authors in the English language today, five of them would easily be Indian or of Indian origin. We should be proud of that instead of trying to diminish its official usage.
So, let’s stop this silly debate. Let every Indian language—including English and emojis—flourish in the Nayi Bharat.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.