The evangelism being shown by the Bharatiya Janata Party in respect of Hindi needs serious review, but the issues need to be carefully examined. Firstly, any espousal of an Indian language should not mechanically be seen as an attack on English. Nor should the debate become, by reflex, a divide between those who believe that English is essential in India, and those who feel that it cannot have a primacy at the cost of our own languages.
Language is an important aspect of a nation’s identity. It is not only a tool of communication but a repository of culture, of our history, our traditions, our folklore and the sap of our soil. We must, therefore, approach this issue with a balance that is rooted in the assertion of a certain level of cultural nationalism, but tempered by a perspective that goes beyond narrow and bigoted thinking.
English is an international language and an essential tool for communication and global interaction. Its utility is thus unquestioned. But it is also true that whatever illusions people may have to the contrary, English can never be an Indian language. The proponents of English make the claim that the language is now Indian because more people speak it in India than even in England. Professor David Crystal, who has authored the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, makes this point explicitly: “In language, numbers count. There are more speakers speaking English in India than in the rest of the native-English speaking world”.
It is true, perhaps, that purely in numerical terms a great many Indians know something of the language, but the total number of those who do so with any degree of adequacy is certainly less than five per cent of the population. Five per cent of over a billion people is still a large figure. But Mr Crystal is quick to clarify that these large numbers of Indians speak only a “dialect” of English, easily distinguished from “Standard English”.
The numerical argument is, therefore, a not-so-subtle attempt by those to whom the language belongs to perpetuate its hegem-ony. The argument of the neo-linguistic imperialists runs something like this: We took away your language and imposed our own; you cannot speak and write it like us, but even if you do so badly, your mutant of our language is still something for you to be proud of, and we are willing to legitimise it and count you among the growing numbers of English speakers of the world, and nothing pleases us more than when you yourself agree with us!
It is pertinent that this logic is never applied to countries like Spain or Russia or Italy or France or China, where too there are many people who know English. The people of these countries are too proud of their own language, and know it well enough, to be condescendingly included in the English world. But typically, and as one of the most easily verifiable consequences of colonialism, some Indians themselves take pride in saying that English is an Indian language. Or else they agree that its pidgin derivative will do as well because it serves the purpose of communication.
A nation that hopes to take its place on the high table of the world of the most powerful nations can hardly afford to hobble into the 21st century on the crutches of Hinglish. Atal Behari Vajpayee once said that it is a myth that the English left India as a result of the freedom movement; they left because they could not bear any more the massacre of the English language!
We need, therefore, to seriously introspect on where we are in relation to our own languages. We need to do this in our own interest, because citizens of a civilisation as rich as ours in languages, cannot afford to appear like photocopies or linguistic caricatures. Photocopies are a convenience for the benefit of others. To win respect we need to be rooted in our own cultural milieu, and language is an indispensable element in this effort.
At present we are fast becoming a nation of linguistic cripples, who can never speak English as their first language, but who are adrift from their mother tongue and unsure in the official language.
To remedy this situation we need a radically new approach to the teaching of languages. It is essential that children are taught only in their mother tongue and simultaneously learn Hindi up to grade six. This will give them the necessary grounding in their own milieu, their own folklore, mythology and literature, and help them develop love and respect for their own immensely rich linguistic heritage. Those children for whom Hindi is the mother tongue should learn at least one more Indian language. English must be taught, but it must be introduced only after the sixth grade, by when children have become fluent in their own languages.
In fact, there is a theory that those who are fluent in their own language pick up a foreign language faster.
The resolve to give our own languages the respect that is their due is part of the unfinished agenda of Independence. This revival must take place volitionally, at the level of mass realisation, with the government making the requisite policy changes.
Once we understand that language is an inextricable part of nationhood, and that nations that do not understand this are devaluing their soverei-gnty, the rest will fall into place.
The issue then will not be about the imposition of Hindi or the rejection of English. It will be about the use of English as an international language, but not at the cost of the development and primacy of all our languages. Are the linguistic chauvinists within the BJP listening?
Author-diplomat Pavan K. Varma has been recently elected to the Rajya Sabha