Whatever critics may say regarding his inabilities, no one doubts former Union minister and onetime UN bureaucrat Shashi Tharoor’s wit and capacity to use appropriate “parliamentary” double entendre. On Tuesday, he tweeted a birthday wish to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nothing wrong in that, especially as the Prime Minister had converted the day into a significant event, and not just in his life. But Mr Tharoor’s greeting was not a simple one-liner or a rush of admiration. He tagged Mr Modi along with a cartoon drawn by a political cartoonist who drew a map of India which metamorphosed into a bouquet of flowers and with birthday wishes written in several languages. So far, so good. But Mr Tharoor then gave his own “spin” by writing: “#HappyBirthdayPMModi from multi-lingual India! A reminder of all the diversity & pluralism we hope you will embrace today & during the year ahead.”
Late last month, Mr Modi ended a speech while inaugurating via video conferencing a news conclave in Kochi by suggesting that every Indian learn at least one new word in any Indian language every day. Mr Tharoor immediately converted this suggestion into an opportunity: He picked up Mr Modi’s #LanguageChallenge and tweeted one word in three languages — English, Hindi and Malayalam. “Here is the 1st one: Pluralism (English); bhulvaad bahulavaad (Hindi); bahuvachanam (Malayalam).” Needless to state that reminding Mr Modi of linguistic diversity and cultural pluralism is a polite dig that would leave the Prime Minister not very amused.
While Mr Tharoor’s choice of the word “pluralism” when picking up Mr Modi’s add-Indian-language-words-to-your-vocabulary gauntlet was politically loaded for the word will not be among Mr Modi’s favourite words, his reminder of India’s linguistic wealth was certainly a rejoinder to Union home minister Amit Shah’s advocacy of Hindi’s cause as the official language. Normally, on the occasion of the annual Hindi Divas, it is commonplace for political leaders and ministers to advocate the greater use of Hindi for official purposes.
This time, however, Mr Shah stoked the dormant language fire by claiming that it was “necessary that the country should have one language, due to which foreign languages do not have space… It is because of the need for a single language that our freedom fighters, nationalists had envisioned the idea of a Raj Bhasha and they had imagined Hindi as this language”. Mr Shah then unambiguously contended that Hindi alone could unite the country, as a result of which this language should be considered India’s global linguistic “identity”.
His needless assertion predictably evoked anger and consternation in the non-Hindi speaking states. Most significantly, however, Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa — undeniably the BJP’s most charismatic satrap in the South — was firm in his “no” to Mr Shah’s push for popularising the use of Hindi as a common language. “As far as Karnataka is concerned, Kannada is the principal language. We will never compromise on its importance,” Mr Yediyurappa tweeted. The response of other leaders from the southern states was similar. Because the region has a history of anti-Hindi riots in the 1960s, it would be politically suicidal for any leader or party to endorse Mr Shah’s position.
Mr Shah’s statement is symptomatic of a party which remains fixated to old ideas despite the rapid expansion of its political base into new regions. It is well known that the Bharatiya Janata Party has its political roots in northern and western India, and continues to be dictated by the socio-cultural outlook of these regions. Mr Shah’s statement reflects his inability to step out of the Sangh Parivar’s anti-English posture. The RSS’ Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha in 1958, in a resolution, said that “continuance of English as the official language of Bharat is bound to perpetuate the mental slavery and existing gulf between the people and the government”. The resolution demanded that Hindi should be used for “all official purposes” because it had evolved “as the common language of inter-provincial communication”. The Jan Sangh’s statements and resolutions on language were similar and driven by the objective to impose Hindi.
Amid the political row and violence, the then government had deferred the planned changeover to a Hindi regime in 1965. By then, the RSS had also acknowledged that India was a “multi-lingual” country, although it added a rider that “there is no intrinsic difference among these languages” because they had “close links with Sanskrit”. While there were no objections to this formulation in areas outside the states from where the RSS chiefly drew its support, there were objections to a “working knowledge” of Hindi being made “compulsory”.
Although the BJP cites the data collated by Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, engaged in popularising Hindi in the southern Indian for a century, to demonstrate that opposition to Hindi has declined over decades in most states, the response to Mr Shah’s comments show that efforts to “compel” people to use Hindi will continue to raise hackles in the non-Hindi speaking states of India.
Mr Shah’s statement is indicative of what can become a fatal flaw in the BJP’s arsenal unless the party instils understanding that it is necessary to restrain belligerence and disallow triumphalism to rock its boat. Mr Shah’s error is similar to those made by the fringe forces since 2014 who have frequently over-stated their case and taken the law into their own hands. The BJP’s rank and file needs to understand that every matter which exists de facto need not be converted into de jure.
On the issue of Hindi and its use for official purposes, every leader of the entire Sangh Parivar must keep in mind the long history of contestation over according Hindi “official” status. While religious majoritarianism has borne political and electoral fruit for the BJP, expecting that the sentiment for enforcing Hindi hegemony too shall be beneficial will politically backfire. The idea of political unitarism may sway people who have quietly accepted giving a burial to “unity in diversity” as a political slogan. But it is fraught with risks if the BJP hurts the pride of people for their distinctive languages. Linguistic nationalism has been a potentially disruptive sentiment in the past too, and the BJP would do well to prevent this ogre from raising its head once again.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right....