A PM Who Prefers Hindi

Published: June 21, 2014 10:48 IST
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(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

In clarifying that the directive to Union government departments to publish informational social-media messages in Hindi as well as English was limited to Hindi-speaking states, the Narendra Modi government has hopefully put an end to an unnecessary controversy.

The controversy had its origins in a decision going back to March 2014, before the NDA government took over. Nevertheless the directive was formally issued only after the new government had been sworn in, probably without being explicitly brought to its notice or due diligence.

In some circles,  the "tweet in Hindi" directive was conflated with Modi's preference for speaking in Hindi on public occasions and in interactions with international leaders. Bizarrely, sections of the media then decided he was promoting a "Hindi nationalism". Such leaps of logic are unwarranted and silly. More important, they confuse two equally critical issues and render them into a non-debate.

Let us tackle the second issue first. Why does Modi speak in Hindi? He knows English as well as the next person, though it is clearly not his first language or the one he instinctively thinks in. Modi has had conversations in English and has read out speeches in English with ease. Nevertheless any true exposition of his communicative skills and abilities as a public speaker is possible only if he uses Gujarati or Hindi. Even those who don't quite understand Hindi can "watch" a Modi speech and figure out he is a mesmerising orator. This is a fact; this writer has seen it happen to non-Indian and non-Hindi speaking audiences at Modi events.

In speaking to foreign dignitaries in Hindi in one-to-one interactions, and in seeking the services of a translator, Modi is not sending some political message as much as being plain astute. In such conversations, every nuance, semi-colon and use of phrase carries meaning and is liable to be over-interpreted. Rather than use a potentially inexact word in English in the middle of a perfectly good sentence, Modi would rather take recourse to Hindi, a language he knows inside out.

The Chinese political leadership does this all the time. Its reasoning is that giving time to the translator allows the leader to collect his thoughts and formulate his words, rather than pressure him into giving an instant response to a question or on a matter than may require a few seconds of deliberation. This writer has sat in a room with a top Chinese government official and heard him, loudly and publicly, correct his English-language translator by giving him a better word. It became clear that the government official was absolutely fine speaking and understanding English. Still, he was using Chinese, to both make a point and give himself those precious extra seconds.

Now come to the second issue. On several occasions, well before he become Prime Minister, Modi has spoken of the true value of social media and of the Internet being unlocked when content is available in Indian languages as well and not just in English. It could be Hindi tweets for Uttar Pradesh or Bengali Facebook updates by traffic police in Kolkata - the examples are many. As such, asking government officials to tweet in Hindi is not incorrect as long as use of the language is not exclusive and not an imposition on non-Hindi users.

In the early years of the republic, there was a perception among sections of North Indian politicians that Hindi could become the national language. This was a forlorn and self-defeating hope, given the linguistic diversity of India. It led to protests in many states, especially in southern India, and English was retained as a link language. Even so, Hindi is the official language of the government of India - which is based in a Hindi-speaking region of the country - and since June 1975, the Department of Official Language exists within the Union Home Ministry.

While this is the theoretical position, a few caveats are necessary. Opposition to Hindi is far more muted today than it was in say the 1960s. This is not because the Department of Official Language has been immensely successful in its quixotic endeavours. It is simply because society has moved on, and on two counts.

First, as younger Indians increasingly migrate to other parts of the country for jobs, they find it useful to learn the language of the host location. As such, it makes sense for a Bengali moving to Mysore to pick up some Kannada, not to "conform" or any such thing, but simply to communicate with a local service provider who may know only Kannada. So many non-Hindi speakers, whether from the South, the East or the Northeast, have moved to Delhi and the National Capital Region or to Mumbai in recent years. They have found it helpful to learn at least some Hindi and use it as an informal link language in their place of work.

Second, the Hindi-language entertainment industry - both cinema and television - has promoted Hindi and helped make the language intelligible for many millions who are not native Hindi speakers. This has happened because people have chosen to watch Hindi films or television series; it has not happened because a bureaucrat has passed orders.

It would be appropriate here to end with a personal story. Some years ago, my wife travelled on work to a small town in the Maldives. It was late in the evening when she reached the guest house and she was hungry. Unfortunately, the caretaker knew no English. It was frustrating and my wife was at her wit's end. Then the caretaker, equally puzzled, asked her, "Pakistani?" "Indian," my wife replied.

Immediately, the caretaker broke into a smile and broke into Hindi. My wife, with her limited Hindi, managed to order dinner. It appeared the caretaker had learnt Hindi by watching dubbed versions of Doraemon on Indian television channels that were available in the Maldives. As such, a Japanese cartoon series dubbed in Hindi allowed a Maldivian who was a native Dhivehi speaker and an Indian who was a native Assamese speaker to communicate. That is the power of language - of any language. Don't mock it.

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