Why The Hindi-First Order Threatens Efficiency

Published: June 22, 2014 10:51 IST
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(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

The unnecessary controversy over the use of Hindi by the government in official communications and social media revealed two essential truths about our country. The first is that, whatever the Hindi chauvinists might say, we don't have one "national language" in India, but several. The second is that zealots have an unfortunate tendency to provoke a battle they will lose - at a time when they were quietly winning the war.

Hindi is the mother tongue of some 50% of our population; the percentage has been growing thanks to the spectacular failure of population control in much of North India. It is not, however, the mother tongue of the rest of us.

When Hindi speakers emotionally decry the use of an alien language imposed on the country by British colonialists and demand that Hindi be used because it speaks for "the soul of India", or when they declare that "Hindi is our mother, English is a stranger", they are missing the point twice over.

First, because no Tamil or Bengali will accept that Hindi is the language of his soul, and second because injecting anti-English xenophobia into the argument is utterly irrelevant to the issue at stake.

That issue is quite simple: all Indians need to deal with the government. We need government services, government information and government support; we need to understand easily what our government is saying to us or demanding of us. When the government does so in our mother tongue, it is easier for us. But when it does so in someone else's mother tongue with which we are less familiar than our neighbour, our incomprehension is intensified by resentment. Why should Shukla be spoken to by the Government of India in the language that comes easiest to him, but not Subramaniam?

The de facto solution to this question has been a practical one: use Hindi where it is understood, but use English everywhere, since it places all Indians from all parts of our country at an equal disadvantage or advantage. English does not express Subramaniam's soul any more than it does Shukla's, but it serves a functional purpose for both, and what's more, it helps Subramaniam to understand the same thing as Shukla.

Ideally, of course, every Central Government document, tax form or tweet should be in every one of India's languages. Since that is not possible in practice - because we would have to do everything in 23 versions - we have chosen to have two official languages, English and Hindi. State governments complement these by producing official material in the language of their states. That leaves everyone more or less happy.

The new government's requirement that Hindi be privileged actually works against the interests of efficiency. Obliging a Keralite bureaucrat in Delhi to read and write file notations in Hindi to be submitted to a superior officer from Odisha makes no sense, since neither man would be using a language with which he is at ease. Obliging both to digest a complex argument by a UPite subordinate writing in his mother-tongue is unfair to both. Both may write atrocious English, for that matter, but it's the language in which they are equal, and it serves to get the work done.

Language is a vehicle, not a destination. In government, it is a means, not an end. The Hindi-wallahs fail to appreciate that, since promoting Hindi, for them, is an end in itself.

The result is episodes like the time that Shri Mulayam Singh Yadav, who punctuates English speeches in Parliament with cries of "Hindi bolo" from time to time, became Defence Minister of India and wrote to the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, in Hindi. In due course he received a reply - in Bengali. One is only grateful that no urgent issue of national security was involved in either communication.

The irony is, as I observed earlier, that the Hindi chauvinists should realize they were winning the war. The prevalence of Hindi is far greater across India today than it was half a century ago. This is not because of Mulayam Singh Yadav's imprecations or the assiduous efforts of the Parliamentary Committee on the Promotion of Hindi. It is, quite simply, because of Bollywood, which has brought a demotic conversational Hindi into every Indian home. South Indians and north-easterners alike are developing an ease and familiarity with Hindi because it is a language in which they are entertained. In time, this alone could have made Hindi truly the national language.

But it would become so only because Indians freely and voluntarily adopt it, not because some Hindi chauvinist in Delhi thrusts his language down the throats of the unwilling. The fact is, its vocabulary, gender rules and locutions do not come instinctively to everyone: native speakers of languages like Malayalam that do not use gender can understand why a woman must be feminine ("woh aurat aayi hain") but are genuinely mystified as to why a table should be feminine too. If you've grown up with Hindi at home, it's a matter of instinct for you that it should be "desh kihaalat acchi hain" rather than "desh ka haalat burahain," but for the rest of us, there's no logical reason to see anything feminine about the national condition.

Still, if we watch enough Bollywood movies, we'll pick it up one day. Just don't tell us that we must, or else. Language should be an instrument of opportunity, not of oppression.

It is time to let sleeping dogmas lie.

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