Raising ‘High-Risk’ Identities: The Key Challenges of Indian Languages Today

On the fatal implications of the move to categorise and divide the people of secular India, yet again

The recent move to prepare a national register of citizens in Assam has brought the question of language back into discussion. Language as the marker of one’s identity has been taken as a given thing. When it betrays your self, you may land in a difficult situation. The Bengali-speaking people in Assam are now seen as falling under different categories of suspects. If you are a Bengali Muslim, you fall in the high-risk category. If you are a Hindu and speak Bangla, the risk lessens but you would still need to remain careful. Hindi speakers are also seen as a distant people in Assam, but again your religious identity can decide whether you would remain as eternal outsider or would be allowed  a corner in Assam.

It can be assumed that all Bangla speakers in Assam, barring the areas of Kachar, are bilinguals. They must have learnt Asomiya during their long stay in Assam but that is not seen as sufficient qualification for them to be allowed to stay further in Assam.

Language, only in alliance with your other identity markers decides your fate. Rohingyas learning Hindi or other Indian languages are seen as clever intruders who are trying to hide under the cover of these languages. South Indians or people from the North East learning Hindi are seen as integrating themselves with the national mainstream.

Leaving such extreme situations aside, the battles Indian languages are engaged in are multiple. The fact that there is English and there are languages tells you a lot about the existential crisis of the Indian languages and their skewed relationship with a language which is the most sought after commodity in India. Language nationalism retreats when faced with English. Or, one can say it has adopted a clever strategy. Economic and cultural arguments are advanced to justify greater adoption of English but for other nationalist causes languages are still used.

An interesting anxiety Indian languages suffer from is if they are more ancient than the others. There is an official category of Classical language. Languages have fought to get into this category. Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Odiya and Sanskrit are regarded as classical languages. All languages, leaving Sanskrit, are still alive and used for various purposes, both sacred and profane. Sanskrit is saved only by the ritual necessities of Hindu religion. But the proponents of Sanskrit demand it to be treated as a modern language as well. They claim that since high knowledge was produced in Sanskrit at some point, it still has that capability. But the fact is, we have seen academics keen enough to produce in Sanskrit. Still, the Supreme Court of India, in its wisdom declared it to be a modern language creating a dilemma for the people tasked with planning a model of teaching of languages at the school level.

Our attitude towards Sanskrit is reflective of our deceptive stance towards languages. We pretend and want people to believe in it knowing well that it is only for pretension. Our relationship with Sanskrit is only one aspect of it. Lamenting about the erosion in the status of our languages which fuels language nationalism or is an expression of it, we seldom make any substantial investment in them. There is little intellectual investment being made in Indian languages. They have ceased to be academic languages. They are mostly used for literary purposes or have become a conduit for market. You can use them for advertising your products. But for purposes of intellection, they are found deficient. Neither do we do science in them, nor social science or even humanities.  

Indian languages are no longer the medium of education, even at the elementary level. Contrary to all research and educational principles, Indian masses have voted with their feet to adopt English as the medium of instruction right from the primary classes. Schools with Indian languages as the medium of instruction are temporary shelters for the most deprived sections of the society who would be too happy to move to the English medium schools. It is quite different a matter that we have still not thought of doing a proper study of the cognitive damage it has caused to generations of learners and its impact on higher learning.

 “Writing in Hindi is taking a huge risk,” wrote Agyeya long back. The risk is of getting invisiblised and lost to the wider world which is made of and by English. Even now the reputation of a writer in her own language depends on whether she has been validated by English or not. The recent news of a Bangla writer getting huge advance for the translation rights only indicated that the days of Bimal Mitra or Shankar who could remain happy and contended writing in their own Bangla.

There is another aspect of languages we have not discussed properly. In the period of the of Ram Janma Bhumi agitation, the role of Hindi media was analysed by a committee of the Editors’ guild. It was found that the Hindi media had become a vehicle of anti-Muslim sentiment. A quarter century later, it has got amplified by the addition of scores of Hindi TV channels. The same role was performed by the Gujarati media before and after the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002. It has been found that the language media is actively involved in spreading hate against minorities and also against Dalits. Hindi media has turned into a source of misinformation and lies. Masses who depend on it for information and opinion are turning into idiots.

An interesting relationship is also evolving between Hindi and other languages. For example, Bangla, with its upturned nose is now singing in Hindi voice. It was unimaginable even five years back that Bangla TV serials would have their characters voicing their emotions through Hindi songs! Can it be treated as a victory for Hindi?

A false sense of pride in Hindi has been kept alive for decades. The present government which is run by a political party which used to arouse nationalist emotions through the slogan of Hindi-Hindu -Hindustan has only fuelled it. By telling people that Hindi would be made a language of the United Nations, what it is trying to hide is that Hindi would never be able to become a language of knowledge and remain far behind other languages of the world which get enriched by massive translation and production of knowledge aided by their governments. The governments in the states of India and at the centre seldom think about it. An annual ritual of Hindi Divas and Hindi Mas is hardly an answer to the massive lack it suffers from.

There is a danger looming large before Indian languages. With meagre pool of intellectual resources and doped with the rhetorical language pride, they would lead an inferior existence, servicing the needs of nationalism which would like them to survive as its foot soldiers.

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