Suddenly language debate is raging in the name of ‘Hindi imposition’ and ‘outside languages’. While the issue itself is not new and has sprung up from time to time, there are newer factors that come into the mix each time.
I write here as a Telugu-speaking South Indian from a land where people led an agitation asking for a separate state for Telugu heartland. What followed was the first big reorganization of the map of India through creation of many states along linguistic lines. Though Telugu was the second most spoken language in independent India (post 1947) after Hindi before being taken over by Bengali in the 70s and 80s, the language and the people don’t wield the kind of soft power or influence that other neighboring languages do. Many celebrities and experts can’t even spell the word Telugu correctly (it is written as Telegu, Telgu and what not). That’s for a later day.
India presents a peculiar problem or a great diversity in terms of languages depending on how one wants to look at. We have great languages, innumerable dialects that house vast literature and each representing a distinct culture. Linguistic reorganization definitely helped to preserve and promote the language and culture through the state patronage. But all this is being swept away in a sense by a change that is so obvious now that many languages including Telugu are suffering a crisis of different kind. The change is in the way English is being used.
Dominance of English
English is now an integral part of our communication at schools, colleges and workplaces. What changed in the last 2-3 decades is the high usage of English in Indian languages to an extent where only the verb and preposition are in that language. While I cannot speak for other languages, the problem is certainly serious in Telugu. Take an example of this sentence suggested by a Telugu-speaking Sanskrit teacher passionate about languages. ‘school ki velli, teacher ni kalisi, book teesukuni, car ekki, cinema ki vellanu’(loosely translates to ‘I went to a movie after going to school, meeting the teacher, picking up the book and getting into the car’). There still are English medium schools that penalize kids for not speaking in English. Parents too encourage the kids to speak in English, since English is seen as a marker for being modern and sophisticated. State governments are not taking enough steps to tackle this. The steps are relegated to various observances like ‘Telugu Language Day’, ‘International Mother Tongue Day’ etc. Languages still are taught in an archaic and uninteresting way. These days we see many celebrities starting to speak in a particular language but drift to English within a sentence or two. Language teachers are like second-rate citizens within the teaching fraternity. Great scholars are not given an audience because of their ‘inability’ to speak in English. So the problem is nothing short of diabolical. But yet, not many talk about this but easily harp about ‘Hindi imposition’. This is the greatest disservice a country and its people can do to its languages.
The link language
When Hindi was been promoted as Rajbhasha(official language) right after independence, Telugu country embraced it without any qualms. The Sanskritized Hindi heard on radio and later television, in nationalized banks and railway stations was understandable. We grew up listening to Hindi movie songs from 50s, 60s and 70s and arguing about who was better S.D Burman or Shankar-Jaikishan. Ghazals and Qawwalis were appreciated. Telugu land suffered from Urdu imposition in the erstwhile Hyderabad region where some schools were in Urdu medium and locals had no choice. But the contact with Urdu was so strong that words like ‘kaburu’(from Khabar) and asalu(asli), taareeku(taarikh) are now considered Telugu words and are heavily used. Students learnt Hindi under the 3-language formula in schools that followed state-govt syllabus. Things went along well. Knowledge of Hindi was considered useful in communicating with people of other states as it provided (and still does) ‘an Indic base’ which English couldn’t. The people who disagree are either naïve or haven’t seen this happen.
There was a proliferation of schools that followed central syllabus in the last few decades which meant a student might get away without learning Telugu. The society at-large is to blame when many parents now think there is no pressing need to make the child learn the mother-tongue. And this issue needs Government’s support and intervention. There are at least 2 generations that have studied in their mother tongue, learnt English just as a language but speak it fluently. But now the emphasis is only on English. Meanwhile Southern states have reached a population growth rate which is at the replacement level while Hindi-speaking states haven’t and this is and will bring its own issues of demographics with it. And demographics is now called the ‘destiny’. The urban areas are increasingly becoming cosmopolitan adding lot more languages to the mix through workforce from other states. In all this, it’s easy to lose the language-identity in a metro city. And language in many cases is tied to a heartland and its culture. How do people speaking regional languages like Telugu, Kannada and Tamil and are passionate about their language deal with this?
English vs. Hindi
English now carries that unnecessary tag of inevitability as the language of any kind of formal communication. When some talk about this being a colonial mindset, is that far from truth? Many people who are into this language debate do not acknowledge that the tendency to bank on English hurts the structure of their own language. The ready acceptance of English is given some very absurd reasons. First is that English has a longer presence in South India than Hindi. Hindi is the considered ‘the other’ and mother-tongue of a part of India while English being the mother tongue of very few is considered neutral and acceptable. While the fact is that Hindi does not alter the vocabulary like English does.
The way out?
Regional languages already have very limited opportunity as means of official communication and this is decreasing by the day. This is something that can be fixed by the Governments without much difficulty without worrying about economics or demographics. There certainly is a feeling of losing out and going into oblivion among people speaking South Indian languages. While there is politics behind the agitations that don’t care for a solution, there is also lack of sensitivity on part of people harping on Hindi. So we see two groups that antagonize the debate. At one end are the people who have Hindi as mother-tongue and view this debate as an assault on their mother-tongue. For them the concept of link language and linguistic diversity are secondary. They do not know about the rich literary history and might of the other languages who are mostly older than Hindi. Have heard instances where people from Hindi-speaking expect the local shopkeepers in the South to know Hindi and any insistence on speaking local language is considered ‘intolerance’. At the other end, there are chauvinists from South who treat even the existence of Hindi in addition to English and local language as very dangerous. And such people erase sign boards and markings in Devanagari.
A student from South studying in Hindi-speaking states has no opportunity to study his language but a hindi-speaking student can happily study Hindi anywhere under three language formula!! This is very unfortunate and unjust at this time and age!! There should be a package of courses available either online or in-campus to study their mother-tongue outside the heartland. Similarly, school-going students in non-Hindi speaking states should be made to learn the local language on a compulsory basis but with a reduced intensity if they are not native-speakers.
Hindi in South
South has embraced Hindi and other Indian languages in many ways. Tulsidas is highly respected and saint composer Tyagaraja even respectfully dedicated a poem in his opera ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam’. Hanuman Chalisa is like an anthem for Hindus in South and has been translated into Telugu. A great scholar Sri. Vaddiparti Padmakar from AP has done Ashtavadhanams in Hindi. The great Maharaja Swati Tirunal composed Hindi Krithis/Bhajans in the Carnatic style. Popular ones are ‘Aay aaye Shyama Mohan’ and ‘Jamuna Kinare’. Singers like M.S Subbulakshmi popularized Meera Bhajans(she even played the role of Meera in the eponymous film) and they along with other Hindi compositions routinely feature in Carnatic music concerts of today. Singers like Ranjani-Gayatri and O.S Arun sing Marathi Abhangs in their concerts. Sri. Balantrapu Rajanikanta Rao, a great Vaggeyakara wrote Telugu lyrics and set to music in Rabindra Sangeet style. And the sway of Bollywood movies is all too well-known.But if one were to reverse the gaze to see if any such things happen in North w.r.t Southern languages apart from the occasional Jugalbandis in Hindustani concerts, there would be only disappointment. The problem is not English or Hindi but a bigger role for other languages and a two-way exchange of ideas and culture. Like our Prime Minister suggested, Hindi-speaking states should connect with other states to appreciate the linguistic and cultural diversity.
Samskritam is the one language that could have really been a link in the administrative sense but it lost out to Hindi(even after stalwarts like B.R Ambedkar supporting its case). Mention of Samskritam now unfortunately brings lot of strong opposition due to the stereotyping and perception-management over decades if not centuries. The task of taking Samskritam to the masses is an ongoing one but meanwhile, there is an imperative need to encourage all regional languages and grudge none to do preserve the rich linguistic diversity of Bharat.
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