A common language makes a nation but language also divides people. There is no dearth of examples in India to illustrate the second part of the previous sentence. Languages and dialects exist in profusion in India. Every major language has a number of dialects and the latter clamour to gain recognition as a language and to gain a place in the eighth schedule of the Constitution. Since populism is the dominant mode of politics in India, recognition of a dialect as a language becomes an instrument to win some cheap popularity or even at times a regional support base. In this light it is easy to understand the announcement of the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that he was committed to including Maithili in the eighth schedule. Predictably, the declaration of intent was made in the heart of Maithili country and predictably too the crowd applauded and wept with joy. The promise, if and when fulfilled, has important consequences for the Maithili-speaking people. It will mean that the four crore people who speak the language will be able to use Maithili for official purposes. This is not a small gain for people of a region ravaged by natural disasters and underdevelopment. The recognition of their language will provide emotional and cultural sustenance to the people and enable them to cope with dignity the problems that they face daily.
The case of Maithili is an interesting one. For one thing, the language or the dialect — call it whatever one wants — is an old one. It predates Hindi and even Bengali. Moreover, the region is an ancient one, finding a reference in the Ramayana as the kingdom of Janaka, the father of Sita. The language and the region also have a very rich cultural heritage which is often ignored because of the region’s economic backwardness. It is significant that Rabindranath Tagore wrote one of his early poems in a medium derived from Maithili even though native speakers of the language aver that the Bengali poet distorted the language. The relationship between Bengali and Maithili has always been somewhat problematic. There are similarities between the two languages in their origins. But Bengali somewhere in history overtook Maithili in sophistication and in literary output. But the affinities between the two languages suggest a cultural configuration that spanned present day Bengal and north Bihar. Maithili today is a living language spoken by a vast number of people for whom language forms a kind of bonding. Mr Vajpayee, it is hoped, will soon add substance to his announcement. Populism will then have provided a recognition long denied.