|(From top) Rajnath, Karunanidhi and Rijiju
New Delhi, June 19: A Union home ministry circular issued the day after the Narendra Modi government was sworn in has re-ignited the “Hindi imposition” debate, provoking a warning from M. Karunanidhi and forcing North Block into a fire-fight.
The May 27 circular, whose contents have only now become public, observed that government employees “neglected” Hindi while using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
“On official accounts on such platforms, both Hindi and English shall be used with the Hindi version preceding the English version,” the circular, written in Hindi, said.
DMK chief Karunanidhi reacted in Chennai by saying this amounted to “treating non-Hindi-speaking people as secondary citizens”.
It was the cue for the home ministry to try and stem the damage by tweeting only in English.
A post in the ministry’s official Twitter handle, launched today, said: “The home ministry is of the view that all Indian languages are important. The ministry is committed to promote all languages of the country.”
Government sources claimed Union home minister Rajnath Singh had been in the dark about the circular, issued by the ministry’s official language department on his first day in office. They said an explanation had been sought from department secretary Nita Chowdhary.
Sources said junior home minister Kiren Rijiju had met bureaucrats in the department on May 27 and discussed ways to promote Hindi. Soon after, the department called a meeting of its Central Hindi Committee, meant to promote Hindi across the country, which had not met for three years.
Rijiju blamed “a communication gap” for the controversy. “We have to promote Hindi because it is our official language but that does not mean we are discouraging regional languages,” the politician from Arunachal Pradesh said in chaste Hindi.
He said the country had to “take its culture and its languages along as it progresses”.
Modi himself has been speaking almost solely in Hindi at his public appearances as Prime Minister, whether at his swearing-in — attended by Saarc leaders — or while addressing the Bhutanese parliament.
There was a buzz that the government had issued another circular offering cash prizes to officials excelling in Hindi.
“The circular urges us to use more Hindi, although this is not a new thing in government,” an official said.
But bureaucrats at Rajnath’s office denied there was any such new circular. They said the official language department observes a Hindi fortnight for all government officials in September every year where it awards prize money for proficiency in Hindi.
Sources, however, said that since coming to power, the Modi government had been encouraging officials to write to the states, even non-Hindi-speaking ones, in Hindi.
States are divided into three categories: Ka, Kha and Ga — the first three consonants in the Hindi alphabet.
The first relates to states where Hindi is the major language spoken, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; and the second includes the likes of Gujarat and Maharashtra where Hindi is understood and written well.
It’s the third category, which includes all the non-Hindi-speaking states like Bengal and Tamil Nadu, that is at the heart of the debate.
BJP sources rued the timing of the controversy. “We have exhausted our gains in the north and west and can’t better our performance there. So, our next strategy would be to gain a foothold or consolidate in the south and east,” a source said.
“In Bengal and Tamil Nadu, we believe, we can make a mark if we work hard and work intelligently. So, how does it help to rake up divisive issues like languages and hurt sentiments?”
No BJP spokesperson commented on the ministry circular. “It’s a matter concerning the government,” spokesperson Captain Abhimanyu said.
However, the BJP has always been seen as pro-Hindi, its zeal anchored in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s worldview, elaborated in the work of its second chief, M.S. Golwalkar.
In his book Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar contested the claim by “Tamil protagonists” that they have a distinctive language and culture.
He argued that the theme of Thirukkural, written by the sage Thiruvalluvar, was the “same old Hindu concept of chaturvidha purushartha (the four aspects of life) put forth as the ideal”.
Flying in the face of modern linguistic theory, Golwalkar claimed that all “our” languages, including Tamil, were “inspired” by Sanskrit.
Karunanidhi today recalled the anti-Hindi agitations that had rocked Tamil Nadu, first in the late 1930s and again, violently, in the mid-1960s.
“The battlegrounds where they were fought are still wet,” he said, referring to the events that catapulted the DMK to power in 1967.
He advised Modi to focus on delivering on his economic and social promises instead of on the promotion of Hindi.
“Can we forget (Jawaharlal) Nehru’s assurance that English would be the official language as long as non-Hindi speakers want it to be?” he asked.
Some government officials, however, suggested the 91-year-old was flogging a dead horse. They argued that the language row was outdated in the Internet age.
“All central government departments have websites in both English and Hindi. Some interactive websites — like those hosted by the income-tax department — are exclusively in English for ease of operation,” an income-tax official said.
A Press Information Bureau official cited how virtually any language can be machine-translated into any other nowadays. “No government department that wants to reach out to the public can ignore the non-Hindi-speaking population — or English, which is the natural language of the Internet,” he said.
Nanjil Sampath of the AIADMK poured scorn on Karunanidhi, saying he was bereft of issues and was therefore raking up the language controversy.
“His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have studied or are studying Hindi at school,” Sampath said.
The anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s denied an entire generation of Tamils the opportunity to learn Hindi, hobbling them in the matter of finding central government jobs outside Tamil Nadu.
There’s now a spurt in Tamil Nadu students enrolling in the Hindi courses offered by the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha. Many schoolchildren in Chennai have Hindi as a second or third language.