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THE SPECTRE OF BABEL
- Hindi and the republic

Narendra Modi’s election campaign advanced Hindi’s claim to be India’s political lingua franca. By campaigning in Hindi in every part of India and winning not just a substantial mandate but by making important breakthroughs in the south and the east, Narendra Modi and his party demonstrated that Hindi wasn’t politically radioactive outside the Hindi belt.

Politicians from Gujarat have, historically, embraced Hindi as India’s principal language. Gandhi championed Hindi’s cause, as did Vallabhbhai Patel without feeling that Hindi’s pre-eminence threatened Gujarati’s standing as an Indian language. Modi’s fluency and rhetorical skill in Hindi and Rahul Gandhi’s ineptness in the language made Modi seem the authentically grounded neta while making the Gandhi scion sound like the natural voice of India’s babalog.

Like Modi, Kejriwal campaigned both on television and on the road in Hindi. Clearly, Hindi as a language of pan-Indian political communication is more acceptable now than it was through the first 50 years of republican politics.

Not content with having rehabilitated Hindi politically, Modi’s government decided to formally underline Hindi’s primacy as the official language of the republic. The government of India directed the Central government’s civil servants to ensure that official accounts on social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Google and YouTube compulsorily used Hindi, or both Hindi and English, with Hindi being written above or first. A subsequent circular, issued by the official languages department of the ministry of home affairs, instructed government departments to do their work in Hindi and to make file notings in Hindi.

These directives predictably provoked politicians from non-Hindi speaking states, especially Tamil Nadu, to denounce the move as an attempt to make Hindi hegemonic. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s allies in Tamil Nadu, the PMK and the MDMK, were as vehemently opposed to the move as Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. In the face of this opposition, the Central government made soothing noises and finally fudged the matter by ‘clarifying’ that the directives were only aimed at Hindi-speaking states.

This little spat tells us something about the way in which the BJP conceives of India as a nation. Its earlier political avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, was formally committed to the slogan, “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”. In seeing a single dominant language as a necessary precondition for a robust nation, both the Jana Sangh and the BJP aren’t exceptional: they are, in the most orthodox possible way, trying to align their nationalist practice with the templates they have inherited from European histories of nationalism.

In Europe’s historical experience of nation-formation, the principal basis for national identity is language. Even the names of European nations are, often, assertions of the hegemony of dominant languages: Portugal, Spain, France, England, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Romania, Poland, Sweden, Norway and so on.

The near-unvarying coincidence of nation and language was negatively illustrated by the collapse of states which tried to transcend linguistic homogeneity such as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Yugoslavia. Earlier, polyglot empires like the Austro-Hungarian or the Ottoman, yielded to and were superseded by, language-based nations such as Greece, Turkey, Germany, Italy and so on.

Belgium is always on the verge of splitting into its French and Flemish halves, Canada has long confronted Québécois secessionism, Kurdish speakers want to be consolidated into a Kurdish nation instead of being linguistic minorities ‘stranded’ in Turkish and Arab nations, and when linguistic differences coincide with religious differences, as in Sri Lanka, between Sinhala-speaking Buddhists and Tamil-speaking non-Buddhists, a separate state seems not just a temptation but mandated destiny.

A hegemonic language may not be a sufficient basis on which to organize a nation state, but the European precedent seems to suggest that it is a necessary condition. Consequently, nations inhabited by majorities who share one language and one linguistic culture are seen as the historical norm. A single dominant language is seen as the indispensable glue that keeps citizens together.

The practice of the United States of America makes this explicit: learning English is part of becoming American. In the past anxious levies of writers have preemptively protested against any move to grant the spreading presence of Spanish any official recognition. The presence of more than one language within a country’s borders is seen as a threat to the the sense of community essential to a nation state, to the idea of a unified citizenry.

So regardless of whether the nation as a language community was willed into being by the State through mass education and deliberate policy or was the product of economic modernity and print capitalism, historical accounts of nationalism tend to map the creation of vernacular communities of feeling.

The history of the dominant strain of Indian nationalism is an exception to the European rule. It doesn’t fit Western templates and because we don’t acknowledge the novelty of Indian nationalism, we misread the nature of the Indian State and underestimate the extent to which it offers an alternative model of nationalism.

Indian nationalism was not a variant of some Western nationalist precedent. It was a novel and original nationalism which stood the first principle of European nationalism on its head, namely the homogeneity of the national community. Instead of basing its claim to represent the nation on its ability to embody some unifying principle — language, faith, race and so on —it based its representative credentials on its capacity to represent India’s diversity.

The political fetishization of India’s diversity wasn’t inevitable: it happened because a peculiar political organization — the Congress — understood India in a particular way and mobilized politically on the basis of that understanding. A pluralist nationalism wasn’t determined mechanically by India’s diversity; it was a political choice. There were (and are) Indian nationalists who saw the pruning and disciplining of diversity as a pre-requisite for a modern Indian nation. Not everyone was enthusiastic about India’s multi-linguality.

There is a not very funny joke about the insular American who thought Indians spoke Indian. Unlike Indonesia, which sponsored a national language, Bahasa Indonesia, as the Indonesian language, India has no Bhasha India, no language privileged as ‘Indian’.

The diversity of India’s religious and linguistic cultures is a fact, but the pluralism that defines the republic is a political choice that politically engaged Indians made after much trial and error. The language communities on which the European nationalisms of the 19th centuries were based offered very little guidance in the context of the sub-continent’s dizzying linguistic variety.

It’s useful to examine the way in which the young Indian republic dealt with the matter of language and the fear of Babel that’s hardwired into the Western conception of nationalism.

In Western histories, a multiplicity of languages isn’t just seen as a kind of redundancy, it’s seen as dangerous, a portent of disunity and incoherence. There’s even Biblical warrant for this in the story of the tower of Babel told in Genesis. In the beginning, when men were virtuous “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech”. Then, when humans succumbed to hubris and tried to build a tower that would touch the heavens, god intervened:

“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth... and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

This fear of being scattered by a babel of tongues haunts nation states. The Congress, thanks to Gandhi, had embraced India’s many languages by organizing the party into linguistic regions, but the rulers of the new republic in its early years were still attracted by the unifying discipline of a single language. You see this in the attempt to install Hindi as the pan-Indian official language, India’s rashtra bhasha. Even Nehru thought that a flexible and everyday Hindi was needed to bind India together.

But when the policy encountered serious resistance, the republican State shamelessly fudged the matter. First Hindi was formally given pre-eminence, then English ‘temporarily’ retained, then the champions of regional languages were mollified by neutering Hindi: the provinces were allowed to communicate with the Centre in English. Did this fudge ‘solve’ the question of a ‘national’ language? No. But it wasn’t intended to. The republic’s leaders had served a long apprenticeship as anti-colonial pluralists: it had taught them how to procrastinate, to defer, to postpone, to buy time till hot button issues went cold.

A pluralist nationalism ducks the task of defining the national ‘self’. Recognizing that in a diverse country ‘one size can’t fit all’, the republic improvises ways of avoiding the homogenizing definitions that Western constructions of nationalism press upon nation states. And thanks to this talent for postponement, republican India managed to lay the spectre of Babel, the fear that diversity makes a democratic nation incoherent, disunited, unworkable.

Majoritarianism is so hard-wired into the BJP that, in office, it instinctively returns to the task of making Hindi hegemonic because it believes as an article of faith that a nation needs a single dominant language in the way a formal kurta needs starch: to give it body, to keep it from crumpling. It’s a dangerously simple idea for a complicated republic. The cause of Hindi as India’s lingua franca is better served by political campaigning and popular cinema than it is by coercive bureaucratic directives. The linguistic identity of the Indian nation is a hydra that was spelled into sleep by the early wizards of the republic. However much it wishes to undo Dumbledore's doings, the BJP ought to let this sleeping serpent lie.