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Hindi and Hind

English’s hegemony in the Indian endeavour

Mukul Kesavan   |   Published 11.12.22, 05:25 AM

The takeover of NDTV by Gautam Adani is seen as the capitulation of the last all-India news organisation that consistently challenged the narratives sponsored by Narendra Modi’s government and the sangh parivar. This is broadly correct, given the foam-flecked sycophants who front-up television news elsewhere. But the fall of NDTV is a metaphor for something larger — the fatal self-absorption of English-speaking desis

In some ways, NDTV represented the strengths of anglophone India: liberal, highly educated, densely networked elites, benchmarking best practice elsewhere to pioneer non-sarkari broadcasting in India in the post-Doordarshan age. Equally, the organisation represented an incestuous Lutyens’ elite that had acquired its liberalism too easily. Its members had come by their convictions by talking to other Englishspeaking  desis  without feeling the need to converse with the rest of India, the other ninety-nine per cent. 


This isn’t to suggest that their commitment to pluralism and other progressive ideas was shallow or misplaced, merely that their ideas and rhetoric hadn’t been road tested in public debate and retail politics. One of the differences between Pakistan and India is that anglophone Indians succeeded in creating an English public sphere. India’s ecosystem of English-speaking bureaucracies, both governmental and corporate, English newspapers, magazines and television channels, English-medium schools, colleges, publishing houses, advertising agencies and writers who dealt exclusively in English achieved critical mass and became something of a world unto itself. It was a world in which the anglophone Indian could win a substantial audience or readership,  in which she/he could achieve real and substantial professional success. 

It was a public sphere that was at once cosmopolitan and insular; cosmopolitan because it was so plugged into the world that English opened up, and insular because it dealt with non-English speaking India at one remove, at second hand. We see this in various ways: in North Indian urban professionals who never subscribe to a Hindi newspaper or magazine, in the near-total ignorance of Hindi fiction or poetry amongst hyper-educated liberals who otherwise describe themselves as ‘voracious’ readers, and in the inexplicable indifference to the misery that higher education in English inflicts on Indians who don’t know English well.

It’s important to understand that India’s anglophone elite creates and recreates itself every generation with meticulous premeditation. It’s quite difficult to become linguistically deracinated when you’re surrounded by people who speak your mother tongue. Till the age of six, I only spoke Hindi. I was socialised into English in school via its library, which was crammed with fiction in English. By the time I began teaching Indian history to university students, Hindi had become a transactional language that I used to buy things with. 

My experience is not necessarily representative. Many English-speaking Indians of my generation who are not North Indian aren’t just fluently bi-lingual, they are multi-lingual. Also, middle-class anglophones in Bengal and Kerala and Maharashtra are often expressive in both English and their mother tongues. This decoupling of the vernacular from intellectual work and expressiveness is particularly marked in North Indian anglophones, but it is something of a trend all over India.

This secession from desi languages has real world implications. I taught history in Jamia Millia Islamia, a Central university in Delhi, for thirty-five years. Most teachers in my department taught in both Hindi-Urdu and English, partly because there were students in class who weren’t from the Hindi heartland, partly because the historical literature even for Indian history is principally published in English, and partly because having learnt history in English, we were comfortable lecturing in it. 

Some lecturers did bi-lingual teaching better than others but English remains the default language for higher education in the humanities and social sciences. The cost of English’s hegemony became apparent to me when I began supervising dissertations written by research students. To make an argument in a language that you only imperfectly know while trying to follow academic protocols is not just frustrating, it is humiliating. When a Bengali or Tamil intellectual with rudimentary Hindi tries to speak publicly in Hindi, he sounds inarticulate and comical. When an articulate Hindi-speaking MPhil student from Azamgarh tries to write about military-fiscalism in English in his dissertation, he might sound incoherent because he is translating from and retranslating into a language he doesn’t wholly know. In effect, the main product of India’s academic industry is alienation. 

This is an academic example but English’s inert hegemony deranges lives in every field of human endeavour. And because the English public sphere in India, though numerically small, is lucrative enough to reward its stakeholders, even the most progressive of them do very little to reform the system. This has consequences. When the majority of university students realise through long experience that the game is rigged in favour of a minuscule ruling class of anglophones, it delegitimises the value of education, of expert knowledge, of the distinction between truth and nonsense. In a context like this, when a demagogue like Modi takes a swipe at the likes of Amartya Sen with a motto like  ‘hard work is better than Harvard’, knowing anglophones might snigger but it resonates amongst people who have been at the receiving end of this privileged knowingness forever. 

There is, whether we like it or not, a direct link between the comedy of Rahul Gandhi speaking Hindi and us. Modi and Amit Shah, Gujarati politicians both, made it their business to be rhetorically effective in Hindi. Congress dynasts like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and his son didn’t because they were entitled dynasts. It’s clear now that politicians who can’t do retail politics in Hindi/Hindustani have no future as all-India politicians. Any politician who doesn’t recognise this infantilises himself. This is why a figure like Rahul Gandhi, despite his sincerity and his commitment to the hard work of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, can be dismissed as the prince-inwaiting of the babalog

So long as anglophone Indians choose to live mainly and unselfconsciously in English, they remain charter members of the babalog. Which returns us to the death of NDTV as we know it. The real absence created by Adani’s hostile takeover is not the passing of NDTV 24x7 but the fact that NDTV’s outstanding anchor/reporter/editorialist, Ravish Kumar, no longer has a television platform. His reach and standing as NDTV India’s principal figure dwarfed the reach and the influence of NDTV’s English channel, valuable though it was. Ravish’s standing reminds us that you can’t be a public figure without a public, that in the Union as it’s currently constituted, you cannot speak for Hind or to it, without Hindi. To cede Hindi to the Hindiwallahs is to cede Hind.

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