So, is this all just a utopian fantasy in a nation that has demonstrated that language is a powerful tool for stoking jingoistic regional fervour? As The Economist noted in an article last month about superstar actor Shah Rukh Khan and his tussle with the right-wing Shiv Sena, liberal, secular India has suffered the likes of Bal Thackeray and his band of thugs in part because of ‘an abiding sensitivity towards language-based agitations after a spate in the 1950s posed the greatest threat to India’s survival.’
In fact, some trace the linguistic difficulties India now faces back to the nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, claiming he is in part responsible for heralding the beginning of the end of the possibility for a national language in the country.
Earlier this year, at the annual Jaipur Literary Festival, an eagerly-awaited conclave of writers from across the world, diplomat-author Pavan Varma said independent India started on the wrong cultural foot when Nehru delivered his memorable ‘tryst with destiny’ speech in English.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Journalist Swapan Dasgupta was dismissive of Varma’s ‘bewildering interventions’ in a recent blog entry on the subject, writing: ‘According to him (Varma), Nehru’s speech was indicative of a perverse mindset and testimony to how the roots of our own languages were weakened in 200 years of colonial rule. Nehru, it would, seem, set the tone for the subsequent marginalization of the mother tongues in India.’
He says that it is nonsense to suggest the spread of English will mean India becomes another cultural outpost of the Anglosphere, arguing, ‘India’s English is the language of abstraction, ideas and business.’
Yet it is difficult to find a suitable and comforting model for a country the size of India—not even next door neighbour China really fits the bill. Although China has a population of over 1.32 billion people hailing from more than 50 ethnic groups, Mandarin speaking Han Chinese constitute a huge percentage of the national population, and the country only has one official language.
Naysayers say theres no way any single language in India can follow in these footsteps, not even Hindi. Indeed, two-language advocate Ilaiah even argues that the space available for Hindi, especially in its written, literary form, is actually diminishing.
Yet Yadav points to the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, which he says is ‘the fastest growing newspaper in the world,’ as a sign of Hindi’s vitality. ‘It has nearly 40 editions with a total circulation of over 15 million copies across its editions. At the grassroots level, language newspapers and language literature is really growing,’ he says.
Clearly, the last word on this subject is yet to be had, whatever language it is spoken in.