Symbols and Time: Debating Official Scripts in India
Image Credit: Flickr / Two Circles

Symbols and Time: Debating Official Scripts in India


To get a glimpse of India’s bewildering diversity, all it takes is a look at any Indian rupee banknote. While one side will carry English and Hindi words, the margin of the other will have a phrase printed out in 15 different languages, most using separate scripts. While the phrase will mean exactly the same – for example, “10 rupees” or “100 rupees” – the symbols may look entirely different. Moving from often straight-lined Devanagari (used for Hindi, Konkani, Marathi, Nepali, and Sanskrit) to curvy and full-of-circles Odia or to wavy Telugu. As far as banknotes are concerned, a script does not have to be an issue. After all, what is really necessary is to be able is to read the number (and tell a fake note from a real one, though many people will manage without even this). Moreover, the banknotes have the same form throughout India.

The script issue is far more challenging when it comes to more regionalized issues such as signposts or billboards – and not only with regard to who can read what but who wants to be identified with which script.

The New Delhi solution is telling in the way it honors diversity. Official signposts make use of four different languages: Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and English, each written with a different script. The phrase “four different languages” might be a misnomer, though, as a particular name will actually be the same, only that the script representing the name will be different. It would be more proper, thus, to say that a name on a New Delhi official signpost is written in the Devanagari script (used for Hindi), the Arabic script in its nasta’liq version (used for Urdu), the Gurmukhi script (used for Punjabi) and the Latin script, called “English” as it represents the English phonetic rendering of an Indian name. Such solutions require additional planning, as the Arabic script – contrary to three other ones – is written right-to-left and often some place names are written in the same line.

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These, however, are technicalities. What matters is that the signs include names in English and Hindi and rightly so, as these are the two official languages of India (even if English is called the “subsidiary” one) and New Delhi is its capital — and because those who can read and happen to be or live in the city should be able to read in one of the two or both. Delhi is in India’s north, on the western fringes of the Hindi-speaking region, so Hindi is widely spoken in the city; but, as the capital, it also attracts a host of middle-and-upper-class professionals from all over the country, and their lingua franca will often be English.

Keeping Urdu characters on the signposts is, in turn, mostly of symbolic importance. The city had been associated with Muslim intelligentsia prior to 1947, but the partition of British India into India and Pakistan caused many of the city’s Muslims to move into the new state of Pakistan. The same event – which also bifurcated the state of Punjab into an Indian and a Pakistani half – caused many Punjabi Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus to move from Pakistan to India and a considerable number among them settled in Delhi. Thus, the Punjabis are now one of the numerically better represented groups in the capital of India. On the signposts, Urdu represents the city’s past Muslim culture, while Punjabi speaks for a large part of its present middle class. In terms of pure reading skills, however, both the Delhi Muslims and the Punjabis would manage to live there without their scripts on official signs and it is the politics of representing diversity that retains the four scripts.

But such solutions are not so benign and widely accepted everywhere in India. Love of letters may produce not only love letters but also hate mail. There is no language in India spoken uniformly by all of its 1.2 billion inhabitants — and no script used by all of them. The endeavors to have only one official language in various walks of life had been, and still are, opposed in many regions and by many groups. In the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of having the Hindi language as the only official language of India met with protests in south India, especially in Tamil Nadu. Battles for script were a part of those language wars. For some people it was important not only which scripts appear on signs, but also which script should be written at the top. Thus, certain regions witnessed a process of editing signposts to put the name in the regional script above the one that was promoted as the “national” script.

Obviously, the spoken language may be more important than the script but the script is a representation and a reaffirmation of a certain form of the language just like the language can be a representation and a reaffirmation of a certain identity. Thus, the right to have the community’s own script on the signposts – and resistance to other scripts – can serve as a reinforcement of a quarrel between two regions and two communities or a dispute between a region and the national government.

It seems that today these conflicts are no longer as fierce as they used to be but disagreements do remain and occasionally resurface. This year, it has been noted that a number of milestones along the national highways in the state of Tamil Nadu were repainted, changing the dual English-Tamil naming into a Hindi-Tamil pair. Fearing what they usually call the “imposition of Hindi,” some of Tamil Nadu’s politicians announced that they are ready to oppose the redone signs. In Bengaluru, a city in another south Indian state (Karnataka) the appearance of Hindi names on the subway is also being criticized by some and some groups loyal to the local Kannada language (which also has its own script) have been blackening the Hindi words on some of the metro signs.

It may be argued, of course, that the name in a different script is usually not a different world altogether but just a different representation of the same name – just the way it is in New Delhi. Thus, as far as only signposts are concerned, the “Hindi” name is usually the same name but written in Devanagari script. It may be said that the scripts only use different symbols but the battle is precisely symbolic and this does not make it unimportant. In parts of south India, the Devanagari script is not being opposed as such, but through its association with the Hindi language. And for the purists, a different script is always suited to some other language and reading it literally would slightly or considerably alter the pronunciation of the original language.

Such points against the dominant script are also furthered in the northeastern state of Manipur, where the situation is even more fascinating. The people of Manipur have a strong regional identity that even led some of them into separatism. In terms of script, however, Manipur has widely used the Bengali script since the local king introduced it in the 18th century, replacing the local one (called Meitei mayek), even though the latter was more in tune with the phonetics of the Manipuri language. Bengal is a historical region west of Manipur. It is much larger than Manipur and Bengalis had influenced Manipur in the past in a number of ways. Moreover, from the perspective of Manipur, Bengal is a part of Indian civilization much more than Manipur ever was (if the winds of history would blow in a slightly different direction, Manipur could have been a small independent state).

Thus, some Manipuris may be as uneasy with the predominance of the Bengali script as the Tamils were with the imposition of Hindi. The call to reinstate Meitei mayek – unused by the majority for the past 300 years – has been growing more audible. Just like with the reconstruction and popularization of the Hebrew language in Israel it seems that this reform may succeed. Supported by organizations that seek to strengthen local identity, the Manipur government is having its teachers taught to teach the revived script and various institutions – from the legislative assembly to the newspapers – are gradually adopting it. Meitei mayek is also appearing on the signs in the region.

In accord with the politics of representation, the Manipur government is also promising to lobby New Delhi into adopting a phrase in Meitei mayek on Indian banknotes, on the reverse side along with the 15 other languages and their scripts. But do not be concerned about space on the rupee banknote just yet – if the whole of the reverse could be filled with such phrases, then a few dozen languages can be squeezed in dense columns, just like India somehow manages the space of its vast diversity. The use characters of a given script is a part of a regional characteristic and the right to use it is a part of India’s national character.

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