Why English is Not Enough to Understand India
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Why English is Not Enough to Understand India


From time to time, one stumbles into people who think it is enough to know English to understand India. It is true that English is an official language of the Republic of India, the proceedings of the Supreme Court and the Parliament are in English (or are translated into it), much of the middle class speaks the language of the old British Empire and some of the leading newspapers are in that tongue. But to counter these points ,I could ask nearly anyone: wherever you are from, do you believe that a foreign person can be an expert on your country without knowing its native language?

The issue is, of course, much more complicated than this, and depends greatly on what we need to know. A language beyond English may be less relevant if you focus on dehumanized, technical and scientifically measured fields but becomes crucial if we deal with society and human thought, when we delve into fields like literature, identity, or politics. And, at any rate, with India’s hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects the question can’t be simplified into knowing or not knowing just Hindi, the dominant language of the North and the other official language of the republic. Thus, the issue is complex and deserving of deep consideration.

This text, however, will give a few recent examples of how knowing Hindi helps to understand the meaning or context of words used in English in the Indian public sphere. While the knowledge of Hindi and other Indian languages simply helps to gather more information, it should be also admitted that if the same information is offered in both English and Hindi, the English translation is usually precise and sufficient to collect the most important data, but knowing the Hindi version helps to bring out the nuances. The difference is like choosing between a supper of sandwiches or samosas: both may be enough to fill the stomach but why have a cold and simple food when you can have a hot, fried and spicy one?

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The inspiration for this piece comes from a recent linguistic-political controversy in India. The election campaign is raging through the state of Gujarat like a typhoon and, as it often happens in politics, barbs can sometimes reach the level of barbarism. As the two biggest parties are posed for a clash in Gujarat, a member of the opposition, Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Indian National Congress, called the leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and prime minister, Narendra Modi, a “man of low sort.” The original phrase was neech kisam ka admi and was uttered in Hindi.

While that was not the first such derogatory remark used by Indian politicians (of various persuasions), Aiyar was reprimanded even by some of his party members and temporarily suspended. Some of the critics pointed out that the world neech, while it literally means exactly the same as the English word “low,” is in fact ruder than its English equivalent. Neech can also be translated as “vile” or “base” (and was also translated as “cheap” in this context), and may also be referring to social hierarchy. While I am unable to measure the amount of lowliness in a “low,” the accuracy of reprimand was partially admitted, as while taking a half-step back from his remark, Aiyar claimed that he meant “low level, not low born.” Thus, referring only to the English translation of the quote the reader could understand much of the controversy but without the original Hindi meaning it was harder to grasp the strength and social implications of the remark.

In September 2016, India hit Pakistani-controlled territory in Kashmir with so-called surgical strikes. The attacked points were described as “terror launchpads” in the Indian English-language press. One was left to wonder what these “launchpads” were. Did the news services really mean that the radicals were in possession of rockets so sophisticated that the missiles needed their own launch pads? But the press also made it clear (or rather unclear) that the “launchpads” where located closed to the borders to enable the terrorists to venture out for cross-border attacks. So is “terror launchpad” something like a human catapult that helps infiltrators fly over the defense lines? No wonder they were called “terror launchpads” because such a solution would leave many in terror. On the other hand, it may be a good invention: after all, a flying human is invisible to the radar’s eye.

On a more serious note, though, one look on the Hindi-language press was enough to find out that the “launchpads” were camps. Moreover, the word used in some Hindi newspapers was kaimp which was in fact nothing more than the English word “camp” written in Hindi. That was even less than bad translation: it was a case of using a precise English word in Hindi newspapers and an imprecise English term in English magazines. Still, knowing Hindi helped to understand the story.

In September 2014, Prime Minister Modi unveiled his “Make in India” campaign. The idea of the policy is to attract foreign direct investment to India by raising the caps for foreign investors on purchasing shares of Indian companies in various sectors, and generally by reducing red tape and giving more space to foreign companies in India. During one of his public addresses during the “Make in India” campaign, Modi said, “Come, make in India.” The original Hindi sentence he uttered was: Ao, Bharat me nirman karo.

The English word “make” can have many uses and its most accurate Hindi translation would be the verb banana. Modi, however, used the verb nirman karna – “to build, to construct.” It is no surprise that the name chosen for the campaign in English is “Make in India” as “Construct in India” would sound misleading. Yet, the prime minister’s invitation – Ao, Bharat me nirman karo – revealed the intention of the policy more precisely. While FDI was allowed in a number of sectors (including services such as insurance), the edge of the campaign’s sword was the industrial sector. The dream of “Make in India” is of green color – it is the dream of greenfield investment, of setting up new production units in the heavy industry sector and thus creating jobs for Indians. This dream is not only about making but building and the phrase nirman karo unveiled this spirit.

At the beginning of 2015, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government seemed to be testing dangerous waters, though it quickly jumped out of them. A government advertisement showed a page from the Preamble of the Constitution but with two words missing.

The opening words of the Preamble are: “We, the People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic republic…” Originally, the words “socialist” and “secular” were not a part of the Preamble, but were inserted in 1976 by the Indian National Congress government led by the socialist Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Thus, when in 2015 certain politicians were suggesting that a public debate on rephrasing the Preamble should be held, and the Preamble itself was briefly shown as not carrying the words “socialist” and “secular” in it, it seemed that a section of the current nationalist government wanted to go back to the original text of the Preamble, undoing the changes of 1976. The government quickly took a step back and a longer controversy was avoided but the incident once again rekindled the debate on secularism in India.

The debate in English, however, only partially demonstrated what was meant by “secular.” The Hindi version of the Preamble uses samajvadi for “socialist” (which is precise) and panthnirpeksh for “‘secular.” While the English term “secularism” implies the separation of church and state, the Hindi adjective panthnirpeksh can be translated as “indifferent to religious communities” or “neutral towards religious communities.” Linguistically speaking this term suggests that the state should keep to impartiality and equal treatment of various religious communities but this does not have to mean that the state is completely separated from religions, and this is how a lot of people in India understand Indian secularism.

Moreover, in this case deciding on the proper translation of “secularism” into Hindi held even more importance. While panthnirpeksh was chosen for the Preamble, outside the Hindu nationalist circles a more popular term for “secular” in Hindi is dharmnirpeksh. Dharm means religion (and is very often used for the Hindu religions and traditions) but also duty, cosmic law, natural law, order and other things. Dharmnirpeksh was thus suggested as the right term for “secular” as denoting “neutral towards religion” but some of the Hindu nationalists would use its different meaning, “order,” to point out that the state cannot be “neutral towards order.” Such discussions are central to understanding the case of Indian secularism and are also impossible to unearth as long as we stick to the English sources.

The term dharm itself is a one that should be translated differently into English, depending on the context. As mentioned above, it is now most commonly rendered as “religion” but in certain cases the translation should be completely different. For instance, coalition dharma became a fairly popularized term in Indian media. What it implies is not “the religion of coalition” but the “laws of coalition” – the unwritten rules of compromise that keep party coalitions together. Such nuances are difficult to follow by only quoting Hindi terms in English sentences.

If the above instances do not convince you, dear reader, let me finish this piece with a fun fact and get back to the example of food. At the beginning of the text I have compared reading English-language India sources to consuming cold sandwiches and reading in Hindi to eating hot samosas. But it is even not true that reading solely in English can fill you up as much as reading in Hindi (or other Indian languages). Once, in the holy town of Pushkar, I saw a board advertising a set lunch in a small restaurant. The advertisement in Hindi gave the price of the lunch as 20 rupees, but the one in English stated that the price is 25 rupees.

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