At the trailer launch of a regional Kannada film on April 28 actor Sudeep commented, “Hindi is no more (sic) the national language.” He was responding to a question on the “pan India” popularity of South Indian language films and emphatically stated that Hindi, the language (largely spoken in North India and the capital New Delhi) is not the national language.
This sparked a war of words, with Hindi film star Ajay Devgn retorting, “Hindi was, is and always will be our mother tongue and national language.” Devgn, a known Narendra Modi acolyte, who tweeted in Hindi then questioned why they took the trouble of dubbing their regional language films in Hindi. To which the Kannada actor quipped, “No offense sir,,,but was wondering what’d the situation be if my response was typed in Kannada.!! Don’t we too belong to India sir.”
Of late, southern films dubbed in Hindi like “KGF” and “Baahubali” have been stupendously successful in North India. Their record business has riled the Hindi film industry and its superstars.
The spat could easily have been brushed off as one between Bollywood and south Indian film stars over films being dubbed in Hindi, if not for the fact that Amit Shah, India’s home minister and senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had recently said that the Modi government intended replacing English with Hindi as the national language of communication, a few weeks ago.
Speaking at the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee in New Delhi, Shah said Modi has decided that the language used in running the government is the official language and “this will definitely increase the importance of Hindi.” He underscored the fact that Hindi should be accepted as an alternative to English and not to local (regional) languages.
As per the Indian Constitution, India does not have a national language. Hindi is one among the 22 official languages in the country.
Interestingly, BJP’s Karnataka Chief Minister Basavraj Bommai spoke out in support of the Kannada actor, thereby taking a stand contrary to that of his party senior, Shah. Bommai said: “The regional languages are supreme in the states since our states were formed on linguistic basis. That’s what Sudeep said. Everyone should understand and respect this fact.” The chief minister was compelled to wade into this controversy as Kannada language is a highly emotive issue in the state of Karnataka. Besides, Karnataka will be voting in state assembly elections next year and Bommai cannot afford to take a position that will damage the BJP’s electoral prospects.
Opposition parties reacted angrily to Shah’s statements, labelling it as “Hindi imperialism.” Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said: “Hindi imperialism will be the death knell for India. I’m very comfortable with Hindi, but I don’t want it rammed down anybody’s throat. Amit Shah is doing a disservice to Hindi by imposing it.”
It needs to be reiterated that the imposition of Hindi is an assault on federalism, since (as Bommai noted) states in India were carved out on the basis of regional languages. Aditya Mukherjee, a retired professor of contemporary history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, described the elevation of Hindi as a “negation of federalism.” Speaking to The Diplomat, Mukherjee said, “Hindi imposition is an effort at majoritarianism. It is a negation of federalism, the basis on which the whole Indian nation was imagined. In fact, it’s a negation of the Constitution itself.”
Recalling how the Indian National Congress in pre-independence India had reorganized itself on the basis of linguistic regions that reflected the diversity of the country, Mukherjee said that during independence the Hindi language issue had been dealt with in depth. There was massive resistance from states like Tamil Nadu, which even threatened to secede. To assuage such sentiments, Jawaharlal Nehru assured that Hindi would not be imposed.
This, Mukherjee said, paved the way for the three-language formula in India, which recognizes English, Hindi, and the regional language in every state.
According to Mukherjee, “imposition of Hindi is on the same lines as the imposition of Hinduism as the only religion in this country.” Rejecting the BJP’s “nationalistic” agenda, Mukherjee said, “India is too diverse a country to be pigeon-holed into a one-language, one-religion formula. It just can’t succeed.”
The BJP is attempting to implement its goal of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan,” an India with one language(Hindi), one religion (Hinduism), and a country exclusively for Hindus. This has stirred a hornets’ nest.
Non-Hindi speaking states ruled by regional parties have hit out at this agenda. Sukhendu Shekhar Roy, senior leader of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which is in power in Bengal said, “We are against this agenda of Hindi imperialism… this is how fascism grows. Imposing Hindi is against the tenets of federalism.”
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and chief of the ruling Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK), M. K. Stalin, warned the BJP against tinkering with “India’s integrity and pluralism.” Incidentally, the DMK was at the forefront of the anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu in the 1950s and ’60s. Reminding Tamilians of their historic struggle against imposition of Hindi, Stalin called on the people to oppose it again.
The strong backlash that attempts at nationalizing Hindi have faced — from not just political quarters but entertainment and cultural spheres as well — has taken the BJP by surprise. Singer Sonu Nigam categorically stated, “Hindi might be the most spoken language, I understand that, but not the national language.” Nigam went onto add, “Having said that, are we aware that Tamil is the world’s oldest language.” The singer, who has sung songs in all the major regional languages of the country including Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, and Bengali, questioned, “Let people speak what they want to, why are you after them that only one language will be spoken in the country?”
The film industry, like all other spheres in society, is deeply divided into the jingoistic pro-BJP camp and those who reject such allegiances. Oscar winner and music composer A. R. Rahman in a cryptic tweet said, “Beloved Tamil is the root of our existence.”
It would be useful to remind the BJP that linguistic chauvinism about Hindi would only damage its cause, not help it. As Mukherjee summed it up, “Over the past decades, Hindi has been spreading by choice. But if imposed by force, it will be resisted by people.”