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The Hindi Gambit?

The North-India centric worldview of the BJP was on display again recently when controversy about the imposition of Hindi flared up again. Mr Amit Shah’s reported statement about the desirability of a single language that would help unify the country kicked up a storm. Mr Shah has put out a clarificatory statement denying any such intention and asserting that his speech had been misrepresented, but regardless of whether he meant what he apparently said this time or not, the fact that the BJP is keen to promote Hindi as the national language is something that is known.

It has made several efforts to further its agenda, including the changes it made to the recruitment process in certain government jobs by doing away with the regional language option and giving candidates the choice of only Hindi and English. The recent controversy over Metro signs in Hindi in Bengaluru points to how the Centre’s efforts are being noticed and resisted.

From an ideological perspective, one can understand why the BJP would want to push Hindi. At a fundamental level, the idea of gathering the staggering plurality of Hindu religious practice into more unitary strands is a project that the party been pursuing diligently. The consolidation of the Hindu vote requires the creation of a unified field, and the gradual erasure of differences. Till such time that one’s primary identity is defined in specific ethno-cultural lines as is currently the case, rather than on a more homogenised single axis, the ambition of building a sustainable and durable base becomes that much more difficult. Language is an important element in identity formation; after all the current basis for the division of states has been linguistic.

Politically, the party has certainly made some headway in its endeavour. The consolidation of the Hindu vote cutting across caste is an important step forward, and while this project is by no means complete, the party has made enormous progress in attracting a much wider swathe of voters in the recent elections. It has expanded its base, moving well beyond its upper caste-trading class roots by

recruiting OBC and Dalit voters into its fold. The slow demise of regional parties is testimony to the BJP’s success.

Issues like gau-raksha and love jihad are some of the instruments that are part of this attempt to provide a common framework for the Hindu vote. Either by using a symbol that cuts across caste divisions or by uniting against a common perceived enemy, the desire to create common currencies can be seen here. The other instrument being used is the push against non-vegetarianism. While beef is understandably the principal issue, all meat products are also being targeted. The calls to ban the sale of non-vegetarian products during Hindu and Jain festivals, for instance, has been growing.

Interestingly, the attempt to promote vegetarianism and to present it as a superior moral choice for Hindus does invite backlash, but of a relatively muted kind. Barring some regions in the country where the idea of the non-vegetarian is thoroughly legitimised, in most other parts of India, the non-vegetarian carries with it a shadow of guilt. In numerous ways, we can observe this cultural anxiety about eating meat. From the ‘meat-free Tuesday’ practice that is so prevalent in parts of the North to the act of giving up non-veg in order to appease the Gods in case a wish is granted, the non-vegetarian comes accompanied by a moral burden. Which is why it is difficult for many to take a strong position against the campaign opposing meat, however fond of it they might be.

However, when it comes to Hindi, it is hardly an emotionally unifying issue. Hindi has a rich history of poetry and literature, but in popular imagination, it gets associated most strongly with cinema and everyday life. There is a small group of purists that would have a significant emotional stake in the language, but for most others across the country, the use of Hindi is seen as a functional necessity rather than an expression of deep cultural belonging. Even in the areas where Hindi is the apparent lingua franca, it is the local dialects that are markers of culture and a way of life.

Bhojpuri, Braj, Maithili, Bundeli and Avadhi are some of the dialects that reside in their own cultural ecosystems.

In the areas where Hindi is widely spoken even if it isn’t the first language, the kind of Hindi spoken is of a basic kind, peppered with words from English and regional languages. What is particularly noteworthy is the slow decline of the Devanagari script. A generation is emerging that might well speak Hindi, but struggles to read it in its original script. Advertising is a good index of this- almost all Hindi slogans are written in English, so to speak. The kind of high-flown Hindi that is the staple of Doordarshan broadcasts and airline announcements has virtually no takers.

The primary fault-line for Hindi is with English and not other regional languages. There is a hierarchy at work here that is difficult to dislodge. An implicit segmentation has taken place- English as the language of opportunity and Hindi as the language of everyday connection. Hindi and regional languages compete only when an attempt is made to make it a dominant language. Otherwise, even in the South, Hindi has been making gradual inroads organically, simply because it provides some value in a rapidly interconnecting country.

Given this scenario, there is little to be gained politically by making this an issue. Hindi is bound to grow, but pushing it as a national language can only retard rather than help its cause. Unlike the other gambits used by the ruling party, Hindi is unlikely to become an emotionally resonant issue amongst its followers, but it is certain to galvanise a dispirited opposition in some parts of the country. People do not feel strongly enough about Hindi, unless it is imposed on them. Lots to lose, little to gain.

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