Impose Hindi as national language and it will be a non-starter

Story by  ATV | Posted by  Aasha Khosa • 1 Years ago
Protest against proposal to impose Hindi in Tamil Nadu (File photo)
Protest against proposal to impose Hindi in Tamil Nadu (File photo)


Saeed Naqvi 

I have long held that Sangeet, Sari, and Sanskrit unite the country as nothing else does. On Sanskrit, I have been fiercely challenged. Sanskrit became part of my triple X matrix after my friend, Abu Abraham, a remarkable cartoonist, chastised me for being facetious about Sanskritized Hindi. 

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Balraj Sahni, who had graduated through the Indian People’s Theatre (IPTA) to Bollywood, was invited to address the first convocation of Jawaharlal Nehru University. In the course of his address, Sahni told a joke about “my friend Johnny Walker”. Johnny says “These days’ newsreaders shouldn’t say ‘Listen to the news in Hindi’; they should say ‘listen to Hindi in the news.” Abu flared up like his cartoon had been rubbished. 

“You North Indian chauvinists will never understand this.” He was in a rage. “The more Sanskritized Hindi becomes, the more intelligible it becomes to a Malayali like me.” 

The passion with which Abu made the statement stayed with me when I was posted in Chennai as editor of the Southern editions of the Indian Express. Since Chennai, Bengaluru, Vijayawada, Hyderabad, Kochi, and bureaus across the four southern states were part of my parish, I was able to travel extensively. The Abu mantra became a constant point of departure for linguistic inquiry. 

I consider myself uniquely privileged for having been given the Chennai assignment. Imagine a Muslim from Mustafabad, near Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh, seated behind a large teak table that once belonged to Ramnath Goenka, founder-publisher of Indian Express. I was supervising an office where every cubicle and desk was occupied by men and women who either wore on their foreheads several stripes of ash horizontally or a vertical vermillion streak right down to the space where the nose begins. 

Having been reared in the Catholicism of Lucknow, I was fascinated by the cultural variety. My new circumstance did not cause alienation, rather it provoked an inquiry into a rich culture most North Indians have no clue to. The Express Empire was professional, very archaic, and feudal. The News Editor was a tall, big man called ‘Master’ because he was once a tutor to Ramnathji’s only son, Bhagwandas. Master later mutated as RNG’s model news editor, punctilious and painstaking. He did not sparkle; he was staid and dependable. 

In a country as religious as ours, Master was a model of secularism - deeply religious but a stranger to communalism. He had two fixations: Chakravarty Rajagopalachri was God’s gift to statesmanship just as M.S. Subbulakshmi was to music. These were non-negotiable propositions, on all else he had an open mind or so I thought. 

I was in full flow one day and, to keep pace with my thoughts, I lapsed extensively into Hindi. I noticed Master look at me piercingly, turn his back towards me and silently resume his seat at the head of a long table around which sat diligent sub-editors poring over the raw copy. 

One of them walked up to me. “Please don’t mind Master’s tantrums,” he said. “He finds it patronizing when someone speaks to him in Hindi.” My experience with N. Ram of The Hindu was worse. As I inadvertently slipped into Hindi, Ram gestured that I stop. “Speak a civilized language,” he said. 

Master and Ram were not the only ones who stopped me in my tracks when I, by sheer habit, lapsed into Hindi. They are both thoroughbred Aayangar Brahmins. A false impression in the North is that opposition to Hindi is only from the Dravidian communities of whom Tamil Nadu Finance Minister, Palanivel Thiagarajan is the most articulate representative. 

Now, place the Master-Ram attitude to Hindi alongside Abu Abraham’s. The first two find Hindi a North Indian imposition. Abu offers ideas of making it more acceptable to a wider audience. What Abu is saying and what I learned during my five years in the South is that all south Indian languages, with the solitary exception of Tamil, have a large component of Sanskrit – anywhere between 65 to 75 percent. Indeed all major regional languages – Bengali, Assamese, and Oriya, for instance – are packed with Sanskrit. 

In other words, if the Sanskrit quantum is increased in Hindi, it would become that much more intelligible to the regions. This truth would appear to contradict another reality we have learned to live with since independence. The sole credit for the wide acceptance of Hindi, at least in the north must go to Bollywood. This is simple Hindustani, indistinguishable from the Urdu of Nazir Akbarabadi. Sanskritize Hindi and it will become that much more accessible to the regions where Sanskrit already has a presence in the local language. By this very token, it will become that much more difficult for the average cinema-goer.

Let me cite my personal problem with my favourite program; Prime Time by Ravish Kumar, NDTV’s super hit telecast. I marvel at Ravish’s aggressive, defiant attitude toward the establishment. The problem is that a good fifty percent of the script is lost on me probably for the same reason that it would have been more intelligible to Abu. 

If so many regional languages are vehicles for Sanskrit in substantial degrees, would Sanskrit have been a better bet as the national language? Caste is cited as an obstruction. It was the language of Purohits and high-caste sages. The laws of Manu banned it from trickling lower down. 

The other argument was that it would be like reviving Latin and Greek. This argument is advanced by folks who are unfamiliar with people from 160 countries who have made Hebrew into a language of advanced technology in Israel. 

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The politician in New Delhi may find it tempting to consider Abu’s formula of raising the Sanskrit content in “Khari boli” to bring it in line with the regional languages. But that will not necessarily make it acceptable as the national language. Any push towards that end and the regions will scream “North Indian chauvinism”. The whole terrain is so littered with minefields, that the slow, evolutionary approach of Bollywood remains the safest route to see Hindi grow. 

Saeed Naqvi is a veteran journalist