Language of peoplehood

Aheli Moitra

A few days back, the picture of a long lost Hindi teacher from school popped up on our alumni groups. Shukla ‘sir’ sat in the middle of a large family of children, in-laws and grandchildren, as happy as can be.

He was an excellent teacher and made us love Hindi. He relayed the history behind the great works of Hindi literature, helped us understand the socio-cultural context in which each story was written and inculcated the practice in us to master the language. We may never have known his first name till his Facebook profile showed up on an alumni’s page, thereby drawing our collective attention, but every student remembered the man now occupying the central position in the family picture.

It helped that he – and every other Hindi teacher we had – taught Hindi in English. It made learning Hindi fun though we never managed to speak it quite right.

On the other hand, students of the above mentioned school (affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education) spoke their mother languages but never read or wrote anything in them. There was no time and no teacher to teach them the history of the equally great literature of these mother languages that are supposed to be recognized as equal languages of the Indian Union, nor anyone to school them on the socio-cultural, economic or political context of the language groups they belonged to. They only spoke mother languages because parents insisted that regional cultures be kept alive at least through speech and other markers like food, songs, dances performed indoors, within the confines of either the home or the community.

Most of these people grew up without a sense of peoplehood—connecting neither with Hindi nor their mother languages—looking down on their own culture and, by extension, developing a hollow sense of ‘Indian-ness.’

Last week, the draft National Education Policy proposed a three-language formula that came under stiff opposition from the Tamil, Kannadiga and Bangla blocks; they proposed a two-language formula that makes teaching a mother language and English mandatory. Hindi, or any other language, should be optional.

Their argument was based on the fact that most states in the Indian Union were created on linguistic grounds (barring the North East); Hindi being a state language for some in the North, it cannot be imposed on the people of other states that must give primacy to their state languages – even, enhance the learning of all indigenous languages and related literature in each state.

They propose English as a common language of the Union because it does not belong to one group of the Union. Just because Hindi speaking states have a larger population – maintaining their high birth rates over other states (for instance, UP’s birth rate in 2017 stood at 25.9 compared to West Bengal’s 15.2 or Nagaland’s 13.5) – does not mean their language or political tools come to hegemonize others, they argue.

Federalist Garga Chatterjee notes that in a federal democratic republic, the Indian Union must “fundamentally renegotiate division of power between the centre and states in favour of the latter.” For this, supporting state/peoples’ languages is key. It will set the stage for a stronger sense of peoplehood, bringing greater confidence in becoming ‘Indian’ by holistically embracing one’s own as well as other cultures made equal by the Constitution of India.

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