Reality of a diverse, multi-lingual, multi-national federal democratic union

Garga Chatterjee


The #NammaMetroHindiBeda movement against Hindi imposition in the Bengaluru Metro in the Kannadiga’s own capital city has gathered significant political support. Decades of forced imposition of Hindi and marginalization of Kannada in the Karnataka capital Bengaluru under the hubris laden smokescreen called ‘cosmopolitanism’ is coming home to roost. The aggressive Hindi imposition initiatives by the present BJP led Union government provided the spark to the powder keg of discontent that has been brewing for sometime now.


Let’s be clear about certain basic notions first. The Indian Union is not an entity formed on the basis of any language. In short, there is no language that ‘binds’ it. However, most non-Hindi states of the Indian Union were, in fact, formed explicitly on the basis of language. That is, in almost every state there is a binding language on whose basis the state was formed. Thus states broadly correspond to the core homeland of certain ethno-linguistic nationalities. Hindi is not the national language of the Indian Union. The Indian Union does not have a national language. It is an unheard of concept in the Constitution of India.


If this sounds new to you and if you have heard textbooks, media, Delhi-headquarter party politicians and others telling you that Hindi is the national language of the Indian Union, it’s because they are lying and they want you to believe in that lie such that it almost becomes a “natural truth” by repetition. Hindi is the mother tongue of about 26% of the citizens of the Indian Union and the language is not understood by a majority of the citizens of the Indian Union. Still, Hindi is one of the two official languages of the Union government – a restrictive system in a multi-lingual union of linguistic states that casts a majority of the citizenry into second-class citizenship. The ambit of usage of the official language is limited to official functions of the Union government. Announcements in train stations, trains, airports or planes are not official functions of the Union government. They are customer services and safety functions of the travel sector. The concept at the centre of all travel-related service is not “national unity,” not Hindi promotion, not showing who paid for the infrastructure and other such unrelated things. At the centre is the welfare of the traveller.


Citizen awareness

The Bengaluru Metro called Namma Metro (Namma meaning “our” in Kannada) is a joint venture between the Karnataka government and the Union government, implemented through an agency called the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL). When it started in 2011, it had 3 languages for all signs and announcements – Kannada, English and Hindi. The inclusion of Hindi for a public service in a city of Karnataka where Hindi does not even figure in the top 5 mother tongues of Karnataka or Bengaluru makes no sense in terms of giving service to the public. But wherever the Union government is involved, Hindi imposition in areas where it is irrelevant and unwanted has been a long pursued Delhi policy.


Due to huge opposition to this initial inclusion of Hindi, two things happened. RTI activists made BMRCL admit that though there was no specific direction for inclusion of Hindi from the Union or Karnataka government, it had followed guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways which specifies a 3 language formula including Hindi in non-Hindi states for the convenience of Hindi people and a 2 language formula of Hindi and English in Hindi states, again to the convenience of Hindi people only.


The metro falls under none of these categories of road transport or highways, neither is it obligated to follow such Union ministry guidelines. That was the fishy bit. On further RTI inquiry related pressure from Kannadigas, the BMRCL stated that it was the decision of the BMRCL board. It stated that “As mentioned BMRCL being a new mass rapid transit system for Bangalore and that Bangalore being a cosmopolitan city, BMRCL has thus adopted a language policy whereby the display boards should be understood by most of the commuters”.


That’s all good, except that census figures show that there are more Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Urdu mother tongue people in the area than Hindi. So to keep the international character and intelligibility, why English is there is understandable. Also many Dravidians are conversant in that language and don’t share the “English is foreign” logic of Hindi people. In fact, the Gujarat High Court has clearly stated that for non-Hindi states, Hindi is also a foreign language. So, that takes care of English. If the idea of BMRCL was that “the display boards should be understood by most of the commuters,” then Kannada and English should have been there, along with other languages in the order of number of mother tongue people of a language in the area. If a 3 language formula was to be instituted, the candidate for the 3rd language, based on the BMRCL principle of reach should have been either Telugu, Tamil or Urdu as each of them outstrips Hindi in the area.


So why was a small minority language of Karantaka, called Hindi, accorded this vaunted status using backdoor reasons? Clearly it is not understandability but the age-old Delhi disease of Hindi imposition. No wonder, the BMRCL management is packed with Hindi people, in the form of IAS cadres sent by New Delhi. This initial public opposition forced BMRCL to take a step back and remove Hindi announcements and Hindi direction boards inside the metro stations. Thus, the Hindi imposition plot had been foiled due to citizen’s activism and awareness.


For all linguistic nationalities

Now, the BMRCL has again started pushing Hindi widely inside the Namma metro. What prompted this change even after a sane understanding had been reached? Here, it is relevant to mention that the Union ministry involved as a stakeholder in BMRCL was the Urban Development ministry. The minister in charge was one M. Venkaiah Naidu who regularly mis-states that Hindi is the national language and who, in spite of winning multiple Rajya Sabha terms from Karnataka, never cared to pick up the language of the Kannadigas he supposedly represented.


These are the sort of people and mentalities one is dealing with here. In fact, when M. Venkaiah Naidu wanted yet another Rajya Sabha term, a justified uproar went up in Karnataka- so much so that this time M. Venkaiah Naidu was not given a nomination from Karnataka. This person lacks the power to get elected from his home state of Andhra Pradesh. His power and stature depends completely on wishes of the Hindi dominated Delhi headquarters of the BJP. Thus, after he took over, the BMRCL started getting Hindi imposition directives from the Union Urban development ministry. Such things are always best done by non-Hindi politicians without a significant native base. M. Venkaiah Naidu fits the bill perfectly.


It is useful to remember that the Urban Development ministry has no constitutional mandate to impose Hindi on BMRCL. After the Delhi dictated Hindi re-introduction in Namma Mtero, Hindi font sizes were also increased. Let me remind you once more that BMRCL is not a Union government organization. And even if it were, the Hindi imposition ideology of the Union government is what is being protested. This whole notion that the Union government necessarily equals Hindi is imperialistic and chauvinistic and has no place in a federal democracy. Union government is the government of all linguistic nationalities of the Indian Union, not of Hindi people alone.


Uniting diversity

This latest round of Hindi imposition in the Namma metro evoked unprecedented resistance from Kannada activists. This has now spread to large sections of Karnataka’s civil society as well as non-Kannada groups. It started out as a social media campaign with the hashtag #NammeMetroHindiBeda that trended all over India with many non-Kannadiga people joining in, who are similar victims of Hindi imposition in various ways. The protests took to the streets and demonstrations happened in front of the town hall. The Delhi media sat up and took notice – with its usual Delhi/North/Hindi bias in the narrative.


The intensity of this movement has now isolated BJP in the Karnataka political scene on this question. It is on the back foot on this issue and has not successfully fought off the charge that is leveled against the party in most non-Hindi states that it is a Trojan horse for the expansion of cow belt type of Hindi-Hindu ideology. H.D. Deve Gowda’s JD(S) has come out strongly against Hindi in Namma Metro. Certain senior ministers of the Congressite state government of Karnataka have also opposed Hindi in Namma Metro. Even Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has made a public statement about his resolve to oppose Hindi imposition by the Centre around the same time. Thus the protests are hardly ‘fringe’. They represent the Kannadiga mainstream. In the wake of rising protests, Hindi signs in some metro stations have been covered. This has been used by the wildly popular social media meme page Troll Haiku to mark this as the reliving of the feeling of independence for this present generation of Kannadigas, akin to 1947.


This rise of linguistic nationalism in non-Hindi states is not unrelated to the Hindi imposition drive from the Union government party that is completely dominated by representatives of Hindi states. Just in the last 3 years, Kerala and West Bengal have made their state languages compulsory as a subject in schools, Odisha Chief Minister has protested the wanton imposition of Hindi by replacing Odia in Delhi-controlled NHAI’s signposts in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has flagged the issue of differential fertility rates between the cow belt and the rest, and DMK leader M.K. Stalin called for a second independence struggle against Hindi imposition.


While Hindi chauvinists charge that insistence of non-Hindi languages divide people, the reality is the opposite. It has been uniting diverse peoples. Even the fractious Tamil-Kannadiga relationship has been put aside as the Karnataka unit of DMK has come out in open support of a Kannada-English two-language policy for Namma Metro. As #NammaMetroHindiBeda trended, Marathis started their own social media campaign with the hashtag #AapliMetroHindiNako that trended in Mumbai, Pune and in Bengaluru – thus marking a great example of disregarding their border dispute disagreement for a bigger cause. Thus, for some years now, the Hindi imposition issue has become much more than a Tamil issue as Delhi likes to portray it to minimize its relevance, reach and scope.


Way to peace

Enthused by their success and aware of the need for unity and solidarity, Kannada groups are planning a conclave on the Hindi imposition issue and plan to invite stake holders from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. While Hindi is imposed everywhere for the benefit of Hindi people in the name of 3 language formula, Hindi states themselves provide no such benefit to non-Hindi people among their midst who are expected to learn the local language, that is, Hindi.  So, Delhi Metro has Hindi but no Bangla for its Bengali commuters while the Union government forces Kolkata Metro to have Hindi for the benefit of Hindi commuters. Even basic things like local train tickets, tourist helplines, air tickets, inflight safety announcements are always made in Hindi and never in any non-Hindi state language, even when the train or plane plies between to two non-Hindi places or even within a non Hindi state.


Equality and dignity are a pre-condition for unity. This issue goes beyond just Hindi sign boards but to a tussle between the reality of a diverse, multi-lingual, multi-national federal democratic union and the homogenizing ideology of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. It is not only an issue of language but also of state rights and federalism, of preserving identity in the face of obliteration and homogenization. That was the promise of decolonization. That has been delivered to the Hindi belt, ironically using the funding of revenue rich non-Hindi states. While the Hindi establishment wants themselves imposed and represented everywhere, it denies reciprocal rights for non-Hindi people. Such a unilateral approach is a model for division and not unity, as the ultimate result of Pakistan’s Urdu imposition was made apparent in 1971. The powers that be should heed these signs and roll back all Hindi compulsory type of directives and initiatives in non-Hindi states. That is the way to peace and unity.