Friday, February 28, 2014

Hindi Nationalism

Recounting an incident related to the formation of the Eight Schedule of the Constitution (which contains a list of India’s official languages), Alok Rai says:

“Nehru had asked him [M. Satyanarayan] to draw up a list of languages, and he came up with a list of the twelve major regional languages of India. Nehru added a thirteenth, Urdu, before putting the list to the Committee. When “a Hindi friend” asked whose language this Urdu was, Nehru replied angrily:

Yeh merī aur mere bāp-dādā’oñ kī bhāshā hai (This is my language, the language of my ancestors!)

Thereupon the “Hindi friend” retorted:

Brāhman hote hue Urdu ko apnī bhāshā kehte ho, sharam nahīñ ātī? (Aren’t you ashamed, being a Brahmin, to claim Urdu as your language?)

Nehru did not reply. The Eighth Schedule was finally approved by the Constituent Assembly with the addition of one more language, Sanskrit.”

Of course, what the “Hindi friend” didn't know is that Kashmiri Brahmins (such as Nehru) as well as other upper-class urban Hindu communities such as Kayasts and Khatris had traditionally learnt and used Urdu before the creation of Shudh Hindi and its installation as the official language of India in 1947.

In fact, it is this act of creation that Alok Rai (who, coincidentally, is Hindi-Urdu author Premchand's grandson) outlines beautifully in his book Hindi Nationalism, from where this extract is taken. To quote again from the book itself, Hindi Nationalism is “a narrative of the violence done to the people vernacular Hindi by and in the name of “Hindi” [Shuddh Hindi], the Sanskritic usurper.” It is an account of how, Indian and Hindu nationalism intertwined in the late 19th century to produce the hyper-Sankritised register of “Shudh Hindi” which is now the official language of India and forms the core of our education system. The book charts how this “Shudh Hindi” battled the already entrenched register of literary Urdu (in which the ancestors of Nehru had made their living and was the official language of India till '47), other forms of Hindi-Urdu such as Braj Bhasha as well as everyday spoken Hindi-Urdu (Bollywood language, if you will) to emerge as the primary language of the Government of India.

If you've ever wondered why, say, the language of train announcements is so arcane or struggled with the bombastic vocabulary of Dinkar as a school student, this is a highly recommended read.

Bonus read:

A Debate Between Alok Rai and Shahid Amin Regarding Hindi: an engaging debate between historian Shahid Amin and the author Alok Rai around the book, amongst other things.

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