Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why purists like Batra are Hindi’s biggest enemy

First published on

The past two decades have seen Hindi grow vigorously throughout India, on the back of commerce and the arts. Batra’s diktats will only harm the spread of Hindi as India’s lingua franca.

A few years back, I was on the Delhi Metro with a friend, an American on a 6-month transfer to our company’s Gurgaon office. He was also, as it so happened, an amateur linguist and had resolved to learn Hindi by the time he went back to the US.

As part of his education that day, he listened intently to the Metro announcements. “Kisi bhi sandigdh vastu ko haath na lagayen,” Shammi Narang’s voice announced followed by Rini Khanna’s, “Please do not touch any suspicious objects on the Metro”.

“Sandigdh,” he Googled. “Suspicious”.

For the next week or so, he used “sandigdh” wherever he could, during coffee-breaks with colleagues or with his chauffer. With disappointing results. No one seemed to know what it meant.
Later on I had to explain to him that formal Hindi is rather a different animal from what Hindi speakers actually speak.

“So you mean to say that the Delhi Metro gives out warnings against a terrorist bombing, using words that no one really understands?!”

I nodded and shrugged a we-are-like-that-only shrug.

I was reminded of this little illustration of linguistic folly when I read Dinanath Batra’s pronouncements that Hindi text books should carry no words with foreign origins. "Use of Urdu, Persian and English words has created a challenge for students," Batra opined, blissfully unaware that the word “Hindi” itself is a Persian word.

Batra might have seen some “acche din” after the BJP gained power but, as the Metro example shows, linguistic puritanism is tough and carries costs.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried. Batra is actually one in a long line of people who have looked down upon spoken Hindi and tried to contort it to suit their own political ends.
Modern Standard Hindi (Shuddh/Maanak Hindi) starts its journey from 1898, as Madan Mohan Malviya submitted his famous Memorandum to the Lt Governor of the North-Western Provinces, asking to introduce the Devanagri script alongside the Urdu script in the province’s courts. Malviya wanted to help the rural populace, since Urdu was confined to only the urban elite.

At the time, in the matter of Hindi, things were moving fast. 1888 saw the publication of the first work of literature in Modern Hindi: the novel Chandrakanta (later on made into a TV show). Organisations like the Nagari Pracharani Sabha were founded to promote the Devanagri script. Moreover, Modern Hindi adopted the base dialect of Urdu, Khadi Boli rather than take up the much older Braj. Khadi was already popular while Braj was largely a literary plaything. This allowed Hindi, Christopher Shackle and Rupert Snell write in their book, Hindi and Urdu since 1800, “to establish itself as a genuine vehicle of communication”.

Much against the wishes of early Hindi pioneers such as Bharatendu Harishchandra or Malviya, this new register got excessively Sanskritised. Part of the reason was to differentiate Modern Hindi from its older Siamese twin, Urdu since both were based on the same dialect. Part of the reason was to elevate Hindi’s status, a putative direct descent from Sanskrit helping it leapfrog in rank over much older literary traditions such as Bengali or Marathi. This is similar to why Urdu stuffs itself with words from Persian or, once upon a time, English crammed itself with Latin. And of course, the third reason (and the one driving Batra) was religious nationalism, given Sanskrit’s status as Hinduism’s liturgical language. In fact, one of the motives given by Maharashtrian, Nathuram Godse for murdering Gandhi, was that the Gujarati did not support Sanskritised Hindi.

Gandhi’s death for supporting simple Hindi was quite symbolic. Partition and the polarisation that followed meant that any voices in support of Hindi as it was spoken (notably Nehru and Azad) were drowned out and Sanskritised Hindi appointed as India’s official language with a temporary changeover period for English.

The State put its might behind Hindi, appointing commissions to coin new words in order to prepare itself for taking on the mantle of India’s official language. By 1965, Hindi was sought to be imposed as India’s exclusive national language and English confined to the dustbin of history.

Of course, we know that that never happened: English is still here. In fact, post-1947, curiously, the State’s backing actually led to no great increase in the status of Hindi. English still dominated. More than ever, in fact, bureaucrats were recruited from elite institutions like St Stephen’s, prominent amongst them being Mani Shankar Aiyar, probably one of the last speakers of English to pronounce “issue” as “is-yoo”.

Like all things in India, Hindi grew not because, but in spite of the government. Principally, Bollywood pushed it, a process that was greatly accelerated post-liberalisation, as the Hindi film industry grew quickly. In Bangalore today, the biggest movie in town is Salman Khan starrer Kick. And the latest Bengali film to be released is called Bindaas. Of course, the language that Bollywood spread was not the stuffy sarkari argot of train announcements but the tumultuous Hindi of everyday speech.

In many ways, this is only natural. All vibrant languages borrow words; puritanism is linguistic death. Modern English, the planet’s most successful language ever, takes most of its words not from older versions of English but from French and still borrows liberally every chance it gets.

This renaissance, so to speak, has given new life to Hindi. Apart from Bollywood, Hindi news channels tower over their English counterparts and unless you can write copy in Hindi, you won’t be making it too far in the ad world. And, of course, our current Prime Minster is far more comfortable in Hindi than in English.

Remnants of the old statist approach to Hindi still remain, though, as both Batra’s fatwas and the agitation over the UPSC language issue show. The UPSC prelims exam can only be taken in Hindi and English, greatly disadvantaging a Bengali or Tamil speaker. Unhappy with even this privilege, Hindi speaking aspirants refused to answer even a few questions in English.

The issue of the elitism of English—the agitation’s underlying complaint—is real but it is hardly a problem that can be solved by changing the language of a few questions in an exam. Especially since once chosen, bureaucrats would do most of their work in English anyway. As the blurb for Chetan Bhagat’s new book shows (a Bihari boy who didn’t speak English well fell for a girl who did), the aspirational status of English is deep-rooted and real.

Nevertheless, Hindi is one truly one of the world’s great lingua francas, understood in some measure, by a fourth of the world’s population, trailing only English and Manadarin.

No matter how secure English is now, sometime in the medium term, Hindi has a good chance of replacing it. Remember, at one time, Latin, Sanskrit or Persian also seemed invincible but now lie buried, replaced by vernaculars.

Of course, this is a gradual process. As has been seen, any forced measures only end of hurting Hindi and making non-Hindi speakers intransigent. Hindiwallahs like Batra need to leave the language well alone and let it grow organically, as it has been doing so for the past few centuries.

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