Why Bengali Could Never Surpass Hindi to Become India's Top Language

To the surprise of many, nearly 500 residents of Bengal – 200 of them Hindu and the rest Muslim – jointly petitioned the government in 1839 in favour of Persian against their native Bengali language.

Listen to this article:

It may come as a surprise to many people, but it’s true: Bengali had a chance to be India’s top language. The idea was killed after it faced stiff resistance from no one but Bengalis themselves, the rich and powerful ones, who favoured Persian.

The Bengali-Persian quarrel may be dead, but the politics of language is very much alive and well in India even today, nearly 200 years after the earlier episode played out.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-centric Bharatiya Janata Party pushing to impose Hindi as India’s national language, linguistic chauvinism is back to being centre stage in this nation of 1.4 billion people.

The government has backed off for now in the face of strong opposition from non-Hindi speakers, who account for 75% of the country’s population, but the war still rages on.

The fight has a history going back to 1800s when the British started thinking they were going to rule India for a long time. To prepare for it, they embarked upon patching together an administration that could keep Indians under tight control and, at the same time, extract hefty tax revenues from them.

This was a time when Bengal – then India’s most prosperous part – was in the grip of the British East India Company, whose main aim was to make lots of money for its owners. This massive corporation, founded under Queen Elizabeth I, was the world’s largest entity of its kind to be engaged in foreign trade then.

Incorporated on December 31, 1600, the company acted as a part trade organisation, part nation state and earned huge profits from trade with India, China, Persia and Indonesia for more than 200 years.

One of the difficulties the company faced in Bengal – and really a tough one – involved settling disputes related to land ownership and contracts as well as tax collections. After taking control of the region in the mid-1700s, the British retained the Mughal official language, Persian, as their official language. But in due course they learned to their great annoyance that people kept their land and tax records in their local dialects. And they used to submit the vernacular documents to courts whenever they ran into ownership or contract disputes.

Also read: Why Mamata Banerjee Is Backtracking From the Bengali Regionalist Stance

This created a nightmare for the judges. They needed to hire lots of translators to decipher the local records and interpret statements of warring parties. It cost the company a bundle, and its directors were not too happy about it. So the company set out to streamline the languages used in courts and tax collections.

While profit-making was certainly the main driver behind the company’s efforts to remove the language anomalies, its top dogs had other concerns, too. Some liberal trustees wanted justice to be dispensed in a language familiar to the judge as well as to the people at large. Others thought that the language of the people should be the language of the courts. To make it happen, however, was not really a piece of cake.

The colonial bosses had different views as to what vernacular or what script should be used. Some favoured retaining Farsi, others supported Hindustani in Persian (Urdu), and still others Hindustani in Nagari (Hindi). But they, in general, agreed that the convenience of the people should take precedence over the convenience of their rulers.

Examples of Devanagari manuscripts created between 13th and 19th centuries. Photo: Wikipedia

In the 1830s, when the company finally began replacing Farsi with different dialects, clashes broke out all over India. Some localities feared that many of their people, who did court-related work, would be jobless if they were to switch to a new script; others took it as an attack on their religion.

In Bombay and Madras presidencies, English and local languages had replaced Persian by 1832. In Bengal, a law passed in 1837 lifted the mandate that Persian must be used in court cases or tax disputes. The law also gave the governor power to come up with ideas to create a new language to replace Farsi.

In 1838, the governor decided to use vernaculars in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The governor’s staff outlined several options for languages and scripts: Persian in Persian scripts; Hindustani in Persian scripts, i.e. Urdu; English in Roman script; Hindi in Nagari and Bengali in Bengali script.

To the surprise of many, nearly 500 Dhaka residents petitioned the government in 1839 in favour of Persian against their native Bengali. Today’s Bengalis take enormous pride in the glory of their mother tongue, but their brethren generations ago were of different mold. Call them materialists or thoughtless whatever you like, they loved money more than language.

They argued that Bengali script varied from place to place; one line of Persian could do the work of ten lines of Bengali; the awkward written style [derisively dubbed the crab style] of Bengali read more slowly than that of Persian; and people from one district could barely understand the dialect of those from another district.

The petition surprised many people not just because the Bengalis went against their mother tongue but also because both Muslims and Hindus jointly favoured Farsi. Of the signatories, 200 were Hindu and the rest Muslim.

Also read: Himachal High Court Passes Order in PIL to Make Pahari Official State Language

Both the Hindus and the Muslims, especially landowners and those who had to deal with the courts, understood Persian and Arabic connected with their business far better than any phrases in Shanscrit (to use the spelling of Nathaniel Halhed, the Englishman who wrote Bengali grammar), which contributed heavily to Bengali.

The Sadar Court of Bengal bought the argument that many dialects made Bengali unfit to be a court language; the court would need as many translators as dialects. The court also noted that to record judicial proceedings in Bengali or Hindi would require a third more time than in Persian because Bengali and Hindi scripts took longer to write.

So it permitted plaintiffs and defendants in all civil and criminal cases to submit papers in any language they wished in districts where either Urdu or Bengali was in use. In essence, the court killed an earlier decision to replace Farsi by the vernaculars, and allowed instead the local dialects to be added to Persian to conduct official business.

But the fight over picking a language continued, with different parties giving different arguments in support of their respective position. As a result, in 1940 the government barred district courts from using Nagari without prior approval from higher-ups. In the end, the Government of India, in consultation with provincial administrators, totally opposed Nagari, because a vast majority of the judges favoured Urdu.

While the Bengali resistance to Bengali was pure economics, in other parts of India the story was entirely different. In the North, for example, the conflict was more religious than material.

Religion intruded into language soon after Islam entered India. Muslim conquerors had a hard time talking with their new subjects in the hard-to-learn Shanscrit and often used their native idioms to clearly express themselves.

When this mixed dialect first appeared in Naagoree [now spelled as Nagari or Nagari] script, the Brahmmon showed disdain [One Language, Two Scripts, Christopher King, OUP India, 1994]. To the Vedic pundits, the Naagoree, which means writing, was too coarse.

So they had their sacred books published in “polished” Naagoree, or Daeb Naagoree, [now Debanagari] or the writing of the Gods. Hindu bankers, who were very active in the Ganges Delta and drew large traffic, circulated these books into the Bengal interior. However, Farsi remained India’s official language until the British changed it much later.

In 1757, the British became Bengal’s ruler defeating the Muslim. Under the British, the upper-class Hindu established themselves in a strong position in due course and turned Bengali into a “high-flying” medium of expression in the Shanscrit mold.

Syamacharan Ganguli, a Calcutta University fellow, protested the Shanscritization of Bengali. He instead pushed for assimilation of the vocabulary of written Bengali to the everyday speech of educated Bengalis [Essays and Criticisms by Syamacharan Ganguli, Cambridge University Press, 2009.] Several other Bengali literary giants, including Rabindranath Thakur, Haraprashad Shastri and Ramendrasundar Tribedi, went along with Ganguli.

The high-flying language was no good for common folks, because it was loaded with Shanscrit words. Neither was Ganguli’s Bengali of the educated, because illiterate farmers, weavers and fishermen all spoke local dialects. [An estimated 50% of Bengali words are distorted Shanscrit, 45% are pure Shanscrit, and the rest are foreign, according to linguist Suniti kumar Chatterji.]

As a result, Bengali has been “stunted in its growth by the cramming of a class of food” that it could not digest. This caused a permanent fissure with the Muslim, who viewed Shanscrit as a Hindu slang. The fallout was immense.

In the rest of India, the melee centred on Hindi and Urdu. The Hindu favoured Hindi and the Muslim wanted Urdu. When the British ordered the exclusive use of the Nagari script in school in 1880 to meet a Hindu demand in the state of Bihar, which was then under the Bengal Presidency, the Muslims howled.

As the quarrel went on between Hindus and Muslims, the colonial rulers made drastic changes to the way they exchanged information with the Indians. In the 1830s, English replaced Persian on the higher governmental level and the vernaculars became the medium of transactions on the lower. In much of north India, Urdu became the official vernacular.

Hindi failed to reach that stature until the late 1800s. Hindi began replacing Urdu in the 1870s in Central Provinces and in the 1880s in Bihar, and by 1900s in the North-Western Provinces.

The Hindi-Urdu duel eventually exploded into Hindu-Muslim war. In free India, Hindi gained the national stature as a symbol of Hindu pride and spread nationwide like wildfire, partly thanks to Bombay movies.

Bengali, meanwhile, plunged into dark abyss, because Bengal’s partition dwarfed the region both demographically and economically, denying its language the edge it needed to be a power play. Bengali, as a regional small fry, never made the cut to the national level.

B.Z. Khasru is author of Bangladesh Liberation War, How India, U.S., China and the USSR Shaped the Outcome. His new book, One Eleven Minus Two, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus an America, will be published shortly by Rupa & Co., New Delhi.