To Move Beyond the Binary of Language Politics, Teach Migrant Workers Tamil

The struggle against Hindi imposition should not be abandoned, but a new imagination beyond politicking this binary is necessary.

Tamil is back on the political centre stage in Tamil Nadu once again. A clumsy move by a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) officer at the Chennai airport questioning the ‘Indianness’ of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MP Kanimozhi for her inability to express herself in Hindi was the most recent trigger.

A widespread condemnation from the political class and popular protest ensued in the state, which was followed by routine official apologies and knee-jerk corrective measures from the federal airport authorities. As unwise as the act of the CISF officer may be, it is high time that Tamil Nadu breaks out of such unhelpful linguistic loop, and strengthen its progressive politics as a developed state in India. In this context, teaching Tamil to migrant workers offers a window of opportunity to energise and advance Tamil politics, and counter the imposition of Hindi proactively.

Three decades of economic growth and development engined by automobile, information and communication technology (ICT), and textile industries and the concomitant construction boom in Tamil Nadu has attracted a good deal of unskilled and semi-skilled workers from across India in search of jobs to the state. A survey by Tamil Nadu’s labour department puts the number of intrastate migrant workers at about 10 lakhs, especially from Orissa, Bengal and Northeastern states. It is a considerably large pool of the populace for any policy experimentation or political action.

Volunteers serve food to migrant workers from Tamil Nadu. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Roli Srivastava

Enormous scope for education

As most migrant workers are illiterate or semi-literate, it presents enormous scope for education and empowerment. The government of Tamil Nadu can open migrant night schools to teach Tamil, possibly some basic arithmetic, to migrant workers from non-South Indian states in districts like Chennai, Kanchipuram and Erode, where they are concentrated. Tamil Nadu has precedence and experience in undertaking such initiatives earlier. For example, one may recollect the role of Ari Oli Iyakkam (night schools) in the late 1980s and early 1990s in improving the literacy rate in the state.

It will be in the interest of the migrant workers to learn Tamil, as their livelihood depends on it. Their knowledge of the language will increase their ability to bargain with their employers and fight against exploitation by seeking legal recourse. The employers can manage the workers and workplace efficiently, and it can help reduce unwanted tension with local communities that often arises due to language difficulties. The end result will be greater interaction and amity among Tamils and other regional and linguistic communities and the creation of a conducive environment for developmental activities. So, it will be a win-win situation for the Tamils and the country as a whole.

Also Read: Pushing Hindi as Politics, Not Hindi as Language

Migrant night schools would require the participation of multiple stakeholders for their success. The Tamil Nadu government can involve various departments including labour, education and finance, to design the structure, allocate requisite resources, and implement the initiative. It serves well to partner with legitimate and notable non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to utilise their policy inputs as outside experts and exploit their access to the grassroots, particularly among migrant workers. Not to forget the traditional trade unions, although their presence is limited in the new industries.

Resource management can be a cause for concern. The Central government should be obliged to fund this programme, apart from the state government and the industries that employ migrant workers. Many government schools, both in urban and mofussil areas, that are on the verge of being closed/merged due to the migration of students to private schools can be used for conducting these migrant night schools. In addition, inactive teachers from those schools can be reassigned here, or other qualified candidates can be recruited for this purpose, if sufficient funding is made available.

Indian languages need to get online. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Tamil Nadu has been the only state in the Indian union that is steadfastly opposed to the imposition of Hindi. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Steadfast opposition to Hindi

Tamil Nadu has been the only state in the Indian union that is steadfastly opposed to the imposition of Hindi. Successive Central governments’ unrelenting attempts to impose Hindi in various guises and Tamil Nadu’s opposition to it in the form of polemic and protest defines that politics. But, this protest politics as a political strategy seems to have become less sanguine in the 21st century, because it is reactive in nature, and has been unable to preclude the persistency to impose Hindi, though it has served its purpose well in the past. Yet, this is not to suggest that the struggle against Hindi imposition should be abandoned, rather it calls for a new imagination in politicking beyond this binary.

In the digitised world, image is the arbiter. It is imperative that Tamil Nadu strengthens its image as a progressive and developed state through calibrated responses for its own good, and counter the negative portrayal of its legitimate right within the federal polity to oppose the imposition of Hindi by a large section of the mainstream media outside the state. Teaching Tamil to migrant workers would be a proactive and enabling response to both these concerns. The migrant workers armed with their knowledge of Tamil language and lived experience can become great ambassadors for the language and the state across boundaries.

Also Read: Making Sense of Tamil Nadu’s Anti-Hindi Protests

The narrative for teaching Tamil in migrant night schools should be presented as an endeavour to educate and empower the migrant workers as well as to aid the cause of the ‘nation’, since Tamil is one of the scheduled languages in India. Far too long consecutive Central governments have spent their energy and resources on promoting Hindi at the cost of other official languages. Promotion of Tamil in its own right and as a language that can increase economic opportunities for the needy may balance the sheet to some extent. Similarly, it will serve as an inspiration for other official languages to claim and secure their due. It is an opportune moment for Tamil Nadu as a developed state to spearhead the 21st century progressive politics by teaching Tamil to migrant workers and proactively resisting the imposition of Hindi.

A.D. Gnanagurunathan is a non-resident fellow, Taiwan Center for Security Studies (TCSS), National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan. He can be reached at: gnanagurunathan@gmail.com.