Not all Things in Hindi are Kosher to the Sangh: Hindi as Language and as Ideology

It is clear why India’s top advocates of Hindi are so conspicuously running shy of acknowledging a novel in Hindi winning the International Booker.

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Not too long back, Amit Shah, India’s home minister, made a pitch for the desirability of inter-state communications to be conducted in Hindi rather than in English. 

He adduced in support of his view sentiments expressed by Prime Minister Modi as well. 

Not surprisingly, this renewed advocacy of Hindi drew fire from many states, predictably in the South and East of the republic.

Geetanjali Shree. Photo: Bharat Tiwari.

In the meanwhile, as news came of the remarkable feat of an Indian novel in Hindi, Ret Samadhi (translated into English as Tomb of Sand) winning the coveted International Booker Prize for this year, one would have thought that both the prime minister and the home minister would be jumping with glee at this unprecedented recognition of prowess in Hindi.

As we know, the polemically agile prime minister is usually the quickest off the blocks to own and praise laurels won by an Indian abroad. 

That the case in point concerned Hindi, a language in which he proudly speaks at international fora, should have particularly pumped his nationalist zeal, one would have thought.

But no; we imagine that with the rest of the country, the brilliant novelist, Geetanjali Shree, must also be askance that Mr. Modi has thought it  best to maintain an intriguing silence on this extraordinary projection of the richness of Hindi. 

So, we may be excused for asking what is it that explains this contradiction – that we should on one hand be asked to embrace Hindi nationally, and on the other hand, an unprecedented honour brought to the country by a novel in Hindi should go unremarked by those who  enjoin us to embrace Hindi?

Hindi as language and as ideology

The fact of the matter is that no language is ever just an innocent vehicle of quotidian communication.

The history of any language, big or small, is replete with cultural loads and discrete social preferences that bespeak a skein of ideological stances at any given moment in which different segments of civil society make use of that language.

Also read: Why the BJP Govt – Usually Keen to Laud Indians’ Feats – Is Silent on Shree’s Booker Win

Thus, for example, the English language during colonial rule came to be used as a vehicle of ideological incorporation of the ideals of the British empire. But, progressive traditions in literary and political productions in the English language simultaneously made it possible for India’s freedom fighters to use the very same language as a liberating agent against colonial oppression. If John Stuart Mill’s epochal essay On Liberty (1850) became a veritable Bible for anti-colonial intellectuals, the writings of the English socialist, John Ruskin, and of the American transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson greatly influenced the shape that Gandhi’s praxis was to take. 

In Sanskrit, again, the dominant Brahminical archive of thought was challenged in such works as Mudrarakshasa by Vishakhadatta, Mricchakatikam by Sudraka, even Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava – all in the very same language.

In Urdu, likewise, there have been the classical traditionalists on one side, and “progressive writers” on the other, such as Munshi Premchand Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi, Nida Fazli, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Majaz, Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Fahmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, Aleena Itrat, even Mirza Ghalib. The progressive writers sought to project a wholly liberated view of the culture which the traditionalists often thought integral to and inseparable from the Urdu language.

Languages, thus, are intimately inter-twined with the political contentions of any era, and what becomes of them depends wholly on the location, ideological placement, the political objectives and the material clout of the user. (Reason why certain books/ reading materials find a place in officially designated curricula and others do not in one and the same language.)

Thus, if a Ravish Kumar, celebrated Hindi news anchor, is awarded a Ramon Magsaysay award, there is bound to be silence in the right-wing camp for the simple reason that his use of Hindi does not serve the purposes of the current masters of national culture.

Same, sadly, is the case with respect to Geetanjali Shree, first winner of the International Booker Prize for a work written in Hindi. Those who have written on her body of work have one major point to make, namely that her work in Hindi is suffused with a stern and consistent interrogation of value-systems handed down to us in the Hindi belt, especially by those who patronise first Hindi and then a reactionary social order which they feel is inherent to an authentic use of Hindi.

In a fine estimation of the prize-winning novel, Mrinal Pande, herself a doyen of Hindi writers and litterateurs, has underscored some of these facets with insight and emphasis.

 She isolates with clarity Geetanjali’s immersion in unravelling a “series of cultures” in the history of the Hindi belt, (rather than one monochromatic culture), and indeed, through a resplendent imagining across centuries, a plurality of human experience that no peroration demanding collapse into any one linguistic spool may succeed in realising.

Is it a surprise then that neither the prime minister, nor the home minister, who always wish to draw us into an ideological allegiance which seeks to equate Hindi with true nationalism of a single-minded kind should have lauded her unparalleled success, or, earlier, Ravish Kumar’s achievement of another international honour as a Hindi television anchor?

Hindi as Hindutva

The people and non-BJP governments in south and east India who resist this call to embrace Hindi thus fully realise what is intended in that call. It is not just to come to like and use another language, but along with it to also adopt a cultural ideology that the proponents have in mind. They wish Hindi to be the vehicle of Hindutva, not just a sister language to other Indian languages to simply complete a bouquet of articulation that comprises, in the view of progressive Indians, the composite historical and ideological life of Bharat.

Were that not the case, why would India’s top two advocates of Hindi be so conspicuously running shy of acknowledging a novel in Hindi winning the International Booker?