Hindi Nationalism

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Item Code: NAJ553
Author: Alok Rai
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 9788125019794
Pages: 152
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 X 5.5 inch
Weight 160 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

This tract by Alok Rai looks at the politics of language in India through a study of the history of one language-Hindi. It traces the tragic metamorphosis of this language over the last century, from a creative, dynamic, popular language to a dead, Sanskritised, dePersianised language manufactured by a self-serving upper caste North Indian elite, nurturing hegemonic ambitions. From being a symbol of collective imagination it became a signifier of narrow sectarianism and regional chauvinism. The tract shows how this transformation of the language was tied up with the politics of communalism and regionalism.

Rai seeks to save Hindi from the politics of Hindi nationalism. If Hindi has to realise its inner potential and become a national language of communication, argues Rai, then it has to emancipate itself from its own repressed history, and dissociate itself from its deformed other-the Sanskritised Hindi of the pundits. It can only do this through a critical return to its troubled past. In returning to that past, Rai hopes to create the possibilities of a new future.

This is a powerful tract, written with emotion and passion, sparkling with wit and ideas. It persuades us to rethink the question of National Language, and reflect on the tangled links between language, identity and politics.



The matter of Hindi has received a fair amount of attention of late. Several scholarly books and essays have already appeared, others are in process, At one level, then, my essay is an attempt to synthesise this emergent understanding of a crucial passage of our modern cultural history, and situate it in a context of contemporary concern.

At another level, my involvement with these matters-the question of Hindi /Urdu, in short-is intensely personal. Among the many things that I inherited from my father, Amrit Rai, was a pile of books and notebooks, flagged and ready, littered all over his desk. When he was reduced to a sudden silence by the stroke that eventually claimed his life, he was at work on revising and expanding his monograph on these themes. (Published, originally, as A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi-Urdu, Oxford University Press, 1984.) I hesitate to say that I have sought to complete the work that he left unfinished, not least because our discussions on these, and most other, matters were often marked by vociferous disagreement. On the other hand, there is a certain continuity of concern. His book ends, effectively, in 1870. My own story starts around then-concerned as I am not primarily with the causes of the linguistic division as with the consequences, often the unintended consequences, of that fateful division.

There is a deeper continuity, too-one that goes back, beyond my father, to his father. In his final dying years, plagued by ill-health, Premchand was still campaigning feverishly against the divisive tendencies that were, then as now, undermining the composite linguistic legacy of which he was both an exponent and a votary. In that personal and filial sense, then, I didn't choose the subject, it chose me. However, I must quickly add that this filial obligation feels less like a privilege than a burden-one to which I feel confessedly inadequate. If this essay does no more than to bring the matter of Hindi into public consciousness, and encourage others more capable than I to reflect on these profoundly important matters, I will consider the (too many) years well-spent.

It is of the very nature of work such as this, that its world of reference is multi-lingual. My rough-and-ready translations will give English readers some idea of the original quotations. But the Nagari texts have been included, even at the risk of some visual dislocation, to enable most Indian readers, at any rate, to savour the tang of the original. Finally, in this kind of work, which touches on so many diverse areas, one incurs many different kinds of debt. The formal, academic ones are acknowledged in the appropriate places. At a personal level, I have puttered around in this domain for so long that I cannot hope even to remember the names of all the people with whom I have discussed these matters. I would nevertheless like to place on record the names of some of the people who have helped me in various ways, with books and papers, with sympathetic listening and with creative disagreements: Francesca Orsini, Sudipta Kaviraj, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Krishna Kumar, Hari Mohan Malaviya, Shahid Amin, Rajeev Bhargava, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Aijaz Ahmad.

It will remain a matter of lasting regret that this book will not be read by the one person who did more than any other, in one way and another, to make it both possible and, finally, ineluctable--my father, Amrit Rai. So, the last word's mine, then. At last. Alas.



The past is a foreign country, a foreign novel opens, they do things differently there. With us, as the last few years have demonstrated, it is different again: no past is ever past, no file is ever closed. In India nothing is ever done with: the "sack" of Somnath is "avenged", one thousand years later, in the fetid alleys of Bhagalpur, amid the squalor of Bombay. It appears as if all kinds of pasts, real and imagined, are in fact where we are happiest to live, backing fractiously into the future. It is almost as if the grammatical peculiarity of Hindi-its use of identical words for yesterday and tomorrow-has infected our politics, so that our contests for possible futures take on the appearance of, indeed often become, vendettas over bits and pieces of the past.

The apparently distant history which is my theme, these long- done controversies-concerning the appropriate script for use in the courts of the British Raj, the appropriate language for poetry, the value of unnecessarily alternative classical heritages (Sanskrit or Persian?)-are not really distant at all. It isn't merely long memories that are at play-the constantly renewed experience of hurt and humiliation, an abstract historical rage seeking an adequate object-though there is that also. It. is my argument that this history is an important-if relatively neglected-part of the unfinished project of Indian nationalism. The crystallisation of the self-consciousness of the Hindi belt intelligentsia, and the related making of the tributary stream of Hindi nationalism-which is related to, but not identical with Hindu nationalism are deeply consequential processes, even if, and particularly when, they are not given due recognition, proper cognizance. These must be brought into consciousness, worked through and not repressed, if they are not to continue leaking their poisons into the body politic.

The matter of Hindi has been agitating the public life of the country, in several different ways, for the past hundred years at least. And one may well wish that now, poised on the cusp of the twenty-first century, this particular file could be closed. After all, it is universally agreed that the emerging lingua mundo is English. And all classes of people in all parts of the country are desperate to learn English, as the rash of canonisations manifest in the names of mofussil primary schools, the Saint This and the Saint That, demonstrates with such pathetic clarity. My particular favourite is Saint Marry, emblazoned just after Suberdarganj, on the right of the Delhi-Allahabad railway track.

Is it possible, then, that the matter of Hindi will simply fall away-become but another piece of historical baggage that we will shed as we hasten onwards? Will Hindi dwindle and become merely another flavour in the advertisers' culinary kit, a spice casually sprinkled to appeal to special, ethnic audiences- Yeh dil maange more, so to speak? Or is the matter of Hindi simply the visible-more precisely, audible, vocal-form of a range of unrest and social dysfunction which, if unattended to, will threaten those glowing daydreams, that millennial future?

In one sense, certainly, Hindi-the matter of Hindi-is merely a symptom of a wide range of social distress, a shorthand way of naming and focus sing several different kinds of unease: metropolitan unease regarding the laggard, draggy hinterland; mofussil anxiety regarding what appears increasingly like an elite hijack of the Indian State; "Southern" suspicion regarding "Northern" domination; cow-belt restiveness about its own evident, and even intentional marginalisation. However, I would argue further that the matter of "Hindi" is also the preferred route by which we may begin to address some of the causes of our present distress. Properly understood, properly deployed, Hindi can also play an invaluable part in the process of necessary social transformation; neglected, forsworn, abandoned, it can be, and perhaps already is being, deployed in the service of other, ugly transformations. Thus, Hindi is the name of the disease. It is also, I suggest, one of the names or ingredients of the cure. That makes writing about these matters particularly difficult. However, before addressing these matters directly, here's an anecdote which encapsulates, for me at least, some of the underlying themes of my narrative.

It is a winter morning in Delhi: on Safdar Hashmi Marg, outside the SriRam Cultural Centre, the open space which is already, given the depth of our current "traditions", traditionally Sahmat's own. A motley and hastily assembled group of people is protesting the rumoured (and later denied) official ban on Salman Rushdie's Moor by publicly reading short sections from the book. It is a pleasant and harmless sort of occasion, a classic demonstration of liberal symbolic politics, interesting only in as much as many of the people gathered there would be self-styled radicals. The really interesting action, from my point of view, is taking place at some distance from the protest venue, where a small group of Hindi intellectuals, including one vociferous short story writer, is protesting against the protest itself. He is not a Shiv Sena supporter, fulminating in defence of his lampooned leader, Thackeray-Mainduck; he is not even closet-BJP, flashing his wares in the hope of finding takers or creating a distraction. He is a pained Hindi liberal-and what pains him is the fancied hegemony that is being demonstrated, he feels, at the protest site. A tiny and unrepresentative elite, he feels, is taking upon itself a cultural-political role, out of all proportion to its numbers. His resentment is vindicated by the fact that the protest, which includes some familiar names and faces, is featured briefly on the national media.

The irony is that if he would only stop to listen, he would find that many of the loathed English speakers would actually agree with him. Of course the English speaking elite exercises a wildly disproportionate social influence-though one may well wonder if the impugned protesters are a representative sample of that influential elite. Of course, also, that the popular energies that can be mobilised and focussed through Hindi could constitute a transformative force in our national life. Thus, a significant part of the success of the BJP is due to the fact that for a long time, the field of vernacular mobilisation in the heartland was left clear for them. Though he does not voice his anguish in these terms, it is clear that such indeed are the elements that constitute his liberal bewilderment.

There is a very real sense in which the matter of Hindi is blocked. There is hardly any discussion possible any more: the Hindi-wallah feels paranoid and dispossessed, convinced that his case-Hindi as the one and only national language, here, now!- is so palpably justified that anyone who demurs ever so slightly is certainly in bad faith, and probably an enemy. And any attempts to open the matter up to rational and historical consideration soon come to naught, begin to seem blocked and merely frustrating, a neurotic waste of energy. In such a situation, it doesn't take a great deal to convince the non-Hindiwallah that the matter of Hindi is dead, and should be buried quickly, along with the rogues who have fed at the trough of Hindi for all these years.

There are two, widely different reactions whenever the matter of "Hindi" is broached: all those who are connected with Hindi-Urdu in any way whatsoever fall instantly into passionate contention; others, who are outside this furious circle are totally bemused. (Even in the Constituent Assembly debates-see below, pp. 110-14-the matter aroused such strong feelings that it endangered the constitution-making process itself, and discussion had to be deferred until the very end, when much of the essential business was already in the bag, so to speak.) Even the simplest questions beget further controversy, but no clarification. Thus, consider the following elementary queries: are Hindi and Urdu two names of the same language, or are they two different languages? does Urdu become Hindi if it is written in the Nagari script? is Hindi Hindu? is Urdu Muslim, even though Muslims in distant Malabar have been known to claim it as their mother tongue? The only reasonable, and maddening, answer to all these questions is, well, yes and no. In respect of neither Hindi nor Urdu can one give an unambiguous answer: one has to go into the historical detail to explain how/why it isn't; and then, in the space of a few decades, why it is. I hope indeed that my own intervention in this contentious domain is not uninformed by passion-but one of the avowed objects of this monograph is to provide some historical elucidation, some basic clarification for my much put- upon friends from other parts of the country, who have sat through many heated, futile, blocked arguments-deriving from them only a deeper conviction of the perverseness of the cow-belt and its intelligentsia.

I am convinced that this blockage is a tragedy, and that its consequences-first- and second-order-will affect all of us, whether or not we believe that the matter of Hindi concerns us at all. The error that the Hindiwallah makes is to believe that the story of this historical stalemate is simply the story of an anti-Hindi conspiracy by a gaggle of the English elite, successors of the Urdu- wielding Avadh elite of yesteryear; that in fact this story is somehow complete without talking reflexively about the history of Hindi itself; that the curious persistence of English in our India is not, in some sense, a symptom of some larger default. The Hindiwallah is altogether too conscious of the fact that Hindi is, given the particular nature of its being, its evolution and history, an unquestionably important part of the solution. What he is unable to see is that Hindi is also, again because of the particular nature of its being, its evolution and history, an inescapable part of the problem.

Historically speaking, Hindi has been understood, defined and projected through a series of antitheses: with Urdu; with its "dialects", notably Braj; with the "provincial" languages; with English. We shall have occasion to return to some of these antitheses at greater length later. For now, it is sufficient to remark that in all these antitheses, with their countless local eruptions, there is a curious assumption of innocence and inviolability on the part of Hindi and its protagonists. It is almost as if the antitheses do not have a retrospective and dialectical effect on Hindi itself: it is always-already in a state of achieved and stainless perfection. As far as the Hindiwallah is concerned, Hindi has no history- there is only the endlessly reiterated history of the "wrongs" that have been done to Hindi. But despite all the alleged violence, Hindi still remains miraculously inviolate. This is, of course, nonsense.




  Editorial Preface vii
  Preface xiii
  Introduction 1
1 What's in a Name? 11
2 The MacDonnell Moment 17
3 Making a Difference 50
4 The Heroic Agenda 65
5 Hindi Nationalism 93
6 Roads to the Present 106
7 Notes 123
  Select Bibiography 131

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