It was 70 years ago today that Hindi was chosen as India’s official language – a day that’s commemorated every year with the ‘festival’ of Hindi Diwas. The inverted commas seem appropriate when using the word ‘festival’ here; yes, Hindi Diwas may be a celebratory exhibition of poetry, debates, essay-writing, and idea exchanges, but it is observed mostly by the current Indian government, as well as related organisations, such as schools and offices.
It’s not really one for the entire country, particularly when up to 50% of India does not consider Hindi to be their language – and since, contrary to popular opinion, India does not have just one official language either.
You’ll find something of a backlash on Twitter against Hindi Diwas, with disgruntled non-Hindi speakers upset at the prospect of their taxes being used to celebrate a language that isn’t theirs. It’s a valid point too – are there celebrations for Punjabi, Gujarati, Telugu, Tamil? Dig into this backlash, and you uncover a trove of sociopolitical issues centred around Hindi and its use in India.
duty of the union to promote the spread of th Hindi Language. why only Hindi? even we Kannadigas also pay tax, Amend this and promote all languages equally.#WeDontWantHindiDivas #WewantBharatabhashadivasa pic.twitter.com/i7kC6MjjnV
— ಅರುಣ್ ಜಾವಗಲ್ | Arun Javgal (@ajavgal) September 5, 2019
I spoke with Mr. Rakesh Nautiyal, Senior Lector in Hindi at SOAS, to ask him about Hindi Diwas, and the importance and appreciation of the language within India. He started with this: “You cannot become Prime Minister of India if you cannot speak Hindi.”
Indeed, current – and highly controversial – Prime Minister Narendra Modi feels so strongly about Hindi, that not only does he speak it, but his government, the right-wing Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are doing their best to maximise its use across the nation, even if they might not admit it sometimes. Mr. Modi champions the use of Hindi, and has preferred to speak it in public appearances since his election; he historically gave a speech to the UN General Assembly in 2014 entirely in Hindi, emulating former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who became the first person to deliver a speech to the UN in the language in 1977.
For Modi, the global recognition afforded to Hindi does not accurately reflect its standing within Indian society and the world. As an example, the UN, who this writer is happy to use as a focal point in this article, do not recognise Hindi as an official language – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish hold that particular distinction – despite boasting over 500 million speakers in India alone. This explains the importance within government for Hindi Diwas, a day that celebrates and encourages the use of Hindi.
“The government in power tends to determine the lingua franca in India. Modi and the BJP are very much pro-Hindi, and you see this in things like standardised examinations and job applications, which are now given in Hindi. But this wasn’t always the case,” says Nautiyal.
Former Prime Ministers of India Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were noted for their preference of speaking English – they gave their respective UN speeches in English – and their terms coincided with an increase of English speakers in India. This, coupled with the aftereffects of colonial rule, mean that English remains prominent in the country today.
Some parts of India, such as the southern states of Tamilnadu and Kerala, list English as their second language, with Tamil and Malayalam their respective preferred vernacular. The south of India is particularly resistant to Hindi, which ties back to an old civil clash between the hotly contested groups of ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ people.
Broadly summed up, the north-to-middle of India is considered to be ‘Aryan’, with the south ‘Dravidian’. You may associate the term ‘Aryan’ with Nazism; the term to describe fair-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Germans was borrowed – along with the Swastika – from Indian culture, with the Aryans in India considered to be fairer than their southern counterparts. Mr. Nautiyal explains, “The Dravidians refuse to speak Hindi as a second language, because they fear a loss of their culture.” Within education in the south of India, then, students elect to study English as a second language at school.
In fact, the ability to speak English is considered a symbol of status in India, a sign of education, wealth, and class. I recall, on a visit to India 20 years ago, being asked to speak English at all times in order to demonstrate a sense of higher status, despite being able to speak Hindi, and even when the people I spoke with were unable to speak English. Is this normal? “Go to a five-star hotel in India and try speaking to them in Hindi,” Nautiyal suggests. “They will ignore you.”
So, on one side, you have a government that’s determined to make Hindi the main language across India, and to encourage its use internationally; on the other, you have a culture that considers English to be an aspirational tongue – bluntly put, a better language. How can you convince regions that prefer to speak English to change to the latter, especially when your society seems to believe that the former is better?
Well, we return to those job applications Nautiyal was talking about. “People have to migrate across India to find jobs, and these ‘job migrants’ are finding that they’re now having to learn Hindi in order to succeed. You either learn Hindi, or you’re not getting a job.” Statistics appear to reveal that under Modi’s government, the message is becoming quite clear to even the most resistant regions of the country; according to Nautiyal, in 2018, the biggest increase of Hindi speakers was in the state of Tamilnadu.
But what does this actually mean? Recent trends show that job opportunities are becoming abundant away from the overly saturated Delhi, and in more southern cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. While there is undoubtedly an increase in Hindi learners in southern states, perhaps the increasing number of Hindi speakers in Tamilnadu is down to migrants moving south?
I’m left with one last thing to ask Mr. Nautiyal. What happens if the next Government of India is not interested in promoting the use of Hindi? Could the language be abandoned? “I think it’s not going to go back to how it was before. We may see a relaxation of Hindi in certain parts of the country, but the world is accepting Hindi as the main Indian language now. If you go onto the Amazon India website, for example, it’s written in Hindi.” Indeed, as I can personally verify, if you set your Amazon Echo to ‘India’, Alexa will speak to you in Hindi.
“India and Hindi are linked together by the big, international businesses now. They’re teaching their employees Hindi, and offering Hindi customer service. India’s a ‘market’, and Hindi’s how you communicate with that market.” We both smile as he makes the inverted commas with his fingers. The perfect way to end a conversation about a ‘festival’.