Monday, June 30, 2014

Why this haste for policies that can wait? Like Hindi. Who is pushing agendas that divide the people?

The Prime Minister complains that he did not get a honeymoon period of even a hundred hours. True. But why? For so careful and calculating a political leader, he allowed too many crisis points to develop in his very first days in office. Like the unconscionable railway rates hike before a finger was lifted to improve safety standards or food hygiene on board. The intensity of public protests rattled the mighty Government; it put off plans to increase gas and kerosene prices. More disturbing than this onslaught on aam aadmis' pockets are the communal crimes that surface in isolated areas. The impression has spread that some agenda is at work, perhaps without government backing but without government disapproval either. The haste with which disruptionist policies are being pushed suggests that the forces behind the agendas are too dogmatic to care about the consequences.

The sudden announcement enforcing Hindi in all dealings by and with the Union Government is a case in point. This must be clearly separated from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to use Hindi at his international meetings. That is a welcome move. If the Japanese and the Russians and the Chinese and the Cubans and the Brazilians speak in their language at summit meetings, there is no reason why the Indians should not. Let Modi speak in Hindi to Xi Jinping because Xi will speak in Mandarin; both are fluent enough in English but both will find their native languages easier for the free flow of thought.

But it is a very different matter when an Indian with roots in Hindi is put above an Indian with roots in another language. That is discrimination pure and simple. Institutionalised discrimination is precisely what the Home Ministry has turned into policy by instructing officials to use only Hindi in social media, address Ministers only in Hindi and write notings in files only in Hindi. Obviously this will give native Hindi-speakers a huge advantage over others. A senior government secretary with good working knowledge of Hindi will be overtaken by a junior colleague whose upbringing has been in Hindi. Employment and promotion opportunities will go up for Hindi people and down for others.To put it simply, the Government move on Hindi is divisive.

India is the world's only multilingual democracy where language divides people instead of uniting them. This is the result of a parochial mindset incapable of understanding the benefits of multilinguism and multiculturalism. Otherwise the political class would have seen how wisely other countries deal with the problem. Switzerland with a population of just 7 million (Bangalore has more than 10 million) gives official status to German, Italian, French and Romansh, all enjoying constitutionally guaranteed equality of status. No chauvinist in one language region attempts oneupmanship over others. Indeed, Switzerland sustains a credible national identity because of its unifying multilingual policy. In Canada English dominance gave way in the 1960s to accommodate the rights of 20 percent Canadians whose mother tongue was French. Today the two-language culture is inspiring more and more Canadians to take to French as a second window to the world.

Asia holds the best lessons for the language zealots of India. Little Singapore has four official languages, Tamil and English receiving as much attention as Chinese and Malay. Big China has a dozen different languages (they are called dialects, but are mutually unintelligible). They are unified, however, by a common script. Mandarin, the official language, has been getting standardised into Putonghua to benefit all regions. Vietnam had a unifying roman script introduced by 17th century missionaries. Nationalist social reformers of the 19th century popularised the diacritic-filled "foreign" script, ensuring one language in effect for all the people.

It is Indonesia's example that stands out. This sprawling chain of islands has 706 "living" languages of which 347 are active and flourishing, compared to our 22 scheduled ones. Java being the most populous island, the Javanese language was the dominant one with its own Arabic script. It was easy, even natural, for the early freedom fighters to adopt Javanese as the official language of the Republic of Indonesia. But they took a conscious decision not to do so. In order to ensure that all citizens had equal opportunities in the new country, they developed a standardised Bahasa Indonesia based on Malay. What's more, they abandoned Javanese script and adopted roman instead. Language was effectively used to weld Indonesia's scattered islands into a nation.

We boast of our civilisation, but we do not act in civilised ways.