Separatism in India

India is known for religious riots and pogroms, probably one of the most affected countries in the world.

But a lesser known fact is the number of language riots that occurred in India since this new state was carved out of Britain's South Asia dominion in 1947.

Violent language riots were a regular occurrence throughout the first twenty years after independence. The last of those riots took place in 1967.

But on June 30, 2014, India's ruling elite in New Delhi got to taste the intensity of the emotions behind the earlier riots. Even more shocking was the revelation that those long-forgotten riots could easily erupt again in twenty-first century India.

On that day, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi averted a possible resurgence of language riots after he landed in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to attend a commercial satellite launch ceremony.

One simple decision he took that day meant the difference between peace and war between North India and South India.

And that decision was not to use the Hindi language in a public event in Tamil Nadu.

Modi abandoned Hindi, the language that his religious-minded BJP is promoting these days, in favour of reading his speech in English from a teleprompter at a commercial satellite launching event at Sriharikota, in Tamil Nadu in South India.

This was a difficult decision for Modi and loaded with irony. Just two weeks earlier, he addressed the parliament in India's neighbour Bhutan in Hindi. The visit and the language choice were part of what the BBC described as Modi “government's policy of asserting influence in South Asia.”

It must have been awkward for Modi to see how he could speak in Hindi in neighbouring Bhutan but not in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The state is vehemently opposed to Modi's and BJP's plans to impose the minority Hindi language on all of India.

By opting for English, Modi averted a revival of the anti-Hindi riots in South India, which lasted for two decades until Delhi's Hindi-speaking rulers conceded in 1967 and the Official Languages Act was amended to make English an official language in Tamil Nadu.

South India has been home to a strong and violent secessionist movement born in 1949 and centred on a key idea: the rejection of the control of the Hindi-speaking minority rulers in New Delhi. The Tamil Nadu political parties that led the movement remain influential in South Indian politics.

Nationalists or Extremists

They are mostly known in the international media these days as 'Hindu nationalists,' but the religious extremists who have seized power in New Delhi are in a race against time.

Hoping to fulfil a narrow religious interpretation, the religious-minded BJP government is pursuing two objectives. One, purify Hindi, the language spoken by a northern minority that rules India since 1947. Two, impose the language on all Indians, a majority of whom speak one of twenty-two officially recognized languages or one of the more than 1,500 mother tongues that are not officially sanctioned.

The BJP has made several small unannounced moves in this direction, like having its elected representatives take oath of office in Hindi or even in Sanskrit, which almost no one in India understands except professional linguists or Hindu clergymen.

But the first real official step in imposing Hindi on India has to be the June 19, 2014, story that took India by storm: the issuance of a government order stipulating that all government-run social media accounts will from now on use Hindi as the language of communication. In short, the order made the use of Hindi mandatory, and English optional.

Interestingly, Modi chose the Home Ministry, India's interior ministry or homeland security department, to make this announcement.  What does the police and law enforcement have to do with a decision on imposing uniform language in a multilingual country?

S. Ramadoss, the founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the ruling BJP's coalition partner in Tamil Nadu, mocked Modi's decision as a “softer version” of the imposition of Hindi language on non-Hindi speaking Indians.

What made this decision look creepy is that there was no plausible government explanation as to why it was important to enforce Hindi, a minority language in a country wracked by diverse ethnicities and languages?And why at this time? What were the compulsions?

The answer is in itself a story that India's BJP-led government would never want to tell publicly.

Purifying the language and then imposing it on all Indians is apparently meant to fulfil a mythical notion of 'Maha Bharat', or Greater India. This notion is linked to stories common to Hindi-speaking northern Indians who bemoan the demise of a mythical religious empire destroyed by pagan and Muslim invaders from West and Central Asia. Needless to say, South Indians, with better education and a less complicated worldview, do not let their modern lives be disturbed by such myths. Hence, the imposition of Hindi is basically a North Indian obsession.

North India's 'Hindi Project' is two-pronged.

First, Hindi is being 'Sanskritized', meaning it is being peppered with words from the old Sanskrit, the language today known only to Hindu clergy. All the words from Persian and Arabic are being expunged. Those words were acquired during the ten-century Muslim dynastic rule in North India. This rule forever changed Hindi heartland's customs, language, and even the dress code.

This is a cultural revolution, or the North Indian version of the Spanish Inquisition. The purification of Hindi is also a symbol of rising religious extremism in India. More accurately, it symbolizes rising radicalization among Hindi-speaking Indians who  a minority at one-fourth of the population  control federal bureaucracy, the military, and foreign policy. [How the Hindi-speaking elite disproportionately concentrated power is explained in detail in 'Separatism In India: The Hindi-speaking Factor' (Hilal, May 2014)].

Modi’s government’s order to use Hindi on official social media accounts is rightly seen as a feeler, a first step meant to soften the opposition and pave the way for an impending decision designating Hindi as the official language across all thirty states and territories that make up India.

As sooner as the news broke out, bitter reaction was witnessed from public leaders in Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and even in Kashmir, a disputed territory under United Nations Security Council resolutions. Opposition has also come from India's educated and ethnically-diverse middle class that makes up one-third of the population of 1.2 billion Indians.

"No one can deny, it's beginning to impose Hindi against one's wish. This would be seen as an attempt to treat non-Hindi speakers as second-class citizens," Reuter's wire service has quoted Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M. Karunanidhi as saying on June 19. DMK is the party that led the 1949 secessionist movement and the subsequent language protests.

The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa, did not stop at condemning the Delhi order. She wrote a letter to Prime Minister Modi and released a copy to the media.

According to the contents of the letter, Jayalalithaa said she reviewed the order on Hindi language and concluded that it “makes the use of Hindi mandatory and English optional.”

This, she cautioned, is "a highly sensitive issue, causes disquiet to the people of Tamil Nadu who are very proud of, and passionate about, their linguistic heritage (…) Hence, I request you to kindly ensure that instructions are suitably modified to ensure that English is used on social media.”

One of the strongest reactions came from Odisha, a tiny state on the Bay of Bengal. The speaker of the local parliament “banned” the use of Hindi language inside the assembly, according to a June 20 report by Press Trust of India. This in turn led to a loud condemnation from Shiv Sena, a Hindu extremist group widely accused of links to violence against Christians, Muslims, Dalits and Sikhs.

By banning the use of Hindi inside the parliament, the Odisha speaker sent a message of defiance to New Delhi's Hindi-speaking ruling elite.

Another BJP ally in South India, a party known as MDMK, or the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, accused the BJP of threatening the “national integrity” of India. Vaiko, the head of the party, warned New Delhi not to “wake up a sleeping tiger,” adding, “Tamil Nadu has shed blood on imposition of Hindi.”

To the north, near the border with Pakistan and China, the Chief Minister of the pro-Indian administration of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir also condemned the Indian Government decision. He said the order is “unacceptable.” This is a strong condemnation from someone that a majority of Kashmiris consider an Indian puppet; a sign of how intense the opposition is to the imposition of Hindi.

Two languages, Kashmiri and Urdu, are the official languages in this Indian-occupied region. Urdu is also the official language of Pakistan. No region or state in India has Urdu as an official language.

Just like Tamil Nadu in the South, Punjab in the North also saw a popular movement against the imposition of Hindi language. This movement was successful in forcing New Delhi to declare Punjabi as the official language in the province.  This demand for Punjabi was led by the Sikhs. The Hindi-speakers did grant them their wish but it came at a cost. The Hindi-speakers in New Delhi cut the Sikhs down to size, dividing the province into three pieces, known today as the Haryana state, and the Himachal Pradesh state. Thanks to Punjabi Hindus who strongly supported the Hindi language in the face of the anti-Hindi movement of the Sikhs. So, with the Punjabi Hindu help, New Delhi turned the Hindu-majority areas of Punjab into two new states. This in effect weakened the size of territory under Sikhs influence or control. This was a clear case of discrimination based on religion. This is why Sikh organizations inside, and outside, India are demanding the restoration of Sikh lands and greater autonomy within the Indian federation and, in some cases, an independent Sikh state.

The Hindi Prophecy

Imposing Hindi on India as a fulfillment of an extremist religious prophecy has been on the agenda of the Indian extremists for more than a decade now.

In 1997, BJP government's Foreign Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee broke the rules and delivered his country's speech at the UN General Assembly in Hindi.  Later, Vajpayee went on to say that doing so was “one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Vajpayee is a Brahmin, the highest caste in the Hindu religious social system.

Modi's mother tongue is Gujarati. But as the BJP prepared him for Prime Minister's position, he is thought to have received private lessons to polish his Hindi and completely phase out Gujarati from his public life. Why would Modi do this? He never explained this but the decision was probably influenced by religious extremists who dominate the BJP.  Once again, this is a case of the BJP using religion to push the agenda of imposing Hindi on India.

The BJP uses a secular explanation to camouflage the religious connotations of the Hindi language agenda.

The most common justification is that Hindi unites India and that many residents of the non-Hindi speaking states in India understand some form of Hindi and so the imposition of Hindi would unite the country.

This assertion is debatable at best. There is no way to quantify it, and no conclusion can be made for, or against, this assertion except to say that a majority of Indians do not speak the language and that they know of it only as a second language and that too if they mingle with Hindi-speakers or watch Hindi television and films.

The government in New Delhi is often at pains to show that more than 41% of Indians speak Hindi. Population census figures are doctored to support this theory. But even then, only ten states out of thirty states and territories in the Indian Union list Hindi as an official language. Technically, this means one-third of India in terms of number of votes. But one of those ten states that list Hindi as state language is Arunachal Pradesh that borders China. This is a disputed territory entirely claimed by China. The population here is not Indian but of Tibetan descent. Hindi is not spoken here and is not even a second language, except in state documents and government communications. That leaves nine Indian states that list Hindi as official language. Two of them are actually Punjabi-speaking states that list Hindi only as a show of support against the Sikhs.

Overall, it would be fair to put the number of Hindi speakers in India at 25% of the total population. As such, the decision of the Modi government to impose Hindi on the remainder 75% of the Indians appears to be an attempt by a powerful minority to impose its worldview on the majority for religious reasons.

While there is some debate in the Indian media on the imposition of Hindi, there is little discussion on the purification drive, expunging Persian and Arabic words from Hindi and replacing them with Sanskrit. Where would this drive end? The influence of Pakistan's ancestors in the Hindi heartland is not limited to language. Names for the newly born in the Hindi Belt continue to be borrowed from the Pakistani/Muslim heritage. The dress code in the Hindi Belt is distinctly inherited from the Muslim dynastic era. The Taj Mahal is a relic of that era with Qur'anic verses adorning the four sides of the magnificent building. Poetry in Hindi is incomplete without the Persian/Arabic components of Urdu.  Would Modi and religious extremists of the BJP re-engineered civilization to cleanse the Hindi language and culture?

Whatever the end of this debate in India, it is clear that the purification drive within the Hindi language is feeding Indian extremism, and any decision to impose the language on the non-Hindi speaking majority would revive dormant divisions in India.

Can this stop the religious extremists in power in New Delhi today? Let's wait and see.

The writer is a senior research fellow at Project for Pakistan in 21st Century, an independent think-tank based in Islamabad.

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