Language is primarily a means of communication. More importantly, it is the primary means of communication. Secondarily, it is an integral part of culture; it is the most important carrier of culture.
The struggle going on in Delhi against the English questions in the CSAT exams is a multidimensional struggle. It seeks to anoint Hindi as a dominant language in India. Indirectly, it is an attempt to impose the lordship of Hindi over the whole of India, though it may appear to be something much simpler and pro-poor.
Some time back, when Mr P Chidambaram, then Union Finance Minister, visited Kerala he asked the man sitting near him to translate into English what a bureaucrat was speaking. “But he is speaking in English,” answered the bewildered man. [Chidambaram would have understood had it been Malayalam.]
This anecdote which became a quasi-legend in Kerala illustrates the importance of language as a means of communication. Language is useless unless it communicates something effectively. Can a civil servant in India afford not to know English? Please don’t argue that English is a foreign language and we need to establish the indigenous languages. I think that is the one of the silliest arguments that anyone can put forward. Indigenous languages are too many for any one of them to be an effective link language in India.
We, Indians, need a common link language. Hindi could be that language if it did not carry the bag and baggage it does. The simplest problem with language is that it carries a culture with it and seeks to impose that culture wherever the language finds roots. That is as natural as McDonald’s imposing English in the heart of Bihar. [I’m using the word ‘culture’ rather euphemistically.]
There is a difference, however, from McDonald’s imposing English to its clients and the government imposing Hindi (or any language) on a whole people. The former is a choice and the latter is an imposition. A choice can be shirked off, but an imposition becomes a burden sooner than later.
One of the most prominent Malayalam newspapers carries an editorial today [Malayala Manorama, 6 Aug] on this issue that is being fought over in Modi’s Delhi these days. The editorial concludes with a very telling paragraph which I translate below:
“The CSAT questions maintain the curricular standard of class 10. Logical thinking, analytical skills, decision making, etc are the contents of the tests. Opposing English in the name of a national language may have to be considered as a volt-face on certain realities. If Hindi is given undue importance in this matter, the South Indian states will be at a debilitating receiving end.”
The editorial is not at all reactionary in tone or content. It is a very mature response to the issue. It names the umpteen Commissions set up earlier on this matter and asks why their suggestions have not been heeded to. It also implies that India is not a country where Hindi can be an effective common language. There are more states in India that do not use Hindi as a language for normal communication. Hindi imposed itself on many states even as McDonald’s did. Beyond that commercial use, any language can be an oppressive force when imposed directly or indirectly.
It is better that the people of Hindi speaking states learn enough English (class 10 standard) and pass the existing CSAT than make unnecessary changes which would indirectly handicap candidates from non-Hindi speaking states.