There seems to be a subtle race to catch up with the big neighbour China and this is not a new phenomenon. Even Nehru was so conscious of the neighbour across the Himalayan ranges that he tried to play the big brother and was rudely put in his place. China was also the first to launch the grand ‘one child’ norm to control population and later the ‘one road, one belt’ initiative that has caught the imagination of the world.
China realised only much later about the disastrous consequences of this ham-handed family planning initiative. India, by contrast, had only launched the modest ‘we two, our two’ small family slogan that was coined during the Indira Gandhi years, and the 20 points programme, to bring some discipline. Much later Atal Bihari Vajpayee initiated the spectacular ‘quadrilateral’ highways scheme that would knit the country, but this was nothing compared to the range or scale of the ‘belt and road’ scheme that would girdle the huge Asian landmass, in fact half the world. No wonder Napoleon had cautioned, ‘let China sleep, when she wakes up the world would come to grief.’
China has many things going in its favour, a homogenous people, the great Han race and complete insulation from other countries. The people are also not given to revolt as in Russia or neighbouring Islamic countries. There are, on the other hand, countries and races that thrive on their diversity as French president de Gaulle once said in exasperation, ‘How can you govern a country that has 300 different kinds of cheese.’ Britain has only one and that made all the difference.
Extreme suspicion has also made the Chinese more insular and it has been said famously by the Chinese themselves,‘Don’t be afraid of God, don’t be scared of the devil, but be wary of the foreigner who speaks Chinese.’ That insularity and that cohesion are the strong points of the Chinese as well as their Achilles’ heel.
These trends seem particularly relevant when one views the recent attempts to bring some cohesion and unity in this country by the measures like the ‘one country, one election’ and now, ‘one country, one language.’ The spirit behind such measures is certainly laudable but when one looks back at the attempts made in these directions these have not always been successful. For example, Mohammad Ali Jinnah tried it soon after he carved out a theocratic Pakistan, when at a lecture in Dacca University, he suggested that Urdu be made the language of the nascent nation. That led to violence and killings in the campus and paved the way for the ultimate break up of that theocratic state. He didn’t realise that sometimes language can become a more potent and unifying force than religion, as sometimes tribal allegiance can. There are countries that are divided by language as well.
Nearer home, in 1965 when Hindi was declared the official language and ‘imposed’ on Republic Day it led to large-scale violence in Tamil Nadu and the ultimate decimation of the Congress party that had ruled the state since Independence. Since then the national party had not been able to come to power there. Interestingly enough, watching the violence during the agitation, perceptive observers and Delhi columnists had already written off that state and words like Balkanisation came to be used frequently, and for the first time in the Indian context. That was in January, but in August that same year, when the war with Pakistan broke out, this state contributed the second largest donation voluntarily for the war fund.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s recent statement about making Hindu as the link language is based on solid reason and it was not like the 1965 demand made by leaders like Dr. Sampurnanand and Seth Govind Das who had a limited, tunnel vision. According to Shah, there is a need for the country to have one language which could represent it in the world forums and Hindi is also the most widely spoken language in the country and can help keep India ‘united’.
But his contention has led to a disparate array of leaders, ranging from DMK’s Stalin and Congress’ Shashi Tharoor to actor Kamal Haasan and CPM’s Pinarayi Vijayan, to proclaim unanimously that this is a diabolical divisive RSS agenda that is being foisted on the country. They could be both right and wrong. This might be more of a thin attempt to do some BJP bashing in a politically 'dry season', but Shah has also not articulated his party’s long held view about the language and compulsive derision with which the party has been held by the English-speaking elite. What Shah meant was that while vernacular languages should be given importance in their respective states, Hindi, and not English, should be strengthened as the link language to protect the country’s core values.
‘To preserve the ancient philosophy, culture and the memory of the freedom struggle, it is important that we strengthen our local languages and that there is at least one language, Hindi, that the nation knows can do this. If Hindi is taken out of our freedom struggle, the entire soul of the struggle is lost.’ He emphasised the point: ‘I want to appeal to the people to promote their native languages but also use Hindi to make the dream of Bapu and Sardar Patel come true.’
‘Hindi will achieve new heights by 2024 as we take it to all regions. But promoting Hindi doesn't mean this will be done at the cost of some other regional language,’ he assured. His attacks were focused on the English language, and he commented that many Indians had admitted, with shame, that they had little knowledge of their mother tongue and could speak only in English. ‘A nation that relinquishes its own native languages can never sustain itself. Indian languages are the richest of all the languages in the world.’
According to sources in the BJP the party has sized up the issue and according to internal assessments the earlier public opposition, especially in Tamil Nadu, has petered down and is now limited largely to some parties and leaders and fading film actors. Kamal Hasaan’s Viswaroopam, for instance, dubbed in four languages flopped in all of them.
According to a 2019 survey by the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, Tamil Nadu has topped the Southern states in voluntary Hindi learning classes and some 500,000 students had signed up. This could be why leaders like Shah are pushing the issue, testing the public reaction to it. A master election strategist, and one with his ears to the ground, Shah might be spot on, and he could be equally wrong as well. It is one thing to win elections, but to carry the people and win their trust requires another kind of strategy. Long before Kabir had done that, cutting across geographic and linguistic barriers, and Jayadeva's Ashtapatis are still sung by village women in deep South and they don't even know what language these were composed.
Marxist theorist Plekhanov elaborating on his monist view (of history) narrated this parable, ‘Imagine that a young hero has been brought into a prison of stone, put behind bars, surrounded by watchful guards. The young hero smiles. He takes a bit of chalk he has put away beforehand, draws a little boat on the wall, takes his seat in the boat and ... farewell prison, farewell watch guards, the young hero is once again at large in the wide world...A beautiful story. But it is only a story. In reality a little boat drawn on the wall has never carried anyone anywhere.’ Marxist realist that he is Plekhanov doesn't know that such fables have sustained the people the world over all through history. Vasaudeva had carried baby Krishna across the river under a cloud cover to escape Kamsa's surveillance, and during the Dalai Lama's fleeing Tibet a cloud hid him from the Red Guards at the border.
Congress leader Jairam Ramesh was certain that the one-nation-one-language demand would never become a reality. ‘We may have a one-nation-one-tax, but one-nation-one-language will never become a reality.… We are one nation; we are many languages.' That seems to echo what the poet Tamil Subramanya Bharati said as far back as 1909; ‘She (India) has eighteen languages to speak, even then the chintan (thinking) is one.’ Thus he projected a forceful image of the idea of India as a rich orchestration of the various linguistic strands into a harmonious literary pattern. It was indeed a voice of national assertion on the part of a colonised people.'
A great prophet, stressing the need to pursue truth and knowledge, is reported to have said,‘Seek knowledge even if you have to go to China.’ This could be a better option than following the Chinese model of the ‘one-track’ objective. This would be like taking one step forward and two steps backward. And that too had been the Chinese strategy through its long, tortuous history.
( The facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author. )