By Garga Chatterjee
“If my mother tongue is shaking the foundations of your state, it probably means that you built your state on my land.”
—Musa Anter, Kurdish writer assassinated by the Turkish govt in 1992.
During its 56th session in 2002, the United Nations General Assembly put its stamp of approval on the UNESCO decision from 1999 that the 21st of February was to be observed as the International Mother Language Day. On 21st February 1952, the police of then Pakistan opened fire on students in Dhaka protesting the imposition of Urdu as the national language. Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar were martyred by police firing. This mass movement changed politics of East Bengal forever, sowing the seeds of independence on the basis of linguistic identity in a province that had only 6 years ago voted overwhelmingly for Pakistan, based largely on religious identity. In a linear and simplified version of events, the language movement of 1952 in general and 21st February in particular marked the beginning of a struggle that ended with the liberation of East Bengal in the form of Bangladesh in 1971. This makes the 1952 language movement a very special moment in the autobiography of the Bangladesh nation-state. However, 21st February has also become a rallying point for various language and identity based struggles in South Asia which has long been the hot-bed of linguistic politics.
One may argue that the very concept of present day Indian Union, that is, a Hindu dominant territory claiming historical continuity with Delhi or Hindi-belt centred empires of yore, had its blooming during the 19th century Hindi-Urdu controversy. Urban Hindus of the Hindustani region (roughly the upper and middle Gangetic plains) wanted to displace Urdu, that is, Persianised Hindustani in Nastaliq script from the official language status and wanted to replace that with Hindi, that is, Sanskritised Hindustani in Devanagari script. Even as late as the decade of 1881-90, Urdu newspapers had double the circulation of Hindi newspapers. In time, Urdu and Hindi became proxies for Muslim and Hindu mobilisation. In that process, shoring up Hindi numbers became crucial. Many languages of the Hindustan region (like Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Braj, etc.) were nominally fused with Hindi by elite Hindus as a political tactic with devastating long-term consequences for the counted-as-Hindi-but-not-Hindi languages.
The tactic proved successful as far as petitioning the British were concerned. Hindi also acquired the coveted official language status that Urdu already had. After the transfer of power on 15th August 1947, Hindi continued to be an official language along with English. Interestingly, the Hindi movement had two important mobilisation planks. Firstly, Hindi people were at a disadvantage in the field of jobs when Urdu was given official status. Secondly, official documents like court documents in Urdu prevented their understanding by non-Urdu peoples. In an ironic turn of events, non-Hindi people now have inherited all of Hindi’s 19th century disadvantages. They are disallowed by the Government of India to take most academic or professional exams (like IIT or AIIMS entrance) in their non-Hindi mother tongue. Government of India allows Allahabad High Court to run its affairs in Hindi but has consistently denied requests from Madras High Court to conduct affairs in Tamil, even though the state government supports it. There is no officially sanctioned text of the Constitution of India in any South Asian language except Hindi.
Post-1947, the Hindustani political plan to make Hindi the sole official language of the Indian Union was widely opposed in non-Hindi regions but took the form of a sustained mass-movement led by the youth in what is present-day Tamil Nadu. Hindi was supposed to become the sole official language from 26th January 1965. Massive protests broke out all over the state which the government tried to brutally repress using police. Rajendran, a student, was murdered by the police and the movement took epic proportions. While 1965 is commemorated by New Delhi as the year of an Indo-Pak war, this was also the year when it rushed the army and central police forces to Tamil Nadu. The forces ended up killing at least 63 protesters – the unofficial numbers run into a few hundreds. The ruling Congress party in Tamil Nadu was decimated in the next election. No national party has ever emerged as the strongest force in Tamil Nadu ever since.
These protests managed to keep English as an official language along with Hindi till such time that non-Hindi people agree to Hindi’s sole official status. The 1965 moment was preceded by anti-Hindi conventions by the Academy of Telugu as early as 1956. Similarly, Hindustani areas saw sporadic anti-English protests spearheaded by the Samyukta Socialist Party and later on by the then Jansangh. In reality, the 1965 anti-Hindi protests destroyed the sole official language plan permanently. Similar preferential treatment of Sinhala in Sri Lanka was among the many reasons that later coalesced into the cause for the liberation of Tamil Eelam. In Pakistan, Urdu has been long imposed on Sindh and Balochistan and the Sindhi and Baloch nationalist narratives draw heavily from this imposition.
However, language movements in the subcontinent can’t be reduced simply to a Hindi-Urdu or Hindi-Tamil conflict. Bangla speakers have always been the biggest minority in Assam province. In Bengali majority Barak valley of post-Partition Assam state, protests grew under the leadership of Cachar Gana Sangram Parishad, especially after the legislative imposition of Axomiya on Bangla speakers as the sole official language. In Silchar, the hotbed of the protesters, Assam Rifles, Madras Regiment and other security forces did flag marches. On the day of a protest strike on 19th May 1961, security forces killed 11 Bangla language protesters, including 16-year girl Kamala Bhattacharya, near Silchar Railway station. Bangla was thereafter recognised as an official language in Barak valley.
Bangla itself has had a record of dominating other languages, especially during the British colonial period when Bengalis were extremely dominant as intermediaries and education professionals in the administration. The Bengali elite exercised their cultural ‘soft power’ in the form of linguistic dominance. The Bangla script was imposed on Meitei after the conversion of the Manipur sovereign into Bengali Vaishnavism. For the longest time, Odiya and Axomiya was treated as dialects of Bangla with Bangla being the medium of school instruction in largely Odiya and Axomiya speaking areas.
With the rise of a sizeable intelligentsia in Assam and Odisha who could affect the colonial government’s policy inspite of deliberate obfuscations from sections of the Bengali intelligentsia, Bangla imposition was rolled back. In the post-partition period, Bangla has encroached onto the space of Tripura’s own languages, most notably Kokborok. In Bangladesh, the original country of language rights movement, ethno-linguistic minorities (most notably the Chakmas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts) have Bangla thrust upon them leading to what can only be called a slow cultural “assimilation”. Some would call what has been unfolding in Tripura and the Chittagong Hill Tracts as cultural genocide. In West Bengal, a similar disparaging assimilationist attitude continues towards speakers of Kamta/Rajbongshi. The Indian Union has wiped out 220 languages in the last 50 years.
The Jharkhand movement was originally a left-nationalist mobilisation for the cultural, political, economic and linguistic rights of the sons of the soil. The state of Jharkhand was carved out with deliberate tribal minority, so as to protect the interests of settlers, who also control the economy. Hence, it continues to be a Hindi state for most official purposes. In fact, many have ascribed the Maoist investment in Gondi language and communication as crucial to their Deccan power-base which maps onto the Gondi speaking zones. In Chhattisgarh where the government imposes Hindi on Gondi speaking children through primary education, thus artificially alienating the Gonds from their own culture and society. Primary education as a tool of strategic hamletting is cruel new “security” innovation. All through what is erroneously called the Hindi belt, multiple language movements are brewing, each wanting to their own identity and stopping their enumeration as Hindi speakers. The Bhojpuri and Rajasthani language movements are at the forefront of these demands. The recent Chennai Declaration of Language Rights has become an important document that is bringing oppressed linguistic communities together. Language movements are now also played out in cyberspace as evidenced by the #StopHindiImposition hashtag that trended on 15th August 2015 during Narendra Modi’s Red Fort speech in Hindi.
The problem is that almost all nation-state entities in South Asia have imposed their language of choice under various garbs like national/official/link language on the rest. This comes from a belief that some languages are better “uniters” of a nation-state than others. Following this idea, central governments have micro-managed use of language by promoting and expanding the imposition of their chosen language. Recently, the GoI decided that Hindi language support should mandatory for all new mobile phones. Linguistic imperialism is alive and kicking in the subcontinent.
Hence, 21st February is not a historical marker. It is a day marking struggles of the present and resolutions for the future, towards a world without linguistic dominance and imposition under the excuse of “national” unity, toward a world where all mother-languages have equal rights and so do their speakers. Those who have a problem with equal linguistic rights and support the preferential imposition of one language over other people under the specious argument of building unity actually have a problem with diversity. But there can be no unity at the cost of dignity and rights. That is the broader of message of 21st February, the International Mother Language Day.
—The author is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata