Reticence is not a distinctive attribute of Prime Minister Narendra Modi by a long distance. However, in his typically wordy speeches, he rarely makes an unintended assertion. Each utterance is planned, measured and chosen with the intention to have a lasting impact. The place and timing are so chosen to ensure that the message is delivered to the intended.
But last week when Modi spoke on the already vitiated terrain of the politics of language, it was taxing to make out what he was attempting to communicate and to whom.
Was he signalling to the rank and file of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to be more guarded when displaying love for Hindi? Or was he adding another ‘version’ of the BJP’s language policy to either confuse people—making them unable to decide which one to believe—or allow people to accept the rendition they agreed with the most?
Either way, this has been the perfect Sangh Parivar ploy for decades. First, float a contentious demand or make a debatable claim and get multiple voices to word the formulation divergently. Everyone gets confused about whom to believe or who is correct.
Take the notion of Akhand Bharat, which has been articulated innumerable times and always differently.
Who are we to believe in the most recent episode that featured this long-pursued utopia—Mohan Bhagwat for claiming that an ‘indivisible’ or ‘monolithic’ India is around the corner or those who clarified after a nudge from the government that the concept of Akhand Bharat was not geopolitical in nature but a cultural belief?
Modi was aware that making a statement on language policy would certainly make it to the headlines, as it indeed did, given the unbridled enthusiasm of archetypal BJP leaders to make Hindi India’s lingua franca across the country.
The question, however, is whether Modi was sending a discreet missive to powerful aides to be less exuberant when espousing Hindi’s cause over other Indian languages? Or if this assertion was made after realising that the actual intent of the party required to be camouflaged by no one but the man presiding over the official edifice?
The long history of opposition to efforts of people in northern states to ‘impose’ Hindi on others, especially those living south of the Vindyas, is well known, and the need for Modi to intervene after lesser a mortal made a statement that evoked condemnation from southern and north-eastern India.
Moreover, now that the BJP is the most dominant party in the country and also has a toehold in southern India, would the pragmatist in Modi allow overzealous proponents of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan to rock the Hindutva boat?
The PM was delivering a virtual address to a meeting of the party office-bearers held in Jaipur. Modi’s speech focussed on BJP’s targets for the next 25 years, a theme Modi has reiterated since his re-election in 2019 to convey the sense of the party’s invincibility and emergence as a permanent power apparatus. His claim on the subject of language policy barely days after Union home minister Amit Shah stirred a hornet’s nest by making questionable claims on Hindi.
Modi asserted that the BJP was alone in linking India’s cultural and linguistic diversity with national pride, a claim that is contrary to reality given the party’s obsession with unitarism and the idea of the ‘one nation, one language’ formula.
The PM also stated that the Centre, by granting primacy to local or regional languages in the new educational policy, demonstrated the party’s commitment to respect the country’s linguistic diversity.
Given the BJP’s parochial stance on the issue of language in the past, Modi’s claims cannot be taken at face value. Even Shah’s recent statement muddied the waters for he said that people of different states should communicate with one another in Hindi, not in English.
Clarifications were issued after controversy erupted but by then the cat was out of the bag. To redeem the situation, Modi claimed that the BJP “considers Indian languages as the soul of the nation and sees them as vehicles to a better future for the nation”.
In a classic instance of the pot calling the kettle black, Modi alleged that he was making these remarks because in the recent past, there have been consistent efforts (left unsaid who made these attempts) to generate controversies on the language issue. “We have to be on guard against this all the time. The BJP considers every Indian language as emblematic of the Indian spirit and also very pious that is worthy of worship,” he specified.
It was clear that Modi was playing the Good Samaritan as far as language was concerned, an issue that has been the cause of much animosity and violence.
Modi was unambiguously responding to the situation precipitated by Shah’s assertion that it was time to make the ‘national language’ (Rashtriya Bhasha) an essential component of the nation’s unity. But regardless of Modi’s efforts, unless the BJP repudiates its past, there will be few takers for the PM not mentioning the issue of imposing Hindi and instead reassuring them by pledging equal respect for all regional languages.
The language policy of the Sangh Parivar has never been ambivalent. From the beginning, the saffron clan was in favour of imposing Hindi on people of those states where it is either not a mother tongue or not spoken much by people.
The first reference to language after independence was made in the Principles and Policies of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951. It referred to Hindi as the “most widely known” language and that it “has been developing as India’s lingua franca”.
The document claimed that “Sanskrit has always been India’s National Language” and that it “should be recognised as such” and be “used on ceremonial occasions”.
The Jana Sangh advocated “secondary and higher education through regional language” but demanded that Hindi be taught “as a compulsory subject”. The use of regional languages was thereby a transitory arrangement from the beginning.
In a resolution adopted by the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1958, the organisation asserted that continued use of English was “bound to perpetuate the mental slavery” of people and such usage would not reduce the “existing gulf between people and the government”.
The RSS document also claimed that Hindi had “evolved as the common language of inter-provincial communication. It should be used for all official purposes”.
Much later and after the LK Advani had declared the party to be the “government in waiting” in a presidential speech in March 1994 he quoted a 1984 Supreme Court verdict delivered by then-Chief Justice PN Bhagwati and Justices Amarendra Nath Sen and Ranganath Mishra.
By this time, Advani was realising the limits of the party’s hard line on issues from religion to language. Consequently, he quoted the justices as saying that it was “an interesting fact of history that India was forged into a nation neither on account of a common language nor on account of the continued existence of a single political regime over its territory”. Certainly, Advani would not have referred to the judgement if he was not in agreement with the sentiment in the aforesaid sentence.
Fast forward, however, to 1998 when Advani stepped down in May in favour of K Jana Krishnamurti after Atal Bihari Vajpayee had become PM. The BJP was earlier forced to accept a joint National Agenda for Governance that left out the three contentious issues (abrogating Article 370, introducing a Uniform Civil Code and ensuring the construction of the Ram temple) from the government’s commitments.
Yet on the language issue, the new president tested the waters by asserting in his acceptance speech that “the lack of national self-confidence has become so prominent that 50 years after independence, we as a nation cannot even conduct the affairs of our state in our Rashtra Bhasha, Hindi”. However, mindful of adverse reactions of allies, he quickly added, “...or in any of the other Indian languages”.
By 2003, the BJP had come to terms with its allies having a different perspective on the most divisive issues that were central to the saffron party. As a consequence, then-president M Venkaiah Naidu stated that the political resolution would include a request to the government to “accord due recognition and status to all Indian languages”.
The old aggressive approach of insisting on Hindi’s primacy was reiterated from 2014 onward, more vehemently after the BJP was re-elected in 2019.
In September of that year, on the occasion of Hindi Diwas, Shah had advocated “one language” for the entire country. By then, the controversy over Hindi had already arisen in the context of the New Education Policy. Yet Shah still stepped on the accelerator for the ‘cause’ of Hindi.
Starting from Vajpayee to Modi, whenever BJP was presented with an opportunity, the United National General Assembly has been addressed in Hindi to reiterate the BJP’s position on the language and that it must be accepted as the ‘national’ language, not just the official language as in the Constitution.
Earlier this month, at the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee, Shah called for people from different states to communicate with each other in Hindi, not English.
The BJP has ideological reasons for doing away with English, which in India has acquired a status that is not in any way inferior to that of India’s own languages. In most parts of India, English is seen as an aspirational language.
The BJP’s antagonism towards English is not shared by large sections of people, especially in southern Indian states.
By making assertions like, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided that the medium of running the government is the official language, and this will definitely increase the importance of Hindi. Now, the time has come to make the official language an important part of the unity of the country”, Shah further incensed those who suspect the BJP of being committed to ‘imposing’ Hindi on non-Hindi speakers.
A one-off statement by Modi while addressing his office-bearers may result in overzealous party leaders, like Shah, biting their tongue but it would not overnight neutralise the suspicion of the BJP for its Hindi chauvinism.
In fact, a quick comparison with Modi’s previous assertions on the language issue, including the one Shah quoted, would reveal one of the many contradictions of the PM’s utterances.
The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is ‘The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India’. His other books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. The views are personal.