I am convinced that the Narendra Modi government is guided, if not goaded, by the Hindi chauvinists. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has several liberal leaders who realise that the pace of switchover to Hindi would have to be slow, keeping in mind unity in diversity. Apparently, they do not have much say.
Within the very first fortnight of Modi's regime, the central government offices have received a circular that Hindi should be used on social media. This is an entrance through the backdoor. Non-Hindi speaking states spotted the fugitive move and protested against it. New Delhi readily withdrew its step and declared that the circular was meant for the Hindi-speaking states.
This belated realisation does not convince anyone. I think the government was testing the waters. When it found that what it considered an innocuous step has evoked strong opposition, it changed its stance. But the circular has done the damage. The fears of non-Hindi speaking people have got rekindled. And they are afraid of what may happen tomorrow.
India had gone through large linguistic riots in the late '50s and early '60s. At that time also the home ministry had issued instructions to different departments to make preparations for a switchover from English to Hindi as laid down in the constitution. Riots took place in southern states and one man immolated himself in Tamil Nadu to convey his refusal to accept Hindi. Even the old slogan of secession got renewed.
The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was unhappy but did not want to interfere. However, when he saw the fire spreading, he gave an assurance on the floor of parliament that there would be no switchover until the non-Hindi speaking people themselves said that they were ready for Hindi to be an exclusive language of Union administration. This categorical statement disappointed Hindi fanatics but the nation on the whole heaved a sigh of relief that India had been retrieved from the brink.
No doubt, Modi feels at home with Hindi and his sweep in the Lok Sabha elections is primarily because of the campaign he led in Hindi, somewhat Sanskritised for northern Indians. But he should remember Nehru's promise made in 1963 that both Hindi and English would continue to be the link languages for administration throughout the country. He did not fix any deadline for the exclusive use of Hindi.
I wish this bilingualism should have continued without anyone tinkering with it. But then the Modi's men were in a hurry. They wanted to restrict the use of English to certain fields. Yet they realise that their haste can tell upon the country's unity. Non-Hindi speaking states, particularly Tamil Nadu, have accepted the constitutional provision that Hindi is the Indian Union's language. But they want time to learn it and come up to the standards of people living in the Hindi belt like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan.
Already, some candidates from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, whose mother tongue is not Hindi, have excelled in competitive examinations. India of today is very different from what it was 50 years ago, each linguistic group asserting for its identity. The turmoil during the States' Reorganisation process should be a warning. The idea of India can be jeopardised. The entire fabric can get torn if the sensitivities of the people are not allayed. What is the hurry? A few more decades' wait is too small a price to pay for preserving the nation's cohesion.
I recall how the Hindi fanatics offered quotas in jobs in cases where the use of English was stopped. This approach by ex-speaker Purshotam Das Tandon from Uttar Pradesh was ridiculed by a parliament member in Kerala. He warned him not to open the floodgates of quota lest there should be a demand for such an arrangement in every field. All other members from non-Hindi speaking areas also supported him. Finally, the proposal was dropped.
There are 22 languages recognised in the constitution, each with its own script. True, Hindi is a link language along with English, but all the 22 languages are national. This was conceded by the parliamentary committee on language commission, although the committee gave Hindi the status of principal language and additional language status to English.
The purpose of my narration is that the status quo should continue until the nation can have a consensus on some other formula. This means that the push currently given to Hindi will have to take into consideration the feelings and aspirations of each area and assure that there is no alienation of any language of any linguistic community. Modi's fiats to quicken the pace of switchover to Hindi have created the alarm.
Meanwhile, the chauvinist supporters of Hindi should patiently wait till people all over the country are proficient in Hindi. Already, it is a compulsory subject in all the states except Tamil Nadu. Job seekers from different states too have underlined the necessity of learning Hindi. Films have spread the language throughout the country and one can converse in the south in Hindi or Hindustani. A few more years will see the entire non-Hindi speaking population speaking the language fluently.
Language is a very potent force. Urdu in preference to Bengali gave birth to Bangladesh. The step-motherly treatment meted out to Baluchi is at the back of demand for an autonomous Baluchistan in neighbouring Pakistan.
In fact, the rulers' worry should be how to save regional languages like Punjabi, which is being gradually discarded at Punjabi homes. The new generation is indifferent to their mother tongue and for them English, which brightens their employment prospects, comes first because it helps them to secure bread and butter.
Heritage is linked with languages and therefore leaders all over the country will have to devise ways and means whereby regional languages get succor. Without a long-term plan to reinvigorate them, some regional languages would fall by the wayside as the days go by. How many regional languages will survive 50 years hence is anybody's guess.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.