New Discourse around Hindi and Nationalism in Modi’s India

The push for greater use of Hindi by Modi, the son of a poor tea-seller who made a stunning political rise, has been read partly as a move to break from the Anglophone elite of the dynastic Congress party, which he defeated in parliamentary polls in April and May. He is trying to represent a different India

During the Indian freedom struggle, many nationalist leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, felt the need for a pan-Indian language that could replace English as a common language. Based on the numbers of people who spoke it, the nationalistic ideology surrounding it, and the representation of Hindi speakers in the freedom movement, Hindi was projected as the national language. Gandhi encouraged all freedom fighters to learn Hindi, and to teach it to as many people as they could, to spread the national language – along with the nationalist ideology.

Almost half of India’s population consists of native speakers of what are classified as “dialects” of Hindi. After India gained independence in 1947, the states were delineated according to linguistic “boundaries”. Most of the linguistic forms in the North, no matter how different, were declared to be dialects of Hindi. English was the language of the British, adopted by the colonial middle class. It became associated with upper caste and upper class identity.

Some scholars have noted that the creation of a native elite in its own image was the most spectacular and enduring achievement of British colonialism in India. In pre-independence India, English education did not simply represent a means for a shift in cultural status, it also provided a central avenue for various segments of upper caste, upper middle class individuals to consolidate their socioeconomic position within the political economy of colonial rule.

The original Indian Constitution included a plan to have Hindi as independent India’s official language, supported by English only until 1965. However, there were many ideological differences within the new nation, which had their roots in linguistic differences. People from many parts of India, notably Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, were vehemently anti-Hindi, and English’s “temporary” status as an associate official language continues to this day. The perseverance of nationalistic regional-language ideologies has thus been a major factor in the perpetuation of persistent ideologies about the importance of English in India. English continues to be a language of power in India. The Bollywood movie “English-Vinglish” is here an illustration of this fact. As late as the 1980s, the English-educated social elite controlled the civil services in India.

With the opening up of Indian markets in the early nineties, new discourses of language and nationalism came into being. When India’s markets opened up, the Indian economy began to ‘boom’, and the English-dominant elite began to feel a sense of nationalistic pride. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign slogan for the 2004 elections, “India Shining”, tried to harness this feeling toward electoral victory (but failed). There was this feeling among the Indian elite that India had finally come into her own, and Indians’ ability to speak English was seen as a critical element of this success.

Since taking office as India’s Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi has now taken a clear stand in support of Hindi, pushing for it to replace English as the preferred language of the capital’s bureaucrats. Hindi and English are India’s two official languages for federal government business, although India’s constitution recognizes a total of 22 languages. Modi’s government has ordered its officials to use Hindi on social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook and in government letters. Modi speaks in Hindi and uses interpreters in meetings with foreign leaders.

The push for greater use of Hindi by Modi, the son of a poor tea-seller who made a stunning political rise, has been read partly as a move to break from the Anglophone elite of the dynastic Congress party, which he defeated in parliamentary polls in April and May. He is trying to represent a different India, which is rural and small-town oriented. That’s the group he campaigned to, and that’s the group he is from. The BJP has long championed Hindi as a uniting force for India.

The Indian government counts more than 400 million speakers of Hindi or a Hindi dialect, which makes Hindi the fourth most prevalent language in the world after English, Spanish and Mandarin. Yet it’s still not one of the United Nations’ official languages. By speaking in Hindi at the United Nations, with global leaders, Modi is showing a confident India.

According to the Indian government, 28% of Indians speak or understand English – that’s roughly 350 million people. They mostly belong to India’s elite, and are the ones travelling around the world and moving outside India’s borders. In fact, the country’s English-speaking elite are often derisively called “Macaulay’s Children”, after the British administrator who introduced English-language education in India in 1835.

Modi wants “Make in India” to be a global mantra. To be a global factory, India doesn’t need to know English. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China have all comfortably grown a manufacturing base without functioning in English. Modi knows that, and he knows that if “Make in India” is indeed to become a mantra, then the one billion Indians who don’t speak English and whom he represents will have to be a part of the global Indian factory.

Last century, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and other members of her family spoke in English to enlighten the world about India. In 2014, Modi speaks in Hindi to do just the same.

* Published in print edition on 10 October 2014

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