Of mother tongues and Bhojpuri-bashing

By Paramanund Soobarah

 ‘V.K. Beeharry : « Le bhojpuri ne peut pas être considéré comme langue maternelle… »’
That was a headline in Le Défi Quotidien of 21 Feb 12 that you weren’t intended to miss. The Genocide Watch Group is addressing a rejoinder to the Paper, but we believe it will also interest the readers of Mauritius Times.

In his interview with Le Défi, Mr Beeharry, reportedly a former Schools Inspector for “oriental” languages, and apparently also taking a great interest in the teaching of Hindi, recalled some useful and important facts about the use of the Bhojpuri language in Mauritius. There was a time, he said, when Bhojpuri was the most widely spoken language in the country, and was used by all sections of the population, not just Hindus. He also gave some reasons for its decline with most of which we do not agree here at the Genocide Watch Group, but the undisputable fact is that the decline did take place.

According to the 2000 Census figures, he said, only 12.1 per cent of the population spoke Bhojpuri. He also spoke of the rise of the Creole language, implying that the remainder of the potential Bhojpuri speakers, namely people whose ancestors hailed from Bihar and UP, had drifted towards Creole. From there he goes on to infer that « Le bhojpuri ne peut pas être considéré comme langue maternelle… » This presented the paper with a great opportunity for Bhojpuri-bashing and that could not be missed.

But let us look at the logic of the sentence. Somebody’s mother tongue is their mother tongue regardless of how many or how few other people in the world speak it! No statistic can deny anybody the right to call their mother tongue a mother tongue. Besides, people with ancestors from Bihar or UP who have maintained their cultural and religious links with the community amount to less than half of the population. Therefore 12.1% of the whole Mauritian population could mean up to 25% or more of the Hindu Bihari community, and that is not a negligible proportion. In numbers, excepting for Creole, that is a much larger figure than that of genuine speakers of our other mother tongues. Should then all teaching of Asian languages be stopped? We think that Mr Beeharry’s logic is faulty and misleading.

Mr Beeharry makes another point with which we disagree strongly: « Le bhojpuri est un dialecte et non une langue comme certains voudraient le faire croire. ». This is a most offensive statement. Does the MOE still support the practice of referring to people’s languages as “dialects”? Particularly by School Inspectors? If so, somebody higher up ought to be sacked!

Mr Beeharry’s ire is apparently motivated by his support for Hindi. He should read up a little about the history of Hindi. That language came about in large measure through the efforts of British officials of the East India Company at Fort William College, under the leadership of John Gilchrist, Head of the College. In 1801, contracts were given out to writers to prepare reading material in prose in Devanagari and Perso-Arabic scripts, using vocabulary and grammatical structures of the existing vernaculars including Bhojpuri. Prior to that, there was no reading material in prose in the North Indian languages. The first Hindi work to appear under this arrangement was Lallujilal’s Prem Sagar, published in 1803 or thereabouts. Lallujilal’s mother tongue was none other than Bhojpuri, which had already been there for centuries. While perhaps the most monumental work of the pre-Hindi era was Sant Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas written in Awadhi, another “dialect” to use the terminology of Mr Beeharry, both poets Kabir and Meera had earlier written poetry in Bhojpuri. To contemptuously refer to Bhojpuri then as a dialect because of one’s love of Hindi is to add insult to injury.

Mr Beeharry explains the rise of “Morisien” — while this spelling might be all right in a Kreol text under the conventions of Kreol spelling agreed by MOE, in a French text it would rhyme with “pharisien” – and the consequent decline of Bhojpuri, by development, urbanisation and the teaching of English and French. We believe that the main reason is a characteristic process of linguistic genocide. The Bhojpuri speaker was made to feel uncivilised and his language treated as inferior. The rot, i.e. the process of creolisation of the Indian groups that had moved into townships, started in Rose-Hill. If the younger generations of those days fell in with that process, it was because of the sorts of psychological pressures that were applied to them by their neighbourhoods and at school. It is difficult for us to understand how they could have fallen for the idea that Creole was more “civilised” than Bhojpuri, but they did indeed come to think so. The ability to speak Creole fluently, and to pretend not to be able to speak Bhojpuri, became a matter of status. Some even started to feel ashamed of their rural relatives (thereby comforting the others’ beliefs in their own superiority and, sadly, in their perception of the naivety of Hindus — a typical process of cultural genocide). We can go into details of the process some other time. But nobody will willingly give up his or her mother tongue for another language, however civilised the latter may be.

Very sadly, the question of status also came with the spread of Hindi, helped by the highly popular Hindi films and by speeches of religious leaders, who preferred to express themselves in Hindi even when they were competent in Bhojpuri. Perhaps the vocabulary of Bhojpuri had already deteriorated to a point that would not allow them to express their abstract concepts accurately. However it may be, the status idea stuck. As Mr Beeharry rightly points out, speeches at weddings are given in Hindi, the status language; what Mr Beeharry forgot to mention is that nowadays the short lessons about the ethics of married life usually given to the bridal pair on such occasions by the priest now often have to be given in Creole, a language he would not formerly have touched with a bargepole. But we think that while the preachers and the priestly class stood fast on their concept of the status of their medium, their message was being largely lost — witness the drift among Hindus towards other religions, missions and cults. It is therefore essential that those who think of teaching religion to the community also think of the language they use for the purpose.

* Published in print edition on 24 Feburary 2012

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