The Politics of Language

Mauritius is going through a very interesting linguistic phase. Languages condemned to disappear or die a miserable death are strangely enough manifesting an incredible resurgence and vibrancy. This is thanks to the language policy and politics of succeeding governments, key public institutions and non-governmental organizations as well as the will of the people.

Two events held recently – Bihar Diwas and Phooliyar Revisited – have revealed an incredible reaffirmation of the linguistic appurtenance by the people of Indian origin. Both events showed how people who left their ancestral roots some 182 years ago are still attached to Bhojpuri and its intangible cultural heritage.

Generation after generation have battled incessantly for the maintenance of their mother tongues, languages of social esteem and prestige and of their religious tenets and scriptural literature. The songs, dances, poetry, puzzles, stories and folk tales, sketches presented are poignant manifestations of the resilience of these languages especially Bhojpuri.

Language Loss versus Language Maintenance

At these two events the fluency of language use, especially of Bhojpuri, as a form of expression not only by elders but also by definitely an increasing number of young people including children, in myriad forms of artistic creation and expression, gave it a surprisingly new magnitude, space and status.

It reflected the vibrancy, dynamism and socio-economic mobility of Bhojpuri and other Indian languages solidly anchored in Mauritian soil. They certainly give a lie to the belief often canvassed by propagandists in academic fora and in the media that Bhojpuri is a dying language. These people not only want to bury Bhojpuri alive but jubilate at its demise. The last census record stating that only 5% of the population use Bhojpuri as a mother tongue was a matter of jubilation and celebration for some. But the census does not always reveal the truth on the ground.

The fact is that Bhojpuri was linked to a class of people who were in a socially inferior status and belonged to the lower working class, dominated for decades, and economically and socially inferiorized. Not only that. The users having been stigmatized for long, the scars of these stigmas have been infused in the blood from generation to generation. With more education based on a western oriented system, social mobility and increasing urbanized mentality, the young Bhojpuria finds it socially incorrect to use Bhojpuri as a means of communication for fear of being laughed at, due to previously held prejudices against it. However, this does not mean that Bhojpuri is a dying language for that matter.

Dominant Language Situation

Having belonged to a colonial structure historically, Mauritius like other colonized countries underwent the trauma of dominant versus inferiorized languages. The people of Indian origin having been in a dominated position were not only relegated to a marginalized position in all spheres of life but their languages too as well as food habits, dress, rites, customs and traditions were condemned and ridiculed. Today all this has changed significantly thanks to the incessant struggles and movements by selfless stalwarts and voluntary organisations, for a fair recognition and leverage.

However, Creole languages which also developed out of the need for communication by servile people in all diasporas, whether in Mauritius or in the Caribbean, had an advantage over Indian languages as they were derived directly from the dominant colonial languages. These were English in the Caribbean leading to Pidgin English development and use of such as in Trinidad and Tobago; French as in Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues. In Seychelles Creole developed out of both English and French. In Mauritius Creole absorbed a lot of Bhojpuri words and expressions.

Bhojpuri as well as Creole as vehicular languages have gained ascendancy recently due to more sustained political and institutional support. Both have entered the portals of the university and educational system.

The 24-hour Bhojpuri and Creole channels of the MBC have given visibility and audibility, social and cultural acceptance to both the languages. There is indeed a new enthusiasm for Bhojpuri Studies at university level. If young people are however not using Bhojpuri as a complete communication mechanism, it does not mean that they are not Bhojpuri friendly.

Bhojpuri as a dominated language has indeed survived because of its intrinsic qualities of resilience and ability to maintain itself as a vehicle of communication and expression through adaptation and absorption of loan words to co-exist despite being relegated to the backwaters.

Bhojpuri Encapsulated in the DNA and Psyche

Diasporas have revealed a very fascinating scenario of languages development – one of language contact between heritage language and the host language or language of colonisers, and their derivatives. This despite the fact that younger Indian diasporics may not converse in the mother tongue.

It does not mean that the language is lost. It is very much encapsulated in their DNA or psyche, as revealed at the Bihar Diwas 2016 and Phooliyar Revisited events.

Cohen (1997) and Safran (1991) (Diasporas – Kim Knott, Sean Mc Loughlin) conceptualized “diasporas as victims of circumstance which led to the reinforcement of the idea that all diasporas struggled against prejudice and marginalization, even if they were willing to accept the host’s social, cultural and linguistic norms.” The present generation of PIOs continue to operate and function in this configuration and linguistic adjustment to survive.

Postmodern conceptualizations of diaspora today are a departure from the above. They highlight the positive aspects of adjustments. They see diasporas as no longer focused on the past but also confronting the future to establish a new sense of place, belonging and role. New strategies are developed to confront and adapt. Use of languages in intra- and inter-group interfaces but also inter-generational shifts are noted. The increasing use of internet, smartphones, IPad, blogs and twitters, Facebook and other electronic networking involving e-learning have come as a boon to the Indian diasporic languages by making them readily accessible to the younger generation. There is a profusion of attractive e-material development to make simultaneous transliteration as well as translation from one language to the other.

Associate Professor Dr Kofi Yakpo, a linguist currently teaching at the Faculty of Arts of Hong Kong University is in Mauritius to make a comparative study of Bhojpuri in diasporic situations especially Mauritius Bhojpuri, South African Bhojpuri and Surnami Hindustani. He revealed in a lunch interlude at MGI with students of the University and MGI this week that though Creole is one of the elements developed in complex linguistic situations, the fact remains that people do talk many other languages beside Creole. He showed how Indian languages emerged in Caribbean countries due to socio-historical situations. He did also state how people do not give the right information as to the languages spoken at home to census officers and others so as to be socially correct and accepted. He said that though Bhojpuri is almost dead in Trinidad and Guyana yet it is very much present and used in wedding rites, customs, songs and in religious context – bhajans and kirtans. On the other hand Bhojpuri remains vital in Suriname and Mauritius. In Suriname, Bhojpuri (Surnami Hindustani) is commonly used by not only the younger generation but also by non-Indians.

It is interesting to note that Mauritius is the only country of the Bhojpuri diaspora which gives institutional support to the promotion of ancestral languages.

This year the Government has sent the Nomination Dossier of Bhojpuri Folk songs – Geet Gawai to UNESCO for inscription as World Patrimony of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The fact is dawning that Mauritians and diasporas in general do not have one mother tongue but multiple mother tongues and multiple identities. The celebration of the International Mother Language Day every 21 February by the Ministry of Arts and Culture as part of the UNESCO project to protect endangered languages in the world, confirms and re-energizes the will and commitment of government to give equal recognition to all mother tongues and languages spoken and written in Mauritius.

*  Published in print edition on 8 April 2016

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