It seems especially bizarre in London where I am writing this. Those few British who think of India at all are convinced that popularising English was the Raj’s greatest achievement. Language is Britain’s proudest export and an Evening Standard headline screamed the other day, “Berlin may be German but the English language rules.” Mastery of another language is always an accomplishment. Yet, a young man was reportedly beaten up in New Delhi for daring to speak in English!
Actually, the incident didn’t surprise me. It’s been coming a long time as the envious underprivileged took their cue from their political leaders. Linguistic chauvinism is driven by an inferiority complex that hardened when an Anglicised elite followed British rule. A politician who can’t hope to match the eloquence in English that the first prime minister acquired from his British governess and at Harrow and Cambridge tries to compensate for it with bombast, bravado and sartorial flamboyance. Those who once felt sidelined are now getting their own back. The sah’b is now a symbol of obsolete authority.
Not that everyone was crippled by complexes. An enlightened multiculturalism has always been the pride of a nation that refuses to be defined by a single language or religion. India boasted great individuals who rose above the inhibitions that shape mass conduct. We know that when Oxford University gave Rabindranath Tagore an honorary doctorate, he responded to the citation’s “volley of Latin” “by a volley of Sanskrit”. If Tagore and other Bengalis were the product of “a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan, and British”, North Indians can claim in addition the wider inheritance of some touches of an ancient Greek lineage.
Even foreigners who lived amongst us and, in many cases, ruled us, celebrated India’s eclecticism. Akbar’s syncretic Din-i-Ilahi, derived from Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity, was one example of liberation from orthodox blinkers. Venturing beyond religion to statecraft, Deep K Datta-Ray claims in The Making of Indian Diplomacy that “the Mughals became Indo-Mughals because in India they encountered the dharma-complex via the Mahabharata”. Many European Union dignitaries have argued that Britain’s Indian involvement left the British that much less European. No one escapes India’s liberating influence except some doctrinaire Indians who are trying to create a land of bigotry.
It is humbling to read today that as a subdivisional officer in Midnapore in the late 19th century, Sir Henry Cotton, who served in the ICS from 1867 to 1902 (his grandfather, father and son were also Civilians), did his entire office work except correspondence in Bengali “and for weeks and months together spoke no other language while in office”. It would be typical of today’s Hindi zealots to misinterpret the message of that confession, try to turn the clock back and ram Hindi or Bengali or Marathi down the throats of unwilling Indians. The real lesson is that people must be educated to know what they are about. They must be instructed in a variety of languages, and encouraged to adopt the one that best promises to allow self-expression and permit social and economic advance as well as political cohesion. An insistence on only one language will inevitably be resented as a form of imperialism (as happened in erstwhile East Pakistan and Sri Lanka) and resisted.
Such narrow-mindedness also breeds a destructive and, at times, violent competitive linguistic nationalism. When the ruling Congress was identified with cow-belt domination, activists of Calcutta’s Amra Bangali group went round defacing English signboards. Reports now indicate similar protests against Hindi in Bengaluru Metro stations, with Karnataka’s chief minister, Siddaramaiah, reportedly denouncing the imposition of any language other than Kannada as unconstitutional. Maharashtra seems likely to emulate Karnataka. As the Hindu Hindi fanaticism that appears to receive the Centre’s tacit approval drives the many nations that make up the Indian state to assert their own individual identities, one is reminded of Nirad C Chaudhuri invoking the concluding couplet of Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad: “Thy hand, great Anarch! Lets/the curtain fall;/And universal Darkness buries/All.”
Nehru wrote percipiently in his prison diary, “Perhaps it is as well that [Tagore] died now and did not see the many horrors that are likely to descend in increasing measure on the world and on India. He had seen enough and he was infinitely sad and unhappy.” The Bard was spared the grotesque contradiction of an India driven by its leaders into the dark ages even while glibly proclaiming the attractions of the digital age.