May 12, 2013

Linguistic Outlier



I read this piece recently which was widely shared and discussed in social media and provocatively titled - “Why Chennai can't and won't speak Hindi”. The title in itself provides a broad sense of what the article is about. I intend, in this piece, to offer an alternate perspective to the question, which sometimes might overlap or build on some of the arguments made in aforementioned piece. 

The discourse surrounding the linguistic diversity in India has always been chaotic, with multiple strands ─ suspended without a common knot. One such strand which never fails to entertain bystanders is the question of “Why Tamilnadu doesn’t speak Hindi?”  A simple, yet sophisticated, retort to the question is “Why should it speak Hindi?” The arguments that are drawn in response to this retort have become too banal now that they might put even legislators stalling parliament to shame. 

The central argument on which the entire discourse rests is that ─ “Hindi is our National
language”. And every time someone makes this argument, somewhere B.R. Ambedkar would be smashing his head on the wall in shame. If you are reading this, you are most likely aware that the 'National language' claim is false. Two quick facts (without getting into the nuances): Hindi, along with 22 other languages is the 'Official language' for administrative (read 'practical') purposes; the constitution doesn’t recognise any language as national language. The problem here isn’t that a large section of the masses (educated and un-educated alike) are ignorant of the constitution; far from it. The real problem is two-fold: one, the dubious normative assumptions that the proponents of the claim hold and two, the absurdity of words hijacking thought.

Dubious normative assumptions

Firstly, on an ideological plane, the 'National language' claim is disappointing at several levels. Even if we are to suspend our intellectual faculties and assume that Hindi is our National language, how does that mandate everyone to learn or speak Hindi? How can one language be deemed to be superior to others? As a civilised country striving to embody notions of equality in all social spheres, why should we be oblivious in the application of principle of equality with regard to language?

The notion of asserting superiority by virtue of Hindi’s majority status, falls flat in the face of logic. To draw an analogy, does Hindus’ majority status in India, grant them legitimacy to convert non-adherents (Muslims, devotees of FSM, etc.) to Hinduism? If religion is sacrosanct enough to warrant equality, then why shouldn’t language summon the principle of equality? Why should language be any less sacrosanct than religion?

Notions of linguistic superiority also need to be examined in a broader social context, and by not just considering language in isolation. Language is embedded within the social realities and social realities replicates in the realm of language. Hence, the assertion of linguistic superiority should also be seen as a subliminal assertion of cultural supremacy; as a clarion call to the minority to fall in the queue and take orders.  

Words hijacking thought
Another aspect of the 'National language' claim that is deeply worrying is the suspension of thought at the sight of anything prefixed 'National'. The claim shows their instant inclination to suspend logic and kneel down at the altar of the prefix 'National' and worship it unquestionably. This ritualistic worship extends beyond language and is true for most other national symbols. No wonder then 'National rituals' like throwing trash in public places, spitting on the roads, moral policing, etc. are observed with much religiosity. While these symbols have their place in signalling pride and shared sense of belonging, their mindless worship is disgusting and does more harm than good.

'Regional' is another adjective that renders thinking obsolete. It is used as a proxy to denote anything derogatory; to denote intentions that are supposedly parochial and pursued at the expense of the rest of the country. And hence the common disdain – “How does a regional language deserve to be placed on an equal footing with the national language?” As Thomas Sowell (noted social theorist and political philosopher) wrote recently “…if you don’t stop and think, it doesn’t matter whether you are a genius or a moron. Words that stop people from thinking reduce even smart people to the same level as morons.

Discriminating the “Other”
Another common lament expressed is that “people in Tamilnadu discriminate against the North-Indians”. To put it crudely ─ “not granting them the respect or rights they deserve”. It might be true at some level. But it is true of how minorities (linguistic, religious, ideological, etc.) are treated in most places in India. By that, I don’t validate such unscrupulous behavior. The simple fact is this: there are scums, scoundrels and racists everywhere; a language (like Tamil) certainly doesn’t create the evolutionary need to breed racists and chauvinists to protect it.

As much we would like to paint the 'other' with a lesser moral colour, the fact remains that the core of morality doesn’t change with cultures or regions; cultures determine only the level of ‘moral flexibility’ ─ the range within which an action is considered morally acceptable. And to believe that a language (like Tamil) grants the license to extend moral flexibility is to let imagination and vested interests run riot.  

Language is one of the many symbols that embody cultural identity. And cultural identities are strengthened, among other things, when there is a perceived threat to its existence. Hence there is a vested interest in keeping the threat of the ‘other’ alive. And the idea of the ‘other’ is perpetuated by delusional self-mythologies (like notions of linguistic superiority, nationalism, etc.). To worship these myths unquestionably, therefore, is to surrender reason and discard our cherished notions of freedom and equality.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...