Opinion

Pitfalls of linguistic chauvinism

N Ramakrishnan | Updated on June 05, 2019 Published on June 05, 2019

A file photo of an anti-Hindi protest march in Chennai in the 1970s. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Politicians in TN are strident in their opposition to Hindi. But they have done precious little to propagate Tamil

I studied in a CBSE school at a time when the three-language formula was introduced. I finished my 12th standard in 1982. It was mandatory to have learnt Hindi, if it was not your second language, and pass the Madhyama level (which is the second level after Prathmik) before you completed the 10th. Since Tamil was my second language, as also my mother tongue, I was forced to learn Hindi, which, in the rebellious younger days, I was loath to do. I barely scraped through the Hindi exam – must have been more because of the magnanimity of the person correcting the paper than anything else. I can still read Hindi without comprehending anything. Do I have any regrets now that I didn't learn the language properly? Of course, yes. Especially since work and vacation take me on travel to the Hindi-speaking States. I worked in Mumbai (Bombay then) for two years, managed to convey what I wanted with the pidgin Hindi I spoke.

I am recalling all this now in the context of the protests that have broken out in Tamil Nadu, by political parties and all concerned over the draft of a new education policy. Mind you, an expert committee has just submitted its report to the Centre. The due process would be for the report to be discussed and debated before any policy decision is taken.

Who is to blame? Everyone concerned, I would say. There was no attempt made to convince me – and I suspect several other classmates of mine when we were in school – as to what was being attempted by asking us to learn Hindi as a third language, if it was not your second language. The whole problem was it was being thrust down our throat, when I was struggling to come to grips with the other subjects that were part of the main curriculum. Chemistry remained a mystery all my life. I for one could never figure out how learning about cis-trans isomerism will help me in life. Nor could I understand how learning differential calculus would improve my life. For that matter, I didn't even know why I had to learn Tirukkural – that collection of couplets that Tamil Nadu politicians swear by. Mind you, there are 1,330 such couplets grouped together under various topics and you had to learn five by rote to get a full ten marks in your Tamil paper. I just couldn't figure out which five would be asked and hence decided to skip that 10 marks altogether and preferred to prepare for just 90 marks!

My favourite subject was geography, while I had a passing interest in history. The problem with History was you only learnt about who killed whom and how and how the kingdom expanded. It may be good for the descendants of those kingdoms, if they were still alive, to figure out whom they had to take revenge on centuries after their ancestors were brutally dealt with by the enemy. The monuments interested me, but you learnt very little of them. The monuments still interest me and I have learnt a lot more about our rich History from these than from the textbooks in the school days. Which leads me to the fundamental point that there is something flawed in how our syllabus and curriculum are framed.

But I have diverged from the issue that I was trying to flag: why should I, as Tamil as they come, learn Hindi. Or, should the Centre decide what languages I should learn?

For this, let me go back by a few decades. The States were divided on a linguistic basis. And, Congress, not the present one, lost power in Tamil Nadu because of the often-violent and vehement protests to the attempt to make Hindi a language in the State. The DMK was at the forefront of the protests and benefitted immensely from its anti-Hindi and anti-North stance. That it has been in alliance with the Congress or, for a brief while with the BJP, is not seen as an irony.

Even now I get irritated when public relations executives or tele-marketing people call me and start talking in Hindi. My simple response is to reply to them in Tamil. And, when they say they don't understand me, I tell them even I didn't understand what they were trying to say, which is not quite the truth. But then you get the point, right? Speak to me in English, profesionally and you will get a proper reply. One PR professional even told me that Hindi is the national language, to which I replied not in my nation. My objection was from a different perspective. I can't understand what ICICI Bank is trying to convey to me what it advertises as “khayaal aapka”. I realise it is not meant for me. Nor do I get the drift of a majority of the advertisements in the television channels, if they are not Tamil channels. I don't care, because I see the advertisements as an irritant to the interesting cricket match I am engrossed in. With the latest of technologies, shouldn't the advertisers be mindful of what language they are using in which State? They should be, if they are hoping to sell. But then it is their problem.

The DMK's as well as the other Dravidian parties' objection is political. Anti-Hindi, anti-North and, now, anti-Modi are sentiments they can always milk. How many of the present day leaders of the DMK can speak flawless Tamil. Their children and grandchildren have all gone to English medium schools and the most expensive and elitist ones at that. I wouldn't be surprised if they cannot speak Tamil at all. Listen to the news on the Tamil channels; the Tamil they speak is, to put it mildly, funny. It is so funnily accented that you might wonder where they learnt it from. Or, the dress they wear – at least the male newsreaders – all suited and booted. Why can't they just wear a dhoti and shirt, if they are so proud of their Tamil heritage. Malayalam channels still have newsreaders wearing dhoti and shirt or jubba.

A few years back, when the DMK was in power, one of the senior most ministers in the Karunanidhi cabinet then, hit out at Sanskrit and said something to the effect that it was a dead language and a language that had been born in a shop that dealt in scrap material (kaayilankadai). I would have loved to ask him why he was so obsessed about a language that he considered dead and one whose origins he was so dismissive about. More importantly, how did that make Tamil a better or a superior language?

What have all these Tamil-as-a-superior language protagonists done for the language? Hardly anything at all. If they are serious about propagating the language, they should provide facilities for people to learn the language, not just within the State, but in other States too. Make it easy to learn, have online programmes and talk about the richness of the language and the diversity of the culture. Just as the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha has done to teach Hindi in the southern States. You cannot go to even a south Indian restaurant in Chennai now, or even in the southern parts of the State, without encountering a waiter who has come from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar or the North-East. While the waiter struggles to learn Tamil to get by, you are forced to speak the smattering of Hindi you know to convey what you want. Since it is a matter of their survival, these people from the Hindi-speaking States or the North-East quickly pick up Tamil. When there is so much inter-State movement in search of jobs, it makes sense for people from Tamil Nadu to learn one other language; if they know Hindi, they will be better off in all the States, barring Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In any case, Kerala does not offer jobs in plenty. They should demand the Centre to fund Tamil propagation in other States, rather than blindly oppose Hindi. An entire generation that came into the job market in the 1970s and 1980s lost out on opportunities in other States because of the opposition to Hindi. Let not another generation or generations face the same fate. The forward castes, which in the lexicon of the Dravidian parties refer to the Brahmins, will manage to survive; the others will be left scrounging for the low-hanging fruits.

It is fashionable to oppose any Central project – hydrocarbon exploration, an expressway or even the neutrino project. The hydrocarbon exploration project was approved by the Centre when the DMK's TR Baalu was part of the Government at the Centre. Who loses in the bargain? Only Tamil Nadu and its industries. Those in Tamil Nadu opposing Narendra Modi and the BJP for drumming up nationalism are equally guilty of doing the same thing – finding a bogey in anything and everything that the Centre wants to do. Let them remember that Tamil Nadu is a part of India and is dependent on everything, from water, on other States.

Just to end, I have started learning Sanskrit online and plan to enrol for a Hindi-speaking course. And, don't feel threatened any more that Tamil is under threat, nor my Tamil identity in danger. I still think in my mother tongue and translate it into English.

Published on June 05, 2019
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