The Quagmire Over Language: Delhi University and North-East Students

The Protests in DU: Some Reflections

On 10th of April, University of Delhi saw a huge protest by students from North-East India regarding the ‘imposition’ of Hindi in graduation curriculum. The new syllabus structure provides a compulsory course in Hindi or any Modern Indian Languages (MIL, i.e. the scheduled ones) for students with varying degrees of applicability. That protest was followed by a series of arguments and counter arguments with the discourses ranging from opposition to cultural hegemony, claiming of Hindi as ‘national language’ and even vitriol throwing of jingoist proportions, most notably on the social media. Here I would like to shed some light on the issue and propose a discourse on the entire happenings.

First of all, Delhi University houses students from various corners of the country and even beyond, coming from various socio-economic and political backgrounds. Due to existence of such heterogeneity, it is difficult to formulate a singular linguistic policy for the university. Being a central university, it is bound to attract students from not one lot and thus cultural sensibility is expected from the administration and students. But the recent changes in the curriculum do not reflect that. A huge number of students from North-East India do not speak Hindi or any MIL as their native language.

The five MILs from North-East region are Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Manipuri and Nepali, each of them being official languages in at least one of the north-eastern states. But one who fails to understand the complex ethnographic of North-east would find it difficult to grasp that a huge number of students hail from communities who do not speak any of the MILs at home, despite of them probably studying them to some level at school.

Now studying a language at school and then again at university is a problem, which can be better understood by drawing an analogy with another incident related to linguistic imposition. Most of the Indian students have learnt English at schools, regardless of whatever their medium of instruction is. I myself was taught in a school where the medium of instruction was Assamese, while English was taught as a subject in the curriculum. But when UPSC decided to transform English as a compulsory paper in their exams, wide-scale protest rose in many parts of the country.

Now why have such protests emerged, despite of most school-going citizens of India learning English to some level? The only conclusion we can form from this is that the paranoia of the people is genuine, learning a language at school doesn’t ensure proficiency to a very high level that on one can undergo examinations when one’s mother language is not that language. For many of the Indian citizens, compulsory English at UPSC is a genuine fear.

In the same manner, for many Indian citizens from North-east India, whose mother language is not Hindi or any MIL, appearing for such languages in university examinations might prove to be a difficulty and may hamper their grades. After all, our entire structure is now governed by grades in examinations, and thus one cannot ignore them.

Many North-eastern students, on the other hand, might have fluency in Hindi due to regular interaction with students from other parts of India, but that still doesn’t ensure writing skills. I had learnt Hindi only till 8th standard, and can read and speak, but when it comes to writing, it shall be full of syntax-related and spelling errors. The similar is experienced by many people. Hindi have become prominent by its rampant use in media, and that is why a huge number of non-Hindi speakers (even from north-east India where Hindi is not one of the most commonly used language) are getting used to it. But using it for personal communication and writing it for university examinations have very different contexts and both cannot be put in the same plane.


Mass protest rally by North East Students Committee Against Imposition of Compulsory Hindi & MILs

Mass protest rally by North East Students Committee Against Imposition of Compulsory Hindi & MILs in Delhi University on April 10, 2013 at University campus. Photo by:  Maivio J Woba


Fortunately, relenting to the protests, DU administration has now provided an option to take up an English literature for students who haven’t learnt Hindi or any MIL till twelfth standard of their schooling. Now a question might arise that why English? If a student from North-East is not proficient in Hindi or MIL, then how come it can be assumed that he/she shall do well with English? The answer to this is that, in most of the North-Eastern states, Hindi is not spoken at an extensive level nor it is compulsory in schools, thus making one’s exposure to Hindi very less. But English being a compulsory subject in schools and also the use of English at the public sphere makes one more used to English than Hindi. This might irk, some jingoist Hindi chauvinists, but this is the fact nonetheless.

In regard to taking up an MIL in lieu of Hindi, the facilities for imparting education in Modern Indian Languages to graduation students, is not extensive and one needs to go through a lot of paper-work and harassment. Policy of choosing a language-paper was there when I was in DU too, though one could opt for non-language papers too if one wishes. Many of my friends who wanted to opt for Assamese were discouraged by office staff and teachers and thus ended up opting for Hindi and even failed in it. Those like me who were adamant in opting for Assamese had to go for paper-work, running from here to there and had to face entanglements of red-tape. Even for classes we had to go to the Department of Modern Indian languages, as classes didn’t take place in colleges. For students from faraway off-campus colleges it was thus a concern. Thus, opting for MIL in DU is not as easy an option as it is claimed by many who view these series of protests suspiciously.

The Debate and Language Politics

After the protest, a series of arguments and discourses sprang up in social media. There are basically two polar stands regarding the issue, while I myself will try to locate a middle-ground between these two extremities. The first one that is proposed is that Hindi is ‘national language’ and every ‘Indian’ is bound to know it. The second one refutes such claim by Hindi and vehemently opposes it. It is needless to mention that both of the strands have their own streaks of jingoistic and chauvinistic tendencies and in the jargon of internet warriors, it is often dangerously translated into a ‘mainland Indian’ vs ‘north-eastern’ context.

If we refer to the Constitution of India, there is no explicit mentioning of any ‘national language’. Hindi is referred to as ‘official language’, along with English, thus making both of them at par with each other. Nowhere there is any mentioning about the fact that official languages can be put into compulsory usage. ‘Nation’ is a very problematic construct for social sciences, but in laymen terms, if we consider all Indian citizens to be part of one nation, then it is indeed a bewilderingly heterogeneous nation. Diversity and multiculturalism is something that is always to be cherished and insistence on the ‘superiority’ of one language, while subordinating all others is dangerous to that diverse fabric.

There are 22 officially recognized languages, and more than 500 other languages, thus making just one language’s claim to the agency and representation of all a very hegemonic project.

Even the official language policy is flawed, as it provided undue advantages to Hindi or related dialects speakers’ vis-à-vis non-Hindi speakers. Let us understand this phenomenon by use of an instance. For many central examinations, the medium of examination is either Hindi or English. Thus for those educated in ‘regional’ languages, and having less knowledge of either Hindi or English have a certain disadvantage in such circumstances. Acquiring a language for official purposes is not an easy task and thus someone not well acquainted with written standards of Hindi and English have very difficult prospects.

The very recent proposals for conducting public services examinations in all the scheduled languages is a welcome step, but that too is an incomplete step as one needs to complete his/her graduation in that certain language to avail that.

The insistence on Hindi also violates the article 14, which is right to equality. Creating a hierarchy of languages, and placing one language at the top it while reducing all other to subordinate status just for the sake of ‘majority’ speaking it is a very undemocratic way of dealing with it. Many have provided with an argument that as more than 40% of the country speaks Hindi, it should be the ‘national language’ and must be known by all. In a democracy, majority works, which is true, but not at the cost of not providing any agency to the minority. 40% is not an absolute majority, and though it is a relative majority, in a democratic setup it can’t impose its will over the others, less than 60%, but still a considerable number. One needs to differentiate between generally accepted will and majoritarian imposition of consent in this context. 83% of India in Hindu, but still India is regarded as a ‘secular’ country at least in constitutional terms; it is not a ‘Hindu’ country per se. In the same regard, the ‘language of India’ cannot be only Hindi; it is one of the many languages of India with an official status.

But nonetheless, it shall have to be admitted that in pragmatic concerns, Hindi has immense importance. Due a production of consent by media of all kinds, Hindi is understood by a huge number of the Indian citizens to varying degree. Thus, in regard to the complex linguistic heterogeneity, Hindi can be used a language for mutual communication where people whose mother tongues are different can freely converse with each other. MK Gandhi envisaged such a situation, where Hindustani (not Hindi) shall be the ‘national language’ of India and it shall grow by drawing vocabulary, idioms and expressions from other Indian languages and thus becoming a language of synthesis. Language is always governed by practical concerns and most of the languages have evolved into their present structure by interaction of people. But after independence, Hindi was standardized in a very Sanskritized framework, as a part of the nationalizing project. As a result, it became difficult to learn for non-native-speakers and creating wide disparity between spoken and written standard. This coupled with virtual imposition stopped the natural growth of a mutual language accepted by all.

Regardless of historical circumstances, Hindi can still be accepted as language for communication and while in North India, knowledge of Hindi provides one with immense help. To interact with the local inhabitants and to get accustomed with the local atmosphere, knowledge of language in practicality is the biggest asset. Learning Hindi in Delhi, Bengali in Kolkata or Tamil in Chennai, is actually a prerequisite to break the ice and to get oneself used to the atmosphere if one is planning to reside there.

The hatred shown towards Hindi in internet forums is thus actually very immature. One’s access to rights cannot be sought by an attitude of vengeance and jingoism. Learning spoken standards of Hindi is not a difficult job unlike the written standards, thus a few years in Delhi or any Hindi-speaking region with a constant interaction with local inhabitants shall ensure that one picks up the nuances.

Imposition is another thing, and learning a language is another. In fact, knowledge of Hindi not only shall be beneficial for daily transaction but also for making interaction with people for different spheres of activities and different cultural backgrounds.

The choice for Hindi must come out entirely for pragmatic concerns. And the same goes for English. English no longer remains a ‘foreign language’ for India as Indian English, though not a well-accepted variant had brought out its own idiosyncratic idioms. In academic circles and in formal usage, English is well-accepted for its intelligibility and global context. But for those (in fact the Majority of Indian citizens) who do not have access to English education or do not feel at ease with English, my resort to Hindi, but only under their own consent.

Delhi University Pro vice chancellor Prof. Pachuri accepting the memorandum drafted by the Northeast students and he announces that the University will offer a paper “literature in English” in lieu of Hindi, MIL, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit under the foundation course. Photo by: Maivio J Woba

Delhi University Pro vice chancellor Prof. Pachuri accepting the memorandum drafted by the Northeast students and he announces that the University will offer a paper “literature in English” in lieu of Hindi, MIL, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit under the foundation course. Photo by: Maivio J Woba

Often an argument is given forward that most of the countries have their ‘national languages’, then why can’t India have one? The solution is not that it can’t have, it can. But not just because of the ‘majority’ naming it, but because of people feeling the need for a ‘national language’ in general. If Hindi is the strongest contender for that, then it must enrich its vocabulary and idioms from other languages as well in order to be of ‘national’ dimension.

But in my personal opinion, there should not be any need for ‘national language’. In case of ‘relatively’ homogeneous nation-states like West-European countries or Japan, India doesn’t have only one singular streak of cultural entity and thus one language-policy is not suitable for India by any means. Language after all grows out of pragmatic concerns, let me repeat and too much of bad blood had been brewing over the subcontinent throughout decades because of language politics. Only accommodating policies can seek to resolve that. The imposition of Hindi can only be countered by intelligent and productive methods, not by implying hatred and jingoism. Hatred or suspicion towards Hindi or Hindi-speakers cannot be the solution.

Some Personal Reminiscences

I arrived for the first time in Delhi in 2009. It has been four years now. I stayed for three years of my graduation a college hostel of Delhi University and made friends with many Hindi-speaking people. I shall have to admit here that like many north-east people; initially even I had a suspicion towards ‘mainland Indians’. But it no longer exists. I have leaned Hindi, befriended Hindi-speakers and learnt many of the nuances and even started appreciating Hindi literature both in translations and in original forms. Though my accent and fluency still gives me away, without knowledge of Hindi, the itinerary I would have taken might have been different. Having Assamese as mother tongue, a language from the Indo-Aryan linguistic group might have helped me in picking up Hindi quickly but that doesn’t apply to other people from North-East as most languages there are from Tibeto-Burmese or Mon-Khmer language families, with no similarity to other subcontinental languages. An attitude of understanding and accommodation must exist between Hindi-speakers and people from North-east in regard to solve any issues pertaining to language barriers.

During my graduation years, a joke was very popular among the people of Assam in DU. The ‘ch’ pronunciation doesn’t exist in Assamese and most Assamese are prone to pronounce any ‘ch’ in Hindi as ‘s’. Once two Assamese-speaking guys went to a college canteen in DU, and ordered, “Bhaiyya, do saai dena”. What they ordered actually was ‘do chai’ (two cups of tea). The poor waiter, unaware of such linguistic complexities, fetched them a Dosa. Perplexed, they decided to have it only and then said, “Bhaiyya, do saamus dena”, this time asking for ‘chammach’ (spoons). This time they got two Samosas!

Language never stops to amaze us and knowing one or two other than the one we speak at home or work never is hurtful for our interests, even though we begin by broken standards like this only.

During my first days in DU, many people started conversations with me in very horrible English, and despite of providing them assurance that I know Hindi, they continued to do so, the result being none of us being properly able to understand each other. This kind of linguistic barriers might create a cultural barrier between students from North-East and other parts. To transcend this, only a bit of working knowledge of Hindi might help.

In fact, in voicing the concerns of North-east students, especially the issues of racism, discrimination and problems faced in getting oneself accustomed to ‘alien’ cultural spheres; the knowledge of Hindi might help. This doesn’t imply that Hindi should be enforced or imposed systemically. By no means, undemocratic imposition in any sphere; be it cultural or political should be tolerated and should be collectively voiced against. But one must take care of it that the articulation of that doesn’t come in the guise of hatred and total non-acceptance.

Both the differing opinions we have encountered here needs a middle-ground. The middle-ground is that learning Hindi should be optional, and for North-East people’s own benefit, it is actually necessity in Delhi. While one the other hand, Hindi chauvinists should stop imposing the language on non-native-speakers throat and let it grow organically, naturally to be a favored and accepted mode of mutual communication, if it can. Politics over language may take very overtly jingoist dimensions, and to check that sensible policies are needed; not undue zeal to impose any language or keeping hatred toward any.

After all, languages are for articulation of emotions, emotions are not to dictate languages.

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