Language

Several people have told me that they read my blog but I don’t seem to post anymore. You can thank two unrelated threads on facebook, both dealing with language, for this one. They relate to two news items: a Manipuri being beaten up in Bangalore for not knowing Kannada, and the Tamil Nadu Government mandating Tamil as a subject in schools.

But before I start, here is a link to an old (2009) post by my late colleague Rahul Basu on the hue and cry on Marathi name-boards in Mumbai, and the lack of uproar thereof on the equivalent in Chennai — because Tamil boards are in place already without being mandated.

Now, here are quotes from the original poster of the FB thread discussing the Bangalore case: “Well I have lived all my life in Karnataka and I can’t still speak the language fluently. Come beat me!!!” and “I find this stress that I should learn a language because I live here ridiculous.”

And here is my theory: A few people like that poster don’t matter. There are people in Delhi who don’t know Hindi, people in London and New York who don’t know English, people in Paris who don’t know French. Some of them have spent their lives there.

But when it becomes the majority of the population — worse, when it becomes an aggressive ideology that you don’t NEED to learn the local language (as is the case in Mumbai), it is offensive to the local people (you are telling them that their language is inferior); and you are encouraging the linguistic chauvinists, including the violent fringe.

Mumbai and Maharashtra have lived with the Shiv Sena for decades. Similar right-wing “state-pride” parties have not come to power in Karnataka, but the more Kannada gets disrespected by people who move in from elsewhere, the more such parties will get empowered. The Shiv Sena, too, started with the same sort of vigilantism meted to the Manipuri in Bangalore, long before they actually came to power in the state government or formed alliances with national parties.

I am embarrassed that I lived in Bangalore for 6 years and did not learn the language. I will not make that mistake again.

On the flip side, I can see how much more enjoyable it is to be able to speak a little French when living in France. And, more recently, I learned a smattering of Italian for a week-long visit there, and though my able to communicate would largely have been a failure if it hadn’t been for Google Translate (and for the fact that many of them speak some French and English). the mere fact of my trying clearly influenced their reactions.

Now to the second item, about mandating Tamil as a subject in schools in Chennai. I found the news article ambiguous, but

  • If it were restricted to state board schools and it could be either first or second language, I wouldn’t have a problem and would in fact be totally in favour.
  • If (as the article suggests) it includes central board schools (CBSE and ICSE) then it depends on what is required. Having it as a third language, with very basic skills taught, would be fine. But there is no third language in class 10, and imposing one beyond the other subjects would be an unnecessary load.
  • I am definitely against imposing Tamil as a second or first language at that level in non-state-board schools: it is a challenging language and people moving here from other states should not have to make their children suffer (and, indeed, it will discourage such movement and, eventually, affect the economy).

But this move, again, seems to be a reaction to recent moves (by the Modi government in particular, but also by its predecessor) pushing Hindi on all parts of India. And this is again an example of what I said above in the context of Bangalore and Mumbai: disrespecting the local language will cause a reaction. This is not to justify the reaction, only to point out that the original cause was unjustifiable.

It is disgraceful that a student was beaten up in Bangalore for not knowing Kannada. It is alarming that Tamil Nadu is possibly playing with the education of students from other states in this way. But this does not mean that the people who refuse to learn Kannada, or the people who sit in Delhi and impose Hindi on others, are correct to do so. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say; but equally, a wrong doesn’t make a previous wrong right.

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7 Comments

  1. Sunil Mukhi

     /  October 16, 2014

    I disagree with many of the observations here and intend to explain why at leisure on my blog. The existence of an aggressive ideology against Marathi in Mumbai appears to be an unverified theory possibly originating from some of my friends in Chennai. The vast majority of non-native-Marathi-speakers in Mumbai are Gujaratis, who rightly consider it their city too, and who can and do speak Marathi anyway as needed. Also the Bangalore beating incident was probably not a reaction to people “disrespecting” (dubious word in this context) Kannada language, but plain xenophobia towards different-looking Indians. All chauvinism, even up to Naziism, has been sought to be explained in terms of understandable reactions to “disrespect” that somehow got out of control, but such explanations are rarely convincing.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  October 16, 2014

      Sunil, regarding the existence or otherwise of anti-Marathi-language feeling in Mumbai, remember the MLA in 2009 who insisted on taking his oath in Hindi. I don’t think any MLA in Chennai or Bangalore or Kolkata would do that, and to point that out is NOT to justify the MNS goons beating him up. However little Marathi you know, you can definitely take an oath in Marathi, and he was definitely making a statement by not doing so. True, Gujaratis consider Mumbai “their” city and Telugus consider Chennai “their city”, but they were minorities in both cases and there has never been a serious claim (at least, not for many decades) that the languages deserve equal status.

      Again, I am not justifying the actions, but pointing out that separatist movements the world over tend to be driven by linguistic issues. Sometimes it is cold hostility as in Belgium, sometimes it is an active movement as in Catalonia, sometimes it is violent as in the Basque country and Quebec (in the past). Language is a fundamental part of identity. India recognised that in the 1950s with the linguistic reorganisation of states, and we still have problems in border areas like Belgaum.

      There is no simple-minded cause and effect like “people refusing to speak Kannada caused these goons to beat up that person”. Rather, it is a longish chain like this: a fringe right supporting “Marathi manoos” or “Kannada supremacy” exists, as it does everywhere. The city starts getting full of people who don’t speak the language. Worse, these people don’t even attempt to speak the language but assume that everyone knows Hindi/English/Tamil/whatever. This causes some resentment even among local people who are otherwise not hostile to outsiders. Some of them go and vote for the Shiv Sena just as a form of protest, or because they believe the Shiv Sena is genuinely about Marathi pride and choose to ignore all the other nasty complications. In Bangalore there is no such political party yet but lots of activist groups, and they too get more sympathy than they deserve for this reason. The conversation and news coverage legitimises this attitude in the minds of some people. And the people who beat up that youth did it knowing that such anti-outsider sentiment has already been legitimised in the minds of many in the community. This legitimisation needs to be reversed, but it will take time and it has to be a two way process: if a city welcomes outsiders, outsiders need to welcome the city too, not make jokes about the “jalebi script” or whatever.

      The person who made the remarks about not needing to know Kannada despite living his entire life there considers himself a left-liberal person, I believe. There is a tendency on the left to dismiss regional pride as undesirable chauvinism — it is fine to dismiss your own regional pride that way, but not someone else’s.

      Reply
  2. sacredfig

     /  October 19, 2014

    Couldn’t find much to agree with here. Its a neither-here-nor-there. “What happened was wrong, BUT immigrants better learn the language….” kind of waflle.

    First things first, there can be NO excuse for any kind of intimidation, bullying or racism. Absolutely petty little grievances like, “they don’t speak our language” can , and does, quickly turns into, “they don’t walk like us, eat like us, dress like us, worship like us, raise their kids like us, treat their parents like us, enjoy their holidays like us, make their sambar like us ….. etc etc” This is endless. You can’t do one thing in India, without inadvertently offending someone’s sensibilities in some way or another. So what? This is why we have laws to safeguard against arbitrary imposition of any form of cultural majoritarianism.

    Of course there are cultural sensitivities involved!. And to say that I’m proud of not knowing a language, would be a silly and stupid thing to say, no less than being proud of other forms of my ignorance. But to suggest that this deserves to be countered by some kind of forced love (of language, or other mores) or a mandatory demand of “respect”, is even more nonsensical. If I don’t bother to learn a language, then I do so at cost to myself. Nothing more. Likewise, if you don’t like what you hear, don’t respond, walk way, or go change the law. Or sit in a corner and suck a lemon.

    Sure grievances exist, and people may have a right to feel offended/aggrieved. But UP/Bihar-wallahs will get their heads smashed in by Sena thugs, not because these thugs have cultural sensibilities that are offended, but merely because they CAN. Immigrants from North-Africa, Middle East and the Caribbean Islands, face abuse, insult and discrimination in Europe despite being fluent in native languages for many generations! Language is hardly a “cause” for a grievance or a racist attack. Its merely the “excuse”.

    Reply
    • I was quite clear in not blaming the young man who was beaten up. If you choose to misread, not my problem.

      Reply
      • sacredfig

         /  October 20, 2014

        OK trying once more:

        Blaming the young man is out of question. I am not even remotely suggesting that you’re doing any such thing. The issue is, whether the actions of his aggressors are defensible, justifiable, or even understandable. You mount some strange theory of linguistic pride, assimilation etc etc. by which you seem to have some insight into where these rogues are coming from.

        I’m saying that all that is twaddle and does not deserve sympathy on ANY account. The whole episode to me is an open and shut case of thuggery which needs to be called out as such. Why this is the case, is the point I was trying to make.

        Reply
  3. suresh

     /  November 10, 2014

    In all such instances, and they are not confined to India alone, “small” amounts of minorities are usually tolerated. Conflict inevitably seems to happen whenever a minority group becomes large enough or prosperous enough to wield political influence or to compete economically with the majority. Just exactly when a majority group becomes insecure enough to perceive a threat to itself is not easy to say.

    In the case at hand, I suspect, as Rahul says, that there are all sorts of issues underlying the indefensible beating of the Manipuri youth. At one level, it is a case of thuggery but the underlying issues cannot be ignored. Having said that, I don’t think that a willingness to learn Kannada will necessarily address the problem. If behind the chauvinism is a fear of being out-competed in the labour market, then a willingness to learn and speak Kannada will certainly not address matters. Those of us from the “heartland” (I use this for lack of a better term.) might get away if we are able to speak Kannada like a native but Manipuris and others who look “different” will not be as fortunate.

    It is also of interest to note that in a very different and infinitely more tragic affair, Jews were actually pretty well integrated in Nazi German society with significant levels of Jewish out-marriage. That didn’nt stop them from being perceived as a threat which ultimately led to the holocaust.

    I don’t have a “solution” but this problem is going to become more and more prominent as people move increasingly away from their home state. Also, as a published article by Debraj Ray and Anirban Mitra (J. Pol. Econ, August 2014) notes, Hindu-Muslim conflicts may actually increase as Muslims become more prosperous. We have to address the problem urgently and proactively but I doubt whether this (or any) government is really up to it.

    Reply

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