Jaitley’s stuttering Hindi is more proof of the Modi regime’s penchant for identity politics

India’s many tongues.
India’s many tongues.
Image: Reuters/Punit Paranjpe
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Prime minister Narendra Modi often projects the image of a pioneer of many things—sometimes important, trivial at other times. On Feb. 01, Arun Jaitley, tried one himself.

Jaitley became the first Indian finance minister to use the Hindi language, at least partially, to present the budget. He began with English, switched to Hindi minutes into the speech, reverted to English shortly, and so on. The pattern continued for a good measure of the presentation.

The finance minister’s messaging through this shift comes amidst a revival of the debate over languages in a country that has wrestled with the problem of linguistic identities for more than half-a-century. All the more so because ever since this government took power, it has created an impression of railroading native speakers of other languages into using Hindi, evoking severe backlash in the process. The Modi regime has been accused of Hindi-isation of official matters and coercing regional governments into kowtowing to this policy.

Now even a key document like the union budget has begun to reflect this policy.

Creeping Hindi-isation

For the last seven decades or so, the budget had been presented to the Indian parliament in English. This is because in India, where nearly 60% of the population speaks a language other than Hindi, English is the only one understood in all regions, even if only by some sections. English has gained further traction in the country after its economy was opened up in the 1990s, creating a number of jobs that required proficiency in the language.

For such a significant exercise as the budget, it is also equally important that a large number of the people’s representatives in parliament understand it and its implications.

Jaitley is known to be adept at both English and Hindi. But on Feb. 01, he stumbled and stuttered frequently while reading out the Hindi part prepared by bureaucrats. For, not surprisingly, it was replete with technical terms that aren’t easy for even the finance minister to pronounce unless rehearsed. For instance, he said ”prayaapt” when what he should have said paryaapt (adequate or enough); he said vigyanik when he ought to have said vaigyanik (scientific)

Clearly, he was pandering to northern and western India’s Hindi speakers, a key constituency of his outfit, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Likewise he spoke in Hindi while announcing a number of schemes and incentives focused on rural India and agriculture..,” the Economic Times reported Feb. 01..

After all, this was the last full budget that Jaitley would present before the world’s largest democracy goes to polls in 2019. And Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan has always been one of the BJP’s key mottos.

However, such an approach begs the question: What about the rest of the country that doesn’t speak Hindi?

Riding roughshod

The language issue has now moved beyond policy bias and entered the hegemony zone. Primarily because of subtle and not-so-subtle attempts at even the official level to conflate Hindi with nationalism.

Several measures taken by the Modi government since coming to power in 2014 have been seen as attempts to extend the sway of the Hindi language in non-Hindi-speaking areas of the country. This has, in turn, sparked a backlash.

In Karnataka, for instance, proponents of the native south Indian language of Kannada have been up in arms against the move to have a three-language system for the monitors and signage in Bengaluru’s new Metro rail facility. Last August, Namma Metro authorities were ultimately forced to do away with the Hindi words.

Around the same time, there was outrage in the southern state of Tamil Nadu after markings on national highway milestones were changed from English to Hindi.

Last month, Shashi Tharoor, author and parliamentarian from the southern state of Kerala, questioned the Modi government’s attempts to get Hindi declared an official language at the United Nations. ”The government has to defend its position. I understand the pride of Hindi-speaking people, but people of this country who do not speak in Hindi also take pride in being Indian,” he said.

Playing with fire

Animosity towards the Hindi language—rather towards its imposition on non-Hindi-speakers—is always just below the surface in other parts of the country, too. Particularly so in areas like Maharashtra and Assam. This has often taken violent turns, too, prompting assaults on Hindi speakers and their business establishments, besides even Bollywood movies.

In any case, India is now battling virulent forms of identity politics on multiple fronts—religion, caste, and race. At a time like this, inexplicably, the Modi government seems intent on widening the Hindi-non-Hindi chasm.

Ultimately, the budget should have remained a signal of India’s economic trajectory, not the Modi government’s plans for linguistic engineering.

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