Myself Madrasi. Hindi theriyaad macha!

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Recently, I was a witness to a scene that is familiar to most “Madrasis”:

I was in a Volvo bus to the airport. A Kannada radio channel was playing on the PA system. A burly north Indian gentleman loudly told the conductor to play Hindi songs instead. What is significant is that a lone northerner felt he was doing the right thing by imposing his language on a busful of commuters in the capital city of Karnataka – and what is more significant is that he got away with it. Mind you, this was a state government bus, that is required to use only the official language of Karnataka. The official language of Karnataka is not Hindi.

What’s in a language, you ask? Answer: Everything.

A language is the soul of its people. History, culture, art, philosophy, science, religion – everything. No other aspect of a people’s culture arouses as much passion, and loyalty, as its language.

People do not differentiate between their mother tongue and their mother land. Small wonder then, that people are willing to die for their language.

You cannot replace one language with another. You do not go around claiming one language is somehow better than the other. And you do not go around shoving your language down another’s throat.

I am a polyglot. Oddly enough, while I am fluent in Hindi and several other languages, I cannot read or write my own mother tongue, which is Tamil. I can speak the colloquial version of Tamil with reasonable fluency, but I cannot understand the formal version.

In principle therefore, a “Madrasi” like me should be an ardent supporter of “Hindigiri” (if I may coin a term).  And mind you, as a Hindi-speaking Brahmin, I am not exactly welcome in Tamil Nadu myself.

That doesn’t mean dick. I empathise with all my fellow Indians who are opposed to having any language imposed on them.

India does not have a national language.

The Indian Union has listed 22 indigenous languages and English as “official” languages. From these official languages, an Indian state can have its own official language, depending on regional considerations. Kannada, for example, is the sole official language of Karnataka, just as Marathi is that of Maharashtra, and so on. Tamil Nadu has two official languages – Tamil and English.

You can read India’s Official Languages Act, 1963, if you want to know the truth about our non-existent “national” language.

In Karnataka, all government communications need be in Kannada only. They add English as a courtesy, for which I am thankful.

None of the six states of south India have Hindi as an official language.

Does India need a national language? Why, pray? Why?

The three-language formula has been around since 1968. It hasn’t worked well, in spite of several revisions over the years. In Tamil Nadu, the three-language formula isn’t followed at all.  If it has not worked as well as it should have, it is due to lop-sided implementation. In a country with a few thousand languages and dialects – and a prolonged history of language based conflicts – the three-language policy represents a compromise at best, but it’s all we’ve got.

Yes, it is important for a country to have a common language, not necessarily a national one. But, imposition by any means, direct or indirect, gentle or harsh, just does not work.

Why do our elected leaders never learn from our own history?

Instead, successive governments have adopted a bull-headed approach to the language issue. And that has resulted in the rise of certain regional parties whose only claim to fame is their alleged loyalty to their regional language. And that in turn, has created a new threat to our social fabric – the lingo-fascist.

This is not how a modern democracy works.

Dozens of assorted experts have provided sage advice on how to solve this chronic issue of our national language. Most of them miss the point. No matter how you sugar-coat it, you cannot make citizens of a democratic nation accept a language that is not native to them.

Till date, in post-Independent India, I have not seen a single north Indian politician trying to learn a single south Indian language. Not one. There is no shortage of south Indian politicians and thought-leaders who are fluent in Hindi. In fact, almost all of them are. How many of their north Indian counterparts have even a passing acquaintance with any south Indian language? Not one.

Why is it that “Madrasis” are expected to learn Hindi before they step foot into any part of north India, and why is it that the same “Madrasis” who never leave their home-states are still expected to learn Hindi, for the exclusive benefit of north Indians who come down south?

Hindi nahi aati kya?” is the first question they yell as they step out of the airport. Only in namma Bangalore would local people apologise with a sheepish grin. In Chennai, the likely response would be “Yo! Po ya!” That’s the polite Tamil equivalent of “Eff off!”.

As our ancient country enters its seventh decade as the world’s largest democratic republic, it’s time we ended this internecine war over our ‘national’ language. It’s time we tackled the real issues that are tearing our country apart – our uncontrolled population, poverty, civil strife, intolerance, vigilantism, human rights. In spite of the ruling party’s vehement protestations, we are still one of the poorest nations in the world.

We are the second-most populous nation on the planet.  We have the world’s largest illiterate population.

Our women are still unsafe. The United Nations states that India is the world’s “most deadly” country for female infants.

Our population will overtake China within a decade. And then what? A nation of one thousand five hundred million people, the highest population density in the world, and one of the lowest standards of living.

How exactly will a national language help with any of this?

Bas. Saaku. Chaalu. Podum. Paryaptam. Enough.

It’s time the nation grew up.

First learn the geography of your own country. There is no place called “Madras”. There are six separate states that comprise south India – Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Puducheri.

Learn any south Indian language first, before asking me, “Hindi nahi aati kya?”.

As it happens, my Hindi is definitely much better than yours. How’s your Tamil?

Tamil theriyaada? Kannada gotthillva? Telugu raada? Malayalam parayamo?

If your answer to these questions is ‘no’, then …shut the eff up.

And stop calling me “Madrasi”.

Punarmilaama … Srini.

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