The draft NEP 2019 predictably triggered a controversy when its ambiguous wording, either by mistake or design, suggested providing a fresh impetus to the 50-year-old three-language policy in school curriculums across the country. That is because, in effect, it slyly imposes Hindi on non-Hindi speaking populations, while Hindi-speaking states continue to remain free of any obligation to learn languages from other parts of India.
South Indian states were incensed, with the loudest protests coming from Tamil Nadu, which has historically opposed Hindi hegemony, followed by Karnataka. While there’s been no big furore in Maharashtra, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena issued a warning that Hindi was not the national language and any attempt at enforcing it would be tantamount to incitement.
Marathi is the mother-tongue of approximately 7 per cent (Census 2011) of the Indian population, the third largest language spoken in India after Hindi and Bengali. Marathi folk love their language as much as people from other states cherish their own, but despite having a strong sense of regional identity, Maharashtrians have never been known for linguistic fanaticism. Nor has Maharashtra really considered studying Hindi as some kind of a conspiracy by North Indian states.
In fact, the state was among the first ones to embrace and even successfully implement the three-language formula in primary and secondary education, after it was introduced in 1968. Children in Maharashtra board schools learn English, Marathi and Hindi as compulsory subjects and many schools even include an additional foreign language like German or French or, alternatively, Sanskrit in the curriculum. As regards schools affiliated to boards such as the CBSE and the ICSE, Maharashtra has even shown the magnanimity of not making Marathi a mandatory subject, even though the proposal has been under consideration from time to time.
Most Maharashtrians, even from rural areas, understand Hindi rather well and speak enough to get by. The reasons are not far to seek. Firstly, Hindi films are highly popular across the state. Indeed, Bollywood is based in Mumbai, the most cosmopolitan city in India. Secondly, Hindi and Marathi are linguistic cousins, sharing many words, phrases and even the Devanagari script. Thirdly, Maharashtra has a large number of immigrants from other states, especially from the Hindi heartland, because the state is the most prosperous and industrialised in India, with manifold job and educational opportunities.
Hindi is not really an ‘unfamiliar’ tongue to Marathi people, like it is for those further South. Quite simply, they have internalised Hindi and bear no hostility towards the language, even if they might slightly resent the domineering attitude of people from Hindi-speaking states who have made Maharashtra their home and the hegemonic instincts and entitled arrogance of North Indians in general. In fact, in many leading Maharashtra cities like Mumbai, Pune, Thane, Kolhapur and Nasik, you will find youth freely switching between Marathi, Hindi and English with equal fluency during conversations — such is the level of penetration and acceptance of Hindi in Maharashtra.
On the other hand, Marathi is neither in danger of extinction nor under siege. The language flourishes and continues to be used widely in public and in homes, because Maharashtrians have an understated, non-demonstrative but powerful attachment to their mother tongue. Marathi newspapers, cinema, TV serials and books flourish and even though Marathi commercial plays are not as popular as they once were, amateur and experimental theatre is actively performed.
All in all, Marathi folk don’t feel culturally or linguistically threatened by Hindi. However, what rubs them the wrong way is the national-integration pitch, which is used to push Hindi as the national language, conferring it with some kind of superior status over state languages. Why would the populace of any state accept such linguistic subjugation? The argument that if people had no qualms accepting the exaltation of English, why should they object to the learning of Hindi, is shallow and silly. Learning English was and is still driven by an imperative — because it is the global language of science, technology, business and industry. It is the language of upward mobility and national and international convenience. Hindi, on the contrary, offers no such distinct advantages over our native languages. At best, it’s a link language and a wonderfully endearing Indian tongue that enriches us culturally, enabling us to share and cultivate a wider Indian consciousness.
However, to try and make it into a tool for enforcing pan-Indian homogeneity, unity and promote a narrow North Indian notion of cultural nationalism in a land of such diversity as ours, is totally ill-conceived. It is bound to invite stiff resistance. Even worse is the kind of grammatically pure, brahminical, shuddh text-book Hindi that children are forced to study, rather than the spoken language which is easy to understand and converse in. From a language that so many of us fall in love with because of its wonderful range and depth of articulation, its flow, its many accents, dialects and sweet corruptions, courtesy Hindi films, agenda-driven classroom Hindi would be in grave danger of becoming a much-hated tongue with little educational value.
Perhaps all those clamouring to shove curricular Hindi down our children’s throats need to step back and curb their enthusiasm. They should instead turn their attention to honestly appraising the three-language policy in North Indian states. How many Hindi-speaking states impose Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Oriya, Malayalam and Bengali as the third compulsory language in school curriculums? These are among the top 10 languages spoken in the rest of India, most of which are unintelligible to most North Indians. Chances are most Hindi-speaking states either don’t enforce the policy or get away by either offering Urdu or Sanskrit as the third language.
It’s hypocritical, therefore, to expect compliance of the three-language policy from non-Hindi speaking states then.
— The writer is a Pune-based crime novelist
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