Hindiyaa? : The Tamil – Hindi divide

The recent controversy surrounding the government’s circular enforcing Hindi in social media created ‘noise’ from all sides especially from Tamilnadu saying that the government is attempting to impose Hindi and many Tamil leaders protested the decision of the government. The government later clarified that it is for only the Hindi speaking states. I chose this title Hindi’yaa? for this blog post because it captures the Tamil accent which is often made fun of in Hindi movies and social settings. This blog post is MY OPINION standing on both sides and an attempt to provide some new perspectives through my experiences.

First, I am going to wear the hat of an ‘advocate’ for learning new languages and explore this issue.

I grew up in Madurai in Tamil Nadu and I could speak only in Tamil and English till 2002 since Hindi was never taught back home in Tamilnadu. I worked in Mumbai for 4 years and so learnt to speak and understand Hindi. I married a Sinhalese and so could speak and understand Sinhala. I went to Japan for my MBA and so learnt to read, write and speak in Japanese which I forgot in due course due to lack of opportunities to practice in India. Then, I lived in Bangalore for 4 years and started to understand little bit of Kannada. Recently, I moved to Switzerland and started learning French. What I realized in due course is that the more I move away from my language by learning new languages, the more closer I feel to my mother tongue Tamil. It is a paradox. All through my early years, I was taught by the dravidian movement that we should not learn Hindi and we should protect our language. As I started learning more languages, my respect for all languages grew and most importantly, my respect for my mother tongue Tamil grew even more. In fact, I have gone to the extent of reading J Krishnamurti in Tamil and bookmarked several Tamil literature websites to read the works of popular tamil writers like Jeyakanthan which I would not have thought of earlier.

As I think more about this paradox, it is true not just for my language but also for my country, my food and my city. When I was in Madurai, I had been to Meenakshi Amman temple only once or twice till I left the city in 1998 and I didn’t even know how to get in and how to get out. After I left Madurai and when I meet people from outside who rave about Meenakshi Amman temple, I used to feel bad that I didn’t know anything about my own temple. Whenever I came back to Madurai, I used to spend more time at Meenakshi Amman temple and that too with genuine interest to explore the temple with the curiosity of the child.

This curiosity would not have been there had I not seen other temples, had I not interacted with my friends, had I not exchanged different view points about temple architecture, rituals etc. I also wondered why only in South India and only in our religion, rich people can get to see god faster than a poor person. I was able to see both sides. I came closer to my temple than before and I also, feel that there are lot of things that my temple can learn from other temples.

Also, if we say ‘Hindi’ should not be imposed, We need to realize that we are against imposing anything of any kind. It is not about the language but the forceful implementation that needs to be criticized. In that case, it is wrong to impose on the Tamil people that they should not learn Hindi.

So, to sum up, to protect a language and help it to thrive, we need to create opportunities for people to learn more languages and the more they learn, the more closer they will get to their mother language. If we say we are against imposing Hindi, we should also be against the Tamil leaders who are imposing the idea that Tamils should not learn Hindi. Language, Food, places of worship and our cities form our cultural identities. If you ask any Tamilian today how much they are connected with their language outside movies and music, I am sure it will be very little. I don’t even remember when was the last time I wrote something in Tamil. We can help a society to shape its identity by letting them explore different identities and enabling them to make informed choices to shape their identity. It has the power to make any society more open minded, more balanced and more inclusive.

Now, I am going to wear the ‘Tamil hat’ to talk against this imposing of one language over others.

After the government passed the circular and later clarified that this circular is only for Hindi speaking states, I saw several posts in FB where some of my close Tamil friends shared posts that was asking this question — What is wrong with learning Hindi? In the comments section, there were all kinds of abuses (which is typical of Social Media these days) and one theme that was recurring was that Hindi should be the unifying language because majority of the people in India speak Hindi and that it will improve the efficiency of our administration.

The logic that majority speak Hindi and so Hindi should be the unifying national language is as absurd as saying India has more crows than peacock and so crow should be national bird or there are more rats than tigers and so, rat should be our national animal.

If the above argument is silly, How about this? Majority of Indians eat chapathi and it would be lot more efficient, if the whole of India eats chapathis. So to achieve this, we should make it mandatory that all farmers in India need to grow only Wheat. This will help us to become the world’s biggest producer of wheat and as a result, we can become the biggest exporter of chapathis, wheat halwa, pani poori, poori and it is lot more easier this way for accounting and administrative purposes because we don’t need different pesticides, different packaging, different storage mechanisms etc. Also, it is easier to transfer best practices, predict the output and achieve economies of scale. Imagine if we pass this as a law, What will happen to the rice based foods? What will happen to the food eco systems created and the millions of innovations that happen because of the intersection of food from different parts of India and the world? What about our Idlis, Dosas? What about our Idiyappams? What about our Vadagams? What about our Saravana Bhavans? What about our Maiyaas? If you think this argument is weird, the argument that majority speak Hindi and hence it has to be the unifying national language is weird to me.

Food is as much important as language in shaping a culture.The food ecosystem has already taught us how powerful and how pluralistic it can get without affecting each other in any way. In fact, if you notice, in recent times, some of the foods that were once considered rural and not available anymore are becoming mainstream like the Karupati Coffee, Ragi Kool etc. As food industry in any state expands to cater to the various emerging tastes, it also digs deep within its culture to unearth so many unique dishes which are not cooked in our houses anymore. This is a classic example of the paradox that I highlighted earlier — the more we explore and reach out, the more we come closer to home.

On the need for an unifying language to improve efficiency, I would like to use my friend and colleague, Krish Sankaran’s metaphor of the agricultural land to explain the need for diversity over standardization. For the sake of standardization and efficiency, if we start growing the same crop again and again, we know how ineffective the land will become. It holds true for language as well. My mother-in law land, Sri Lanka, is a great case study of how sensitive language issues can get and how violent it can turn out if these issues are not managed properly.

Switzerland is a great case study on why we may not need a unifying national language and still achieve the efficiency plus effectiveness.The Swiss have seamlessly integrated all the four national languages — German, French, Italian and Romansh. People in Geneva speak French, people in Zurich speak German and people in Lugano speak Italian. Every official transaction is in French in Geneva and in German in Zurich. English is also used where it is required. They have designed effective processes along with solid integration programs instead of trying to oversimplify things. Switzerland is one of the most competitive and high performing countries in the world inspite of having so many national languages for its size.

Languages can co-exist and each language can thrive in the company of each other as the above examples from the food ecosystem and the success of Switzerland teach us.

Also, if we ask the question on how Tamil Nadu has fared without Hindi as an unifying national language, we will realize the following

- A vibrant movie industry that produces some of the best and original movies like Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kanom that succeed on the strength of their stories and not on the good looks of its lead actors, talents like AR Rahman, Kamalhassan that our whole country can be proud of and the December music season that still celebrates carnatic music.

- A socially progressive state where nobody uses caste names as surnames as in other parts of India. Father’s name is used as surname. A person by name Thangaraj , son of Rathinavel and whose caste is Nadar is not called Thangaraj Nadar but rather Thangaraj Rathinavel or simply R.Thangaraj. This doesn’t suggest that caste has been abolished completely but it was a great step taken by the society as a whole because of the Dravidian movement.

- A state where other state people are never under any threat. For example, the Sourashtra community in Madurai is originally from Gujarat during the King Thirumalai Nayakkar days and this community is the biggest community in Madurai city. There was never a single incidence of violence against this community or against any community for that matter in any part of the state. My North Indian friends complain that the Tamils speak only in Tamil even if they know Hindi. This is not true as a majority of Tamils really don’t know Hindi.

- A state which is considered the most urban state in South Asia with excellent bus connectivity, telephone infrastructure, high literacy rates, a diversified industrial base from IT to Automobile to textiles to electronics and hence, can be safely called as the most developed state in India since the outcome of industrialization is urbanization

- Above all, Tamils are very passionate about their language — Tamil is the oldest living language in India and was the first Indian language to be declared a classical language by the Government of India in 2004.

Am I making Tamil Nadu look too glamorous? Tamil Nadu has achieved all the above despite not knowing Hindi and if we compare it with the Hindi speaking states, the difference will be starkingly evident. If every state is as passionate and as intense as Tamil Nadu and if we can ensure that differences are celebrated, India will live up to its image of a truly pluralistic society.

Let me throw away both hats and come back to my original self.

In India, we are always taught to take sides and vehemently defend our position. What I have attempted is to provide the perspective from both sides and in turn, see the merit in the argument of each side. This way, we can pick up the best from each argument and explore how we can fit them in the larger context. A language needs to be protected not by banning other languages but by encouraging people to learn more languages and creating cultural ecosystems that will help socially and economically. After all, language creates the reality and is the biggest gift given to mankind.

Let us not waste our time to fight for languages. Let us use language to unite all of us. The unity needs to happen by preserving our diversity. As Rumi said, ‘Beyond our differences, there is a place. I’ll meet you there’. Beyond our cultural differences, a country called India was created 60 years back by integrating the various kingdoms in the region. Let’s start to meet each other as Indians while passionately pursuing our language and culture.

Jai Hind! Vanakkam!

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