Language, the basis of unity and conflict
Language, as one of the most pre-eminent expressions of human civilisation, has always been the source of unity and conflict in human history. There have been times when the unity of diverse peoples was imposed by existing forms of tyranny as in the case of Roman Civilisation. Equally numerous are the cases when language question figured prominently as a means of self-assertion as exemplified by the emergence of Bangladeshi and Ukrainian nationalism in the recent past.
At first sight, it appears as though nations and communities which are not broken up with the narrow walls of language have an advantage over those which boast of their rich diversity. The most technologically advanced countries in the world today - in North America, Western Europe or Japan and China - have for the most part a single language as a means of communication among their inhabitants.
Though some or many may learn foreign languages, mostly English in non-English speaking countries, this does not lead to conflict or violence. In Japan, a small minority learns English but the intercourse between people is almost entirely in Japanese.
In China, though English is becoming popular with the young, it is still far away from being a challenge to the supremacy of Chinese. It is said that in ancient China, all the books that existed of innumerable languages were mercilessly set ablaze by the first emperor Qui Shi Huan of Chin dynasty to consolidate the unity of his imperial realms.
Today China, one of the biggest land-masses in the world, never finds the language question as a stumbling block to her progress, thanks to the emperor's vandalism. However, this unity is still marred by the mutually unintelligible quality of different Chinese dialects, all of which employ a pan-Chinese writing system.
India never had the counterpart of the first Chinese emperor. Though at different points of time, some languages were used as lingua franca or trans-regional languages - Sanskrit, for example - the regional languages, including innumerable tribal languages without script not only did not vanish but went on flourishing as they produced high quality literary expressions, both oral and written.
The heroic epics of Bhils of Gujarat or the lyrical poetry of Mundas and Santals are in no way inferior to the achievements of evolved literacy traditions. The strength of Indian civilisation, unlike that of Chinese, has been the plethora of its languages. Bilingualism and multilingualism has characterised our history throughout.
The linguistic reorganisation of Indian states in post-Independence India was a positive recognition of this fact. Just as Tagore glorified the regional diversity of India in his national anthem, the great Tamil poet Subrahmanya Bharatiyar celebrated our linguistic diversity in a poem of his:
In the moonlight over the Sindhu,
In the company of young Kerala girls
Singing songs in beautiful Telugu
We are rowing our boats, sporting....
The variety of our languages was an important component of Nehru's characterisation of Indian culture as unity in diversity. Mahatma Gandhi also held our linguistic pluralism high in importance, which he recommended to be the corner stone of children's education in India.
Apart from the idealism of poets, seers and statesmen, even on the level of facts, multiplicity of languages has indubitably given a great impetus to the efflorescence of our arts, literatures and cultures.
Before and after Independence, struggles for political recognition of regional languages have contributed to the political liberation of people from the language of the oppressor.
For instance, when fierce struggles were waged for unification of different Kannada-speaking regions during Karnataka Unification Movement (Karnataka Ekikarana), the basic reason was the marginalisation inflicted on the majority Kannada-speakers in regions of Hyderabad, Madras and Bombay Karnataka.
The recent struggles for constitutional recognition by speakers of non-mainstream languages are actuated by similar reasons. Put another way, the struggle for linguistic supremacy is closely intertwined with the struggle for the language-speakers' need for social and political justice.
Languages, which at one point of time can become symbols of peoples' unity, can at a later time become images of oppression in the eyes of linguistic minorities in those regions.
In Assam, a state characterised by rich ethnic diversity, the speakers of tribal languages like Rabha and Bodo now feel that the state language Ahomia is a threat to their ethnic self-assertion in a situation of unequal exchange between the mainstream and tribal communities.
Even in the Hindi heartland, there are murmurs of discontent. The languages like Garhwali and Kumaoni are looked at by the advocates of Hindi as dialects though the differences between them and Hindi are as significant as that between, say, Hindi and Gujarati which enjoys the status of an independent language. There have also been dissident voices in Bihar which claim that Bhojpuri and Maithili are independent languages, not just dialects of Hindi. The pro-Meitei section of Manipur are struggling to do away with the Bengali script which, according to them, was imposed by the invading culture of outsiders.
To what extent do such moves involve threats to national unity?
Before we attempt an answer to this question, it is important to understand whether linguistic unity alone ensures the eternal unity of people speaking the same languages. Obviously not. If that were the case, there should have been no Telangana movement in today's Andhra. Neither should there have been the demand for the separation of Chhattisgarh. Objectively seen, the language question is predominantly socio-political question in disguise, a response to uneven development of regions and communities. If uniformity of development is ensured, our languages can become great sources of our strength.
Let us now return to the assertion of one nation one language theory, which is an expression of Euro-centric biases. In spite of her complex linguistic problems and more complicated problems of inequality, India is now being perceived even in the West as a growing economy. Even this need not be taken at face value.
The economic and technological growth is not the only index of nation's growth. The soft power that a diverse country like India possesses is infinitely superior to that of Europe or North America. Long ago Confucius said that the greatness of a country is to be measured not by its material possessions alone but by the quality of its people. A similar view was held by the American poet-materialist economist Kenneth Galbraith in his well-known book Affluent Society.
Let us celebrate the diversity of our tongues, which is a hallmark of our civilisational genius. In order to offset eruptions of linguistic chauvinism, we need to reinvigorate multilingualism which has been an integral part of our culture. At the same time, we need to emphasise the need for equal growth of regions and communities to ensure the equality of languages.
More about H S Shivaprakash
Prof H S Shivaprakash is an acclaimed English professor and writer. He is currently working as the Director, Tagore Centre, Berlin at Indian Embassy in Germany. He is also heading India's cultural mission in Germany. He was the Dean, Department of Arts and Aesthetics Studies at the JNU, Delhi. He was also the Editor of Kendra Sahithya Academy journal ' Indian Literature'. He Authored eight books of poems, nine plays, two books of criticism in Kannada and English. He is a recipient of Central Sangeet, Natak Academy Award and MHRD Fellowship for Literature.