Are many languages a strength or weakness? For those integrated with Indian tradition and its cultural moorings, this denotes strength. To those who view India from the prism of Western theories and practices—and Marxist ideologies—this is weakness. This is the reason the Soviet-inspired Communist Party of India (CPI) demanded the formation of 29 separate constituent assemblies as it considered all Indian languages as the basis of respective sub-nationalities. History, however, vindicated the fact that diversity is a fundamental trait of Indian tradition.
India is a civilisational laboratory. New modes and experiments mark its progress. Its culture, however, has been defined by three fundamental things: first, the quest of truth is an unstoppable, undefined chain. This finds expression in the Vedas as “Ekam sat, viprah bahudha vadanti” (the Truth is One; the wise express it in different ways). Secondly, both organic and inorganic entities, whether man or stone, belong to the universe and are constantly interchangeable. Transmigration of the soul depicts the fundamental unity of the universe. Thirdly, no effort, prayer or spiritual endeavour can be pure unless it is for the universe. This is expressed in Sanskrit as “Swantah sukhaya sarvatah sukhaya”. These principles make Indian culture inclusive, progressive and dynamic. It allows freedom for narratives contesting each other, but not contradicting the aforesaid fundamentals. Jawaharlal Nehru aptly paraphrased it as unity in diversity. That is why hundreds of languages, dozens of scripts and thousands of dialects continue to add strength to India’s civilisational and cultural ethos.
Therefore, we need to introspect upon our faults, which sometimes make linguistic diversities a burden. Language is the means of communication. A child is at its best in its mother tongue. This is equally true of all children whether born in Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada or Hindi-speaking homes. Poet-saint Samarth Ramdas was at his best in Marathi while delivering his narratives of Hindu culture, dharma and faith. His Das Bodh in Marathi is a classical text of Hindu Advait Vedanta. So is 11th century scholar Nannaya Bhatarka’s interpretation of the Mahabharata in Telugu, Kamban’s Ramayana in Tamil or Ramcharitham in Malayalam. These are a few examples of how language is not a hurdle in the progress of civilisation.
The biggest obstacle, however, is our cultural inertia, which has gripped us since the colonial period. The colonial language, English, with all its utility and potentialities, has become a language of social divide. No need for any extensive research; we can see such divisiveness in our surroundings. A Telugu-speaking person is not considered equivalent to one who speaks English. It is a colonial burden sitting atop our head, while enjoying the privilege of being an essential evil. Children deprived from mother-tongue also gradually lose their natural connect with their traditions, legacies and culture. This is no exaggeration. One can today find students who cannot recognise the scripts of their mother tongue. Let us be honest: how many of the so-called “educated” gentry would be able to distinguish the Tamil script from Malayalam or Telugu?
We must ask ourselves: is Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s Rashmirathi easily available in Tamil, Odia or Assamese? Or Namdev and Tukaram’s writings in Malayalam; Shankardev’s kirtan (Assamese) in Punjabi? Can the rich literature of one Indian language be directly translated into another without having to take recourse to English?
Post-Independence, we have existed in a linguistically defined cultural federalism. There has been no systematic and organised effort to know each other. The dominance of politics has seen culture subsiding. This defines the nature of the cultural inertia that has bound us Indians. The question is: how long and how far?
Sinha is Hony. Director of India Policy Foundation