Hindi is side-stepping diversity and trying to creep in through the back door

Except the four major South Indian languages, Hindi films have managed to wipe off the once flourishing movie industries of Bengal, Odiya, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Assamese, etc.

Published: 31st March 2018 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 31st March 2018 04:28 PM   |  A+A-


When I stayed in Bengaluru a decade back, I could pick up Kannada within six months. I doubt whether I can now. In spite of staying in Mumbai for the last three years, I am unable to speak Marathi. Even when I attempt to speak Marathi, people who have this beautiful language as a mother tongue reply in Hindi. I have often wondered how do languages die?

I got a disquieting answer when I was in a flight going from Kochi to Chennai recently. The usual safety announcements were made in English and Hindi. I am comfortable with both, but I wondered at the absurdity of making safety announcements in Hindi and English in a flight connecting two southern states. If the DGCA thinks safety announcements are important, they should make the announcements in languages people understand. I checked the safety card, which too had instructions in only English and Hindi. Even a Rs 4 Vicks bottle has instructions in all Indian languages.

How much would it cost the airlines to have a foldable instruction card with all Indian official languages? What is the point in making safety announcements in a language many people do not understand? The body regulating International Civil Aviation mandated the use of English as the official language in 2008. All pilots, cabin crew, etc. are obliged to speak in English. There is a story in aviation circles. When a German pilot in a German airlines complained to the ATC about why he should use English, he was politely told that it is because Germany lost the bloody war.

Indian languages are yet to lose any wars, but such minor things make one feel whether they are under siege. Many foreign airlines flying to Indian cities will do the pre-recorded announcements in the respective Indian languages along with English. Some foreign airlines have videos with sub-title option for travellers not speaking the airline’s official language. Many have safety videos using three-dimensional graphics for passengers with hearing problems. But, Indian airlines choose to speak in Hindi and English.

Flying is no longer a luxury. There are elderly people flying to visit their sons or daughters living in metros, there are younger children, and the aspiring classes who had done their education in their mother tongues who use airlines. With the opening of airports in smaller towns, the percentage of such people is bound to increase. However, the airports are going ahead with the concept of silent airports. I have seen elderly people looking totally lost in the massive airport terminals and desperately trying to seek help from other busy looking, well-dressed passengers or staff who look intimidating. People who lack English or Hindi language skills are made to feel like second class citizens.

Many of the modern airports, most of them recently privatised, shamelessly collect usurious rates for coffee and beverages. Even the ex-finance minister of India recently complained about the rates of coffee in Chennai airport. However, you hardly find anyone to assist a non-Hindi, non-English speaking person. The sad irony is that many of these international airports in major Indian metros have staff speaking various foreign languages and they proudly announce the same.

Years before Tamil Nadu had burned on the perceived Hindi imposition by the Centre and it almost threatened to develop into a secessionist movement. It was quelled by announcing that English would remain the official language along with Hindi. The country miraculously survived 70 years without going the way of the USSR or Pakistan-Bangladesh, because we told ourselves a beautiful story about unity in diversity where all the contradictions will be celebrated and all the languages, dresses, religions, customs, tradition and culture would be respected equally. In the Doordarshan era, the ‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ song created a sense of belonging in us.

Now, many are feeling Hindi is trying to creep in through the back door. The decision to have passports in Hindi and English is sure to raise demands from all the official languages of India to have passports issued in languages of the respective states. All Central government schemes are named in Hindi. Even the Governor’s speech in a state with English as the state language was given in Hindi, raising controversy.

There is no convincing answer one can give to the question of why Allahabad High Court can function in Hindi when the Madras High Court cannot function in Tamil? The narrative of inclusiveness is slowly fading. Till recently, Bengaluru airport had no Kannada announcements. There should be no doubt that a metro train running inside Bengaluru city should have announcements in Kannada. Usage of any other language is the choice of the respective state.

Even after two-and-half centuries of British rule, none of the Indian languages died. Rather, most of them flourished. However Hindi is slowly choking many languages to death. Except the four major South Indian languages, Hindi films have managed to wipe off the once flourishing movie industries of Bengal, Odiya, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Assamese, etc. The recent voices raised by some major leaders of the four southern states asking for a separate entity are worrying. Unless, the feelings of disenchantment are nipped in the bud, such thoughts may lead to dangerous consequences. We have to get the narrative of an India that celebrates diversity back on track.

Anand Neelakantan

Author, columnist, speaker


India Matters


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