Today's Editorial

23 April 2018

Hidden battles

Source: By Uddalak Mukherjee: The Telegraph

The significance of International Mother Language Day, which falls on February 21 each year, lies in its attempt to strike a fine balance. On the one hand, the event, which has the seal of approval of the United Nations, is supposed to honour the mother tongue. On the other, it also encourages linguistic diversity — the practice of speaking more than one language.

In recent years, the discourse on IMLD has widened, incorporating two other elements. Today, it is at once an occasion of celebration and solemnity. It is not uncommon to find the media making use of February 21 to discuss the threat to, and the death of, languages. This year, for instance, a report in The Telegraph stated that data put out by the home ministry suggest that in a country with 22 scheduled languages and 100 non- scheduled ones, more than 40 languages and local dialects, with less than 10,000 speakers, are headed towards extinction.

This threat is unique to multilingual societies and some of the findings in this respect need to be looked into closely. It has been estimated that globally, over 3,000 languages are expected to die in the course of the next decade or so. Oral languages/ dialects feature prominently in this list of endangered tongues. Interestingly, the death of a language occurs not just with a precipitous decline in the number of speakers. Stipulated legislations can play a role too. For example, in India, a country known for the richness of its oral traditions, the government, in its wisdom, came up with the idea of defining languages on the basis of the existence of a script. This led to the waning and even effacement of specific dialects — such as the ones used by indigenous people — whose survival depends on oral transmission.

The other unchanging character of the discourse on languages concerns the public acknowledgement of their transformation into a kind of political capital. The subcontinent has a long history of political movements concerning language. The series of agitations in Tamil Nadu against the official status of Hindi is a classic example. The anger and dissent were, undoubtedly, a testimony to the unbreakable link among language, culture and identity. Again, of the several factors that are attributed to the creation of Bangladesh, the persecution of Bengali — it had official sanction — is understood to be of some significance.

In India, where states — new and old — have been created on the basis of the dominant linguistic identity, subterranean tensions concerning local dialects continue. The response of elected governments to the dissenting voices can be patently patronizing. Recently, in Bengal, the state government passed the official language (second amendment) bill, which bestows recognition on Kuramali, Kamtapuri and Rajbanshi. It is another matter that official recognition is by no means a guarantee of survival for such dialects. But such concessions, political parties in power believe, are an effective means of mobilizing the support of ethnic groups and addressing their misgivings. Of the three, the recognition to Kuramali, which is spoken in Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore, is likely to have a special bearing on the impending panchayat elections.

There is a third — rather underexplored — dimension to the discourse on languages. This aspect, which is quite layered itself, is seldom examined because the thrust of events commemorating languages, such as the IMLD, seems to be on eulogizing spoken dialects. But a language, in its everyday functionality, can also serve as a marker of both exclusion and exclusivity. Take the example of the expression, 'Hindu hotel', that is usually applied to describe cheap eateries in Calcutta that serve staple food — bhaat , daal , shobji — to underprivileged citizens.

These modest eateries have retained their popularity even today. It is not uncommon to find orthodox, vegetarian taxi drivers, many of them from undivided Bihar, relishing a meal in 'Hindu hotels'. Enquiries with them would reveal that given a chance, they would not dine anywhere else. The cheap rates are an attraction. But a greater incentive lies in the message conveyed by the choice of the title of these hotels.

What is discernible in this context is the way in which the political economy of language and food intersect to uphold the idea of purity that is also a hallmark of exclusion. Fiction, too, has mirrored this kind of implicit segregation. The enterprise in Bandyopadhyay 's novel catered to a hierarchical order, although based not on religion or caste but class. In a deft and cheeky reminder of the embedded division, Bandyopadhyay reminds his readers that those who patronized the lower tier of the Adarsha Hindu Hotel were served lentil soup mixed with rice starch in an indirect reiteration of their destitution.

It would be tempting to morally denounce this stratification that uses language as the medium of communicating prejudice. But what makes language — the vernacular or the lingua franca — beautiful and complicated is the layered nature of its resonance. The 'Hindu' of the 'Hindu hotel' may have been a conscious ploy to indicate exclusion. But if one were to look at the history of the inception of these humble institutions, one would see that language — through the chosen epithet,' Hindu' — was also functioning as a means of cultural affirmation. It needs to be pointed out that the profusion of these eateries coincided with the arrival of Hindu migrants to Calcutta from East Pakistan.

That is the reason why the hotels were a common sight in stretches around railway stations. (Bandyopadhyay ' s Adarsha Hindu Hotel is located close to the Ranaghat railway station.) Language performed dual functions in this context. For the owner of these local hotels, the affixation of the term, Hindu, to the name of the hotel was a useful way of attracting a clientele who had experienced the anxiety of losing not just their roots but also their identity on account of Partition. For the traumatized patrons, these establishments became a vicarious means of affirming an identity — through shared language and food — that had been threatened in the land they had left.

Multilingual societies are often feted for their commitment to the idea of pluralism. Today, the direction of global politics is grim. Ultra- nationalist governments are plotting to impose unitary cultural templates on diverse societies, as is evident in India. Multilingualism is thus a noble idea that must be fought for. But multilingualism is also romanticized as an idyll shared equitably by languages. In truth, it is a space that simmers with the tension brought about by competing languages. This contest can unfold in curious ways within familiar settings. For instance, apart from its ubiquitous ' Hindu hotels', Calcutta also comprises shops with peculiarly English or anglicized names. J. Boseck, the shop that sells watches, stands in the heart of Chowringhee.

Is the title merely a colonial inheritance or an ode to the memory of such a past? Can the endurance of such an appellation be looked upon as an act of resistance? Is it then an outpost of anglophilia — with its attendant, purported sophistication — bobbing in an otherwise vernacular (Bengali) sea? Those with a cheery disposition would cite a thriving J. Boseck as proof of the spirit of inclusion of multilingual culturesBut the cynic is not convinced easily. If a multilingual society is indeed a nursery that is benevolent equally to languages, why is it that of India's 22 scheduled languages, no more than two are spoken by the adivasis who make up over 8 per cent of the country’s population?



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