Friday, 20 June 2014

India In Danger Of Repeating Sri Lanka's Deadly Error

Pluralistic societies must beware of elevating one group above all others. The day Sri Lanka made Sinhala its state language and Buddhism its state religion was the day it sowed the seeds of its longstanding ethnic strife. The revolt of the Tamil linguistic minority has been put down at great cost. But the Sri Lankan government does not seem at all serious about pursuing genuine rapprochement or providing autonomy to the Tamils within a looser federation. Far from learning a lesson from those lost decades, elements of the country's political class and clergy now seem to have turned towards baiting the Muslim religious minority, and another round of bloodletting appears to be on the cards. As one who has visited that beautiful country and interacted with many of its smart and gentle people, I can only shake my head in sorrow. Sri Lanka's problems are needless ones of its own creation, all because of a fundamental lack of governing wisdom.

India has long escaped such a fate, thanks to the abundance of wisdom on the part of its founding fathers. The early tussle with the Muslim League on the one hand and the Hindu Mahasabha on the other must have convinced the leaders of the Congress of the desirability of establishing a secular state that treated all its religions equally. And while Nehru came perilously close to imposing a single language (Hindi) on a country where over 60% spoke another language, he wisely stepped back from the brink in the face of protests. India has enjoyed rare harmony in its public life because religion has largely remained a private matter, and its unique "three language formula" has given individuals, governments and private organisations pragmatic ways to communicate.

Over time, a remarkable sense of Indian nationhood has begun to develop (even if it has frayed slightly around the edges thanks to vote-bank politics). Free of heavy-handed imposition, Hindi has spread even to traditionally non-Hindi regions, often thanks to the subtle charms of Bollywood. At the same time, English has spread among the relative elite, forming a link language for the educated class. All wholesome developments, one would think.

The party, however, seems to have come to a rude and abrupt end with the election of Narendra Modi's BJP in May 2014. At first, the focus of the government seemed to be on economic development, and in that endeavour, the prime minister won quick support, including from many erstwhile critics. A potential sour note was religion. The BJP has always been known as a Hindu party, and most public attention has been on the likely relationship between a BJP government and its non-Hindu citizens. While Modi has been careful to project an inclusive image, there have been some disturbing incidents of violence carried out by radical fringe groups with a more hard-line Hindu agenda. The old fault-line of religion has therefore come under renewed strain.

Disturbingly, another old fault-line has been needlessly opened up.  Initially, Modi's preference for Hindi over English in his official communications was ascribed to his relative lack of fluency in English and his understandable preference for a language in which he was more at home. But continuing reports of the government's edicts in favour of Hindi over English have begun to raise eyebrows. The home minister, Rajnath Singh, who was noted for his past statements that the English language has destroyed India's culture, has begun to crack the whip to ensure that the sole language in which his ministry does business is Hindi.

It's clear where the Hindu right is coming from. They are aware that opposition to their Hindutva ideology comes primarily from two broad groups of people - religious minorities and the English-speaking urban middle class. Nothing less than a culture war is now on to undercut the power of these groups. In terms of religion, language and class, the Hindu right wing has identified its foes and begun its offensive.

The world has its eyes on India's old religious schisms, so the government will probably tread carefully there. But the other war (the linguistic/class war) is equally dangerous, and here the government has fewer checks on its actions. 

There are at least four problems with the Modi government's lurch to a majoritarian agenda:

1. The mandate that the BJP received in the recent election was for its plank of economic development. Starting a culture war when there are pressing economic problems to be solved is not just a betrayal of that mandate but a luxury the country cannot afford.

2. The purpose of language is communication. The existing three language formula has served India well, allowing people and organisations to negotiate a suitable common language to communicate in without coercion. There is no reason to ram a language down people's throats unless the motive is to disenfranchise a group of cultural enemies. In addition, insistence on an "official" Hindi, quite different in flavour from the everyday Hindi favoured by most speakers, is counter-productive. Official Hindi is often unintelligible even to Hindi speakers, and is an impediment rather than an aid to communication.

3. Then there is the whole hypocrisy angle. Politicians who rail against the English language, such as Rajnath Singh and Mulayam Yadav, see no contradiction between their public stand and giving their own offspring an English language education and sending them abroad to study. They obviously know which side of their bread is buttered (or if they so prefer, which side of their roti is makkhandaar), but will not acknowledge that English is an aspirational language for millions of their countrymen and could help to improve the career prospects and living standards of the next generation. It's one rule for them and another rule for the masses.

4. Finally, although English is in many ways a "foreign" language to India, its very foreignness makes it neutral. It does not belong more naturally to one group of Indians than to another. If English is to be replaced by Hindi, all Indians who speak a different Indian language automatically become second class citizens, because their own languages are relegated to secondary status behind Hindi. When one Indian is forced to speak to another in a language that is not their own but is native to the other, it creates a power asymmetry that will be deeply resented. It is no way to build a nation.

Those who point to countries like Japan, Korea and Germany to argue that India should have its own national language are missing an important distinction. All of these countries have a single language of their own, so it is natural for that language to be the national language. India has 22 official languages, all of them equally Indian. How can any one of them be termed the "national" language without making the others seem less national? In the same vein, wouldn't anointing India a "Hindu" country alienate citizens of other religions who are every bit as patriotic? It is for this reason that majoritarian politics is dangerous in pluralistic societies, and it is highly inadvisable for a country to create second-class citizens out of its religious and linguistic minorities. Sri Lanka is a warning to the world, but it appears that India cannot see what is, in a geographically literal sense, right beneath its nose.

The Modi government and its ideological fountainhead (the RSS) appear to have overreached themselves. They have turned the country's colourful diversity into ugly difference. And with their roughshod tactics, they have brought their government's honeymoon to an abrupt end.