“Languages” to “dialects of Hindi”: A relegation of the languages of Bihar in the agenda of Hindi nationalism

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India, unlike several European countries, does not have any ‘national language’. Article 343 (1) of the Indian Constitution says “Hindi” (written in Devnagri script) is one of the “official languages” alongside English. Additionally, the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution recognises 22 scheduled (regional) languages, of which only one language of Bihar, Maithili, was added in 2004. Presently, there are demands to add 38 more languages in the 8th schedule, including many of the languages of Bihar. Hindi, Urdu, Angika, Bajjika, Magahi, Maithili, Santali, and Bhojpuri are languages predominantly spoken in Bihar. Amid all this demand to recognise the multi-linguistic identity of a nation, constant efforts are made to link the entire nation with one single language based on the idea of European linguistic nationalism, overlooking the fact that this idea of “one nation, one language, one culture” already caused a lot of mayhem in the world. Out of many theorists in France (and worldwide), who see the world from a monolingual lens, Antoine de Rithal surmised that ‘enlightenment’ is not possible without learning French, and many theorists went further; they described the “patriotic duty” as to eradicate the other languages spoken in the French republic. This “one language, one nation” agenda starts with this “patriotic duty” of eradicating the other languages in the pretence of uniting the nation. In Bihar, the entire Hindi movement, led by Upper Caste Bihari landlords with the support of Bengali intelligentsia and government officials, started as an “anti-Urdu campaign.” The Brahminical elite had created a binary of Hindi and Urdu, Hindi, the language of Hindus, Urdu, the language of Muslims, and the entire narrative helped in the “patriotic duty” of eradicating Urdu and in the “nationalisation of Hindu (Brahminical) tradition.” The Hindi- movement in Bihar has a communal appeal. It was launched targeting Muslims. But in the process of ‘villainising’ Urdu and substituting it with the standardised Hindi, many regional languages, spoken by millions of people irrespective of religion, have either lost their existence or been relegated as a ‘dialect of Hindi.’ Sumit Sarkar writes that “Literary Hindi was much of an artificial creation” to serve the agenda of the Hindutva movement. Other scholars also note that the colloquial ‘Hindi’ (Kaithi script) in North India was much different than the constructed Hindi (Devanagari Script) projected as a “national language.”

The loss of languages is the loss of identity. Bihar has lost its identity, its languages, its plural culture, and the ideas of empathy founded on the ideas of Buddha and succumbed to the hierarchical rigidity of the Brahmanical scriptures. I will discuss the loss of Bihar’s mother tongues and the politics of “dialects” in the following paragraphs. Before that, we need to turn our attention to the fact that the imposition of Hindi is constantly questioned by Southern states of India, from the first anti-Hindi imposition agitation spearheaded by Periyar in response to making Hindi compulsory in schools of Madras to the recent opposition against the “three language formula” of  National education policy 2020, which earlier proposed to introduce Hindi as a third language in the ‘non-Hindi states.’ The Dravidian movement against Hindi was against language imperialism, the enforcement of North Indian cultures on South India, and monolingual nationalism, all of which ignore the plurality and diversity of the languages in India. Periyar saw the imposition of Hindi as an agenda of the “Brahmin-Baniya” enterprise. It also reinforced the “backward” culture of caste and gender oppression.

Here, we need to acknowledge that Tamil, Bengali, and many other language speakers that vociferously question the hegemony of Hindi have their own scripts and literary spheres. Without all this, is it possible for Bihar’s languages to regain their own identity?


Linguistic Capital or The Mother Tongue?

For a long time, I was unaware that my mother tongue is “Angika”. Like my family, many people who migrated from Bihar in the hope of any economic or other opportunities choose not to speak their mother tongue, not only in public spaces but in private spaces too, in the hope of getting acceptance from society. Many North Indians use the word “Bihari” pejoratively; the perception that (Bihari) working-class people will encroach on all their lands or resources made them more vulnerable in the cities. The economic “backwardness” of the state is generally seen as cultural & social backwardness, and none other than the working-class people are made responsible for holding up the weight of “backwardness” instead of any government. Many people fear any association between their languages and the “Dehati Bhasha” can turn into any racial or casteist backlash. In the cities, many of my upper-caste friends (including some of my relatives who grieve for their lost tongue, “Angika”) waste no time mocking Bhojpuri, the language which made space in the popular culture through their songs, and is often criticised for its ‘vulgarity’. In the article “The paradox of Bhojpuri: Vulgarity as an alternative tongue”, Rishabh Sriwastava talks about how many of the words in these ‘sensual’ Bhojpuri songs are taken from the daily languages that are spoken by a large number of working-class people. Since it is not from the standardised Hindi, the Bhojpuri songs started being considered lewd. He writes, “The moment one opens his mouth in Bhojpuri, it appears that he is going to crack a lewd joke because, in the Delhi sets, people start laughing.” The sphere in these metropolitan cities thinks that no serious dialogue can happen in the Bhojpuri or the other regional languages of Bihar. George Grierson, a linguist in British India, finds that the Savarna people see the Bhojpuri as a language of the lower castes and thus unfit to achieve any status.

The apprehensions towards Bhojpuri and the other languages of Bihar are not only in other cities but in Bihar itself. Sweta Sinha, who studied the linguistic landscape or the visibility of languages in Bihar’s public spaces, writes in one of her articles that the people in Bihar are hesitant to use mother tongues. One of the reasons is that there is a false presupposition that Hindi is our “national language” and that people should communicate only in their national language. The other reasons for not speaking in their mother tongue are that these are not beneficial from the economic and social point of view, and the tongue has lost its prestige or the “linguistic capital.” Bourdieu defines language as a “medium of power,” but “the concept of power is embedded in the policy and the planning of a language”, as Sinha writes in her article.

Interestingly, while planning for the monolingual identity of Bihar, none of the local languages was used, and we selected standardised Hindi, spoken by almost negligible people at that time. Later, The Bihar Official Language Act, 1950, and the Bihar Official Language (Amendment) Act, 1980, recognises Hindi and Urdu as “official languages”. Bourdieu sees the “official languages” as permeated with “symbolic capital” (status, prestige), whereas the other languages (of Bihar) definitely lack it. The politics of using and regulating languages in public spaces has created troubles for the indigenous languages of Bihar, and our languages have lost their “symbolic capital” to standardised Hindi. G.N. Devy, the chairman of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, cites research that shows that children’s cognitive ability increases when taught in their mother tongue. In Bihar, parents made every effort (out of fear) that their children don’t speak their mother tongues. The state’s education system and government policies promote standardised Hindi. How, then, can a child in Bihar improve their cognitive ability? The census of 2011 listed 1369 mother tongues, and Hindi is only one of them. Still, ‘Hindi’ dominated all the spheres in Bihar and relegated our languages to dialects.

Many scholars, while criticising the imposition of Hindi, prefer the lens of “Hindi-Belt” (Bihar, UP) or “non-Hindi Belt” area (Tamilnadu, Bengal….). I believe this is not the right way of seeing the real politics of imposing Hindi. As I mentioned above, this so-called “Hindi-Belt” area has lost much in this imposition, even our recognition as separate linguistic groups. The census of 2011 said ‘Hindi’ is the most spoken language of India; around 528 million people, or 44% of the population, listed Hindi as their mother tongue, up from 30% of the population in 1961. But in 1961, only 10 languages of UP, Bihar, and Rajasthan were grouped under ‘Hindi’. In 1971 it increased to 48 languages, and in 2011 the number of languages grouped under it went up to 54.

Furthermore, the “others” category is added under ‘Hindi’. The languages grouped as ‘Bihari’ in 1961 were listed under ‘Hindi’ in 1971. More than 120 million speakers listed under Hindi are demanding their recognition. The “fictitious” groupings are one of the reasons that many of the NorthIndian states are called “Hindi- Belt” areas. The People’s linguistic survey of India  (PLSI) says, “The census is thus not an initiative that represents the full linguistic diversity of India; in fact, it seeks to manage it and minimise it”. It uses the classification techniques adopted by Grierson’s Linguistics survey in 1898 and 1928 and distinguishes between the “languages” and “dialects” The major criterion for distinguishing between them is that those without “script” come under the dialect category. G.N Devy, chairman of PLSI, notes that “there are about 6,000 languages in the world, but not more than 300 scripts; English does not have its own script; it uses the Roman script”. Thus, this politics of dialects must be scrutinised while terming the North-Indian states as “Hindi-Belt” areas, as it only bolsters the Hindutva movement. Hindi’s imposition, too, needs to be questioned from a caste and gender perspective. As argued above, the objective of standardised Hindi is to enforce the Brahmanical narratives.

The state needs to consider that by adding many of Bihar’s languages under Hindi, the state is only breaking the constitutional promises of safeguarding diversity and plurality. Arthur Dudney quoted in his article an old saying of Bihar: “Kos Kos par bhasa badle do kos par pani”, meaning “the language changes every mile, and the taste of the water every two miles.” We need to accept that no single language can unite the nation; it will destroy the entire potential of our language resources to contribute to the global economy. Every language is unique; we need to promote them and associate the regional speakers and literature with the global language English to bolster our economic potential. This will also enable India’s indigenous mother tongues to thrive by gaining “linguistic capital” and save them from extinction.




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