The Elite Strikes Back, Fetishiously


From right after the transfer of power from the British to the local English Elite (the Babus in the broadest sense), one recurrent theme in the Indian ‘National’ press, which translates as the English press, has been to come down like a 16 ton weight on anyone who so much as mentioned the case of the Indian languages and the extraordinary privileges enjoyed by the English speaking Elite in the country. So, for example, if any politician of the Hindi belt suggested that students should be allowed to write some important exam in Indian languages or that English should not be compulsory at the primary level or even something much less radical-revolutionary and world shaking, there would be (without fail) editorials in the ‘National’ newspapers about how the language chauvinists are going to lay waste our great democracy.

With the changes that have happened in the last 15 years or so (some for better and more for worse), this trend became less common. But now the lumpen antics of the Thackerays have given the Elite a golden opportunity to come back with a 32 (or is it 64?) ton weight on the ‘language chauvinists’.

The way the Thackerays have been able to carry on their thuggery (in the Hindi as well as the English sense of the term) is so absurd that only a few things can compete with it. And one of those things is the fact that the English Elite of the country have been so amazingly successful in summarily suppressing all Indian languages including the legally National Language (Hindi), the language that has the most chauvinistic support from its speakers (Tamil) and the language of the most intellectual community of the sub-continent (Bengali). These and many others are not endangered languages (at least not yet). Most of them can be called mega languages in terms of the number of speakers. All of this is so well known and so often repeated that I feel weary of having to write this. Also equally well known is the fact that only a very small fraction of the Indian population is comfortable with English. However, as India is a society whose structure is mainly defined by the caste system, no one except the top caste wants to remain in their own caste. They all want to make the transition to the higher castes, even as they list the reasons for the greatness of their caste. And the highest caste now effectively is that of the English speakers, who have replaced the (literal) Brahmins from their perch at the top (I know, ‘replaced’ is not a good term because a large fraction of the Elite is Brahmin). Naturally then everyone wants ultimately to make the transition to the top caste. This has lead to an extremely comic and absurd fetish about any language anywhere in the world. It is the fetish for the English language. This fetish too is a well known, though rarely talked about in the English media. A recent issue of the Outlook magazine was an exception. (The issue was the exception, not the magazine). The ‘language media’, of course, used to talk about it. Innumerable books have been written about it. Movies have been made about it (a recent one being Tashan, one of whose stars is now living out his character’s fetish in the real world). And sometimes politicians have talked about it for electoral purposes. But most of them have learned that it doesn’t pay much as the Indians (especially the North Indians) are not very keen to be seen speaking their own languages when in respectable company. They don’t even want it to be known to anyone that they are not good at English. Parents who can’t speak the language will parade their English learning children in front of any visitor and have a little performance of nursery rhymes being chanted in English, even if the visitor as well as the child feel tortured. They will also mention with pride that their child is very poor in Hindi (or any other Indian language).

It’s not that no one in the English speaking community has noted this. Even Nayantara Sehgal had mentioned this in one of her novels long ago. More recently Arundhati Roy had written about the oustee villagers from the Narmada dam site being scolded by Maneka Gandhi for not writing their petition in English, after they had travelled all the way, enduring hardship and hoping to save their lives. There have been others like Namita Gokhale among the (English speaking) writers and artists who have at least hinted at the absurdity of the situation.

But, by and large, the Elite has managed to suppress all talk about any fairness with regard to Indian languages which account for the overwhelming majority of the population of India. They have used diversity as an argument for maintaining the hegemony of English. They have used chauvinism as an argument. They have pitted one big language (Tamil) against the other (Hindi). They have pitted small languages (the so called dialects of Hindi) against big languages. They have pitted Dalits against the upper castes: no matter that most of them belong to the upper castes themselves. They have used linguistically spurious claims about the superiority of English over the ‘less developed’ Indian languages. They have steadfastly refused to concede even a pinhead worth of territory to the Indian languages.

Talk of divisiveness.

Unfortunately for them, The Market (whose praise they are now singing, be they from any part of the political spectrum) may be a brutal place, but it has allowed the Indian languages to gain some territory. As had the linguistic reorganisation of the states, which also (like the demands for linguistic fairness, not like The Market) they have always kept riling against.

When Pepsi and the others came after The Reforms, they didn’t give a damn about what language can get them more customers. Before that, big companies in India preferred to make commercials in English, unless their product was some low brow thing that no one would want to talk about. It is understandable why: the top advertising agencies are mostly dominated by the elitest of the Elite. It must have been hard for them to get used to the presence of Indian languages in their midst. To give the devil his due, they have managed the transition quite well, at least on the public front. It has turned out that these underdeveloped languages can be used ‘creatively’ after all, whatever may be the purpose. I don’t know what to feel about this.

The people may be ashamed of their own languages and of being seen reading books in them (chauvinism indeed!), but they are hooked to the movies and T.V. serials in those same languages. The movie scene is not any less hilarious either. The people involved in these movies may be making their career, earning huge amounts of money and generally being the gods of urban life in India (along with the cricket stars) through Indian languages, but they too are equally ashamed of the languages they make movies in. The scripts of Bollywood movies are written using the Latin alphabet. More than one big Bollywood Hindi movie star has been on record saying he hates Hindi. One of them said he didn’t want anyone around him speaking in Hindi. Offscreen, all they want is for their lives to be copies of Hollywood stars. And they are prepared to pretend that their mediocre work in ‘foreign’ English movies (to the extent they get such work, the chances of which are increasing now as the real superpower focuses a little bit more of its attention eastward this side) is by far better than their best work in Hindi movies. They will tell you the reason for this too: English movies give them far more exposure than Hindi movies (if they do, what does quality matter?). As for the criticism which suggests otherwise, well, ‘it will die its own death’.

Another of the cards the Elite uses against any demand for linguistic fairplay is that of communalism. The fact that the Jan Sangh/BJP and the Sangh Parivar in general have been shouting the slogan of ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ has been used time and again to put down (and discredit) any such demand. This time they are vehemently talking about how the ‘Hindi fetish’ of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar has brought about the Thackerays’ Marathi version of the same. One of them has grudgingly noted, though, that there are differences between the two.

The only part of the slogan in which the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are interested in is the Hindu part, and they have made a travesty of even that. The preferred name for India for them is Bharat, not Hindustan. India is referred to as Hindustan (or Hindostan) more in the Urdu literature than in the Hindi literature or in the literature of these right wingers.

As a person whose mother tongue is Hindi (standard Hindi, Khari Boli) and who wants to write in Hindi, I refuse to surrender all the rights of this language or the terms Hindustan, Parivar, Sangh (or even Hindu) etc. to the Sangh Parivar conglomeration. The Elite has done its best to give exclusive rights for all these to the conglomeration. I keep the rights to these as an individual, not as a member of a group. I also keep the rights to contribute and participate as an individual, without being a member of any group.

The plain fact is that injustices are committed on a large scale every day in this huge country in the name of languages. However, there can be no doubt that the largest number of these injustices are in the name of English. Time and again I have seen (first hand) how careers of even brilliant students go the steep downward path because they are not so good at English. And careers are a just small part of the picture. If you are involved in a court case, you are unlikely to be heard if you use an Indian language.

I am not talking about a polish person’s case not being heard properly in France because he can’t talk in French. Even that, as a lot of the members of the Elite perhaps know, can be a valid grievance.

The plain fact is also, as a prominent Hindi writer said in an interview on Doordarshan, that ‘we’ (the people talking about the Indian languages) have accepted English as an Indian language and as our own: the question is whether ‘you’ (the English Elite) are prepared to accept the Indian languages as Indian and as your own.

She said this when the first great lit-fest was held a few years ago at a former royal palace near Jaipur where the guest of honour was V. S. Naipaul, who came with all his knightly glory. And where hardly any Indian language author was invited.

If you don’t listen to people like her, then some day you might have to listen to people like the Thackerays. And you might have to pretend that you like what they are saying.

Another plain fact is that most of the mainstream literary writers in Indian languages (whatever might be their other shortcomings) are neither chauvinists nor communalists. In fact, they are the most committed opponents of the right wing politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. And hardly any of them has ever been able to survive from literary writing alone, except perhaps those whose books become textbooks, which is itself a long story. Dismissing the whole idea of linguistic fairness by waving the communalism card is something that we usually expect from unscrupulous politicians, but the Elite (especially of the Left variety) has been doing exactly this ever since the transfer of power to them. Absurd as it may sound, one can understand this if one realizes that they have always felt threatened that some day the vernacular hordes will take the power away from them. There is a great deal they have at stake. I suspect part of their initial vehement opposition against the BJP was motivated by this. And the BJP saw this and made good use of this: they started talking about political untouchability being practiced against them and they gained a lot of sympathy votes on this point alone. The same Elite later became much more tolerant of the BJP once it came to power. Perhaps they accepted it as the fait accompli.

Fait accompli is another card that is heavily used by the Elite. English is the most powerful language that can give you any chance of a decent career and the possibility of some kind of justice so just shut up and try to improve your English. As one strategic think-tanker recently wrote about the Taliban, if you really want to get something done, then you have to go and talk to the people who have power.

As a not so irrelevant aside, consider the paid news affair, which is causing quite a stir these days. Newspapers have been always been used as weapons by both small and big power mongers. While the big newspapers are used more subtly, the smaller ones (with exceptions and to varying degrees) have either been directly owned by the powerful political and corporate people or have been available for hire. But after the Great Indian Reforms and Liberalisation, some big newspapers like the Times of India started the business of paid news quite openly. Till recently, however, there was only a little murmur of protest from the rest of the English Media. Then the ‘vernacular’ newspapers (for whom it is much harder to compete as they get less advertisements and at lower rates) started following the example of the TOI, but they did it more crudely. Suddenly it became a big issue, with even Dilip Padgaonkar telling us what a scourge paid news is.

Why would the editor of a National daily spend the time and effort to write an editorial about every non-committal language related statement from every two penny politician?

The Left part of the Elite is prepared to talk about all kinds of injustices except those related to language. Except when it is Indian language vs. Indian language. In that case it’s great fun for them.

What we actually have is a strange kind of fanatic language chauvinism practiced by the Elite against all Indian languages: more than just fetishist chauvinism. It’s so real that you only need to walk the roads of any Indian city and read the posters (among other things) of English teaching joints.

Not that there are no injustices in the name of Indian languages. The situation very much fits the big-fish-small-fish metaphor. There is also the infinitely indecent situation in Indian villages of there being separate upper caste and Dalit languages. The Dalits are not allowed to use the ‘upper caste language’. Language is used as a tool for domination, oppression and daily humiliation. In this language-eat-language world, the biggest fish by far in India (as in most parts of the world) is English. Even if it is spoken by a miniscule minority.

Trying to cover up this situation with slick diatribes about chauvinism and communalism might go on paying for a long time, but it might also lead to more dangerous situations than what we already have.

I really haven’t believed for one moment that the Thackerays have any love for Marathi. It’s their only possible ticket to power as of now. If they find some other better ticket, they will gladly drop the whole Marathi Manoos issue. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar are a bit more serious about the Hindi part of their slogan, but as their conduct while in power has shown, they care about Hindi only as much as the Bajrang Dal cares about the Indian culture. And everyone knows how much and of what kind that is. I abhor all kinds of chauvinism, but I still think it is an insult to the real chauvinists (like the ones who took part in the anti-Hindi riots a few decades ago) to call the Thackerays (or even the Sangh Parivaris) language chauvinists.

(1) What people like the Thackerays say, goes something like this:

  • Give licenses to taxi drivers only if they are Marathi speakers.
  • If the above is not done, we will get us some North Indian migrants kicked.
  • We will not allow anyone to do whatever we might decide they shouldn’t do.
  • We will thrash anyone who doesn’t agree with us.

(2) Here is what a real chauvinist might say:

  • Marathi is the greatest (or one of the greatest) language(s) in the world.
  • No Marathi speaker should use any word borrowed from any other language.
  • Hindi is actually a corrupted version of Marathi.
  • There is some evidence that the languages of Central Asia are derived from Marathi.

(3) A Marathi fetishist (if there are such people) might say this:

  • I am afraid to read English (or Hindi) books because they bring bad luck to me.
  • I must have a temple in my house to worship Marathi.
  • If my son doesn’t speak Marathi, I think he will become a pervert.
  • The captions of the Playboy centerfolds should be pasted over with Marathi ones before one looks at them.

(4) Then there could also be demands like:

  • English should not be compulsory at the primary level. It should be left to the parents to decide.
  • Students should not be punished for speaking in Marathi.
  • Knowledge of English (or Hindi) should not be compulsory for certain jobs.
  • Marathi writers (and newspapers, magazines, books) should be treated in the same way as English (or Hindi) ones.

There can’t be any debate about (1), (2) and (3), but as far as I can see, the three still have to be treated differently (say, for moral, psychological or political discussion). But there can (and should) definitely be debate about (4). That is, if by democracy you mean something substantial, not just a protective shield to keep your hold on the power indefinitely. If you put all four in the same group and dismiss them all, then there is some chance that this might lead to some bad things, even if Indians are ashamed to use their own language for higher purposes.

To touch upon another taboo topic, a great great deal has been written about Bombay becoming Mumbai, but I don’t remember anyone pointing out that Bombay had already been Mumbai for the Marathi speakers (not to say that it was and is Bambai for Hindi speakers), just as Calcutta had been Kolkata for Bengali speakers and Delhi has been either Dilli or Dehli for Hindi speakers. Is that completely irrelevant?

If we were to take the English Elite’s rhetoric about chauvinism seriously, one would have to call even Orhan Pamuk a language chauvinist. And Satyajit Ray. And Tolstoy. And every French writer. And so on.

In many places in his books Tolstoy resentfully showed how French was treated as the superior language among the Russian Elite and how no one among them wanted to be seen speaking Russian. Except may be when talking to the inferior people: servants, peasants etc.

As one member of the Elite (in a moment of frankness) living in New Delhi narrated in a ‘middle’ in The Hindustan Times several years ago, she was embarrassed when a foreigner from the West came to visit them and tried to talk to them in Hindi. Because for her and for the people in her class, Hindi was a language to be used when talking to vegetable sellers.

Most members of the BJP would love to make a transition to the same class. Some have already done that.

There are schools in India where students are punished for using an Indian language. Not in the class room. Not just for any formal or academic purpose, but even in their private conversation, say while playing in the playground.

So much for chauvinism.

Not to mention the Fetish part.

As for the Thackerays, I wonder why they don’t write their surname as Thakre.

They are defiling the name of one my favourite writers.

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