ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 23, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 17

Englishisation of India and vanishing languages

India's language policy appears to have settled down to something firm: English as the link language and Hindi as the Union language. Some problems keep cropping up here and there. But they either boil over or find a solution within the limits of law or precedent.

My worry is about the other Indian languages. Some 16 of them have been listed in the constitution. They have a clear stamp of neglect. Understandably, the Union government has to devote its attention to Hindi and English to sustain their reach and honour the settlement between the Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi speaking population.

Yet New Delhi has its legal obligations towards regional languages or mother tongues. They too have to progress for the communities to retain their entity. Here the Union government has failed. The states which are primarily responsible for developing their language have no funds. Even where there is no paucity of money, there is lack of imagination to give a fillip to mother tongues.

World famous Punjabi singer Malkit Singh and his group in concert. Punjabi is one of the languages threatened by English

What is clear is that by making Hindi and English important, the Union government has made regional languages unimportant. Since New Delhi's attention is focused on the link as well as the Union language, the impression that has got round is that only Hindi and English matter.

Naturally, these two languages would engage the students' most attention. Something else is happening: English is pushing Hindi to the background because the knowledge of English has come to enhance a job-seeker's value in the market. Most of outsourcing is in English. Mother tongues are becoming less and less important and they are taken for granted.

English has even entered homes which were once exclusively for mother tongues. Parents now speak to their children in English because this is the language which they find counts. Consequently, the place or importance of mother tongue has shrunk considerably.

I am not so much worried over the earning prospects as I am about the adverse effect it is having on the state culture. Mother tongue, not English, shapes and sustains it. Once the mother tongue languishes, the culture embedded to it automatically fades away. Already children are more familiar with the Western thought and living than with their indigenous culture. In fact, it is a fashion to be phorin.

Every state in India faces the onslaught on its culture and traditions. But it is more so in Punjab where people are relatively better off and where the obsession to go abroad is so excessive that even the knowledge of Punjabi is looked down upon. The change into European dress is considered prestigious. In fact, the entire demeanour is becoming westernized even in Punjab's countryside. English has become a must, however bad the speaker's pronunciation or grammar.

I am terrified to imagine the scenario after 50 years. With parents insisting on speaking English at home and with the children's eyes fixed on England, the US or Canada, Punjabi may lessen in appeal still further. The space may get restricted and the language may not be used at homes after two to three decades. What happens to the Punjabi culture can well be imagined when the number of people speaking the language would dwindle.

Indeed, the Punjabis are a victim of history. The partition of India has divided the Punjabis in two halves, one on this side and the other on the Pakistan side. The Pakistan government has made Urdu as Punjab's official language; the Punjabi language does not have any official status. On the Indian side of Punjab, Punjabi is compulsory but the differences between Hindus and Sikhs have harmed their mother tongue the most. Hindus preferred to retain Hindi as their mother tongue in the Census although they spoke Punjabi.

Politics too played its role. The demand for the Punjabi Suba, however justified when the states were reorganized on the basis of language, alienated the areas where Punjabi was spoken but did not have the Sikhs in majority. The Akali politics at that time was to have Punjab demarcated in such a way that the state would have Sikhs in a majority. Punjab lost Himachal Pradesh in the process. What was once an integral part of Punjab and where Punjabi was spoken became a separate state. It was yet another blow to Punjabi.

I recall making a last-ditch effort along with Sadhu Singh Hamdard of Daily Ajit to save Punjab from parting ways with Haryana. Bhagwat Dayal Sharma was then its leader. We were not able to convince him to stay with Punjab. But he agreed that he would not oppose any proposal the Congress high command advocated.

I went to K. Kamaraj, then the party president. He accepted my proposal on Punjab on the condition that I would obtain the consent of Sant Fateh Singh, then commanding the affairs of Akalis. My proposal was to retain Punjab as it was because I found people speaking Punjabi right up to Sonepat. The state official language would be Punjabi in Gurmukhi script. Delhi would be expanded to embrace Gurgaon and some territories beyond.

I met Sant Fateh Singh at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Sadhu Singh accompanied me to Amritsar but was reluctant to go to the Sant. When I explained to him my proposal, he rejected it straightaway. His reasoning was that the Punjabi Suba had to have the population of those "who believed in the philosophy of the Suba." When I asked if he meant the Sikhs, the Sant did not comment.

Haryana was constituted and the Punjabi-speaking area was reduced to mere 13 districts. Looking back, even the agitation for the Gurmukhi script was misplaced. True, Punjabi had Gurmukhi as its script for decades. But then the Hindus were willing to accept Punjabi provided they had the option to write it in Devnagiri script.

The Akalis refused to compromise on the point of script. Today when the Punjabi-speaking population is shrinking, the question is different. If the choice is between the language and the script, it is better to have the language. With Pakistani Punjabis using Shahmuki as the script, the scope of Gurmukhi reduces still further. The crisis before the Punjabis all over the world is how to save the language.

It does not matter whichever the script one uses so long as he or she is writing Punjabi. Efforts should also be directed towards making people speak Punjabi in their homes. The manner in which they are jettisoning their mother tongue makes the future of Punjabi ominous. Having skyscrapers, big dams, science laboratories or huge fields make no sense if, in the process, we lose our heritage.

(The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, former diplomat and Rajya Sabha member.)

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