Twelve years ago, when India celebrated the 49th anniversary of our independence from British rule, H D Deve Gowda, then the prime minister, stood at the ramparts of New Delhi’s 16th century Red Fort and delivered the traditional Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, the language which we have all learned to refer to (though the term has no constitutional basis) as India’s ‘national language’.
Eight other prime ministers had done exactly the same thing 48 times before him, but what was unusual this time was that Deve Gowda, a southerner from the state of Karnataka, spoke to the country in a language of which he scarcely knew a word. Tradition and politics required a speech in Hindi, so he gave one — the words having been written out for him in his native Kannada script, in which they, of course, made no sense.
Such an episode is almost inconceivable elsewhere, but it represents the best of the oddities that help make India India. Only in India could a country be ruled by a man who does not understand its ‘national language’. Only in India, for that matter, is there a ‘national language’ that half the population does not understand. And only in India could this particular solution be found to enable the prime minister to address his people.
Back in the 1980s, one of Indian cinema’s finest playback singers, the Keralite K J Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi music charts with lyrics in that language written in the Malayalam script for him, but to see the same practice elevated to the prime ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism.
I have often argued that we are all minorities in India. But language is one of the most interesting affirmations of our diversity. Though i am no great linguist myself, i was able to joke to an American friend once that i was a typically Indian child: I spoke Malayalam to my mother, English to my father, Hindi to our driver, Bengali to our domestic help and Sanskrit to God. One look at our rupee notes, with their denominations spelled out in 18 languages (and nearly as many scripts) is enough to make the point. The Constitution of India recognises 23 languages today, but in fact there are 35 Indian languages that are each spoken by more than a million people — and these are languages with their own scripts, grammatical structures and cultural assumptions, not just dialects (and if we’re to count dialects, there are more than 22,000).
No language enjoys majority status in India, though Hindi is coming perilously close. Thanks in part to the popularity of Bollywood, Hindi is understood, if not always well spoken, by nearly half our population, but it cannot truly be considered the language of the majority. Indeed, its locutions, gender rules and script are unfamiliar to most Indians in the south or northeast. And if the proliferation of Hindi TV channels has made the spoken language more accessible to many non-native speakers, the fact that other languages too have captured their share of the TV audience means that our linguistic diversity is not going to disappear.
One of my favourite silly jokes as a small child was about a native of Madras (not yet rebaptised Chennai) who finds himself lost in the nation’s capital and approaches a Sikh policeman with the helpless query, ‘‘Tamil teriyima?’’ Whereupon the cop retorts, ‘‘Punjabi tera baap!’’ Part of the goodnatured joy of the juvenile joke was that the bilingual pun was one that most Indians — but only Indians — could catch instantly. The popularity in the 1990s of those endless ‘Ajit jokes’, which relied on linguistic humour of the most inventively bilingual kind, could never find an equivalent in the monolingual cultures of America or the white members of the British Commonwealth. Indeed, a more contemporary joke doing the rounds at the UN goes like this: ‘‘What do you call someone who speaks two languages?’’ Answer: ‘‘Bilingual.’’ ‘‘And someone who speaks several languages?’’ Answer: ‘‘Multilingual.’’ And someone who speaks only one language?’’ Answer: ‘‘American.’’
But my larger and more serious point, as we look forward to our 61st Independence Day, is that Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. The French speak French, the Germans speak German, the Americans speak English (though Spanish is making inroads, especially in the south-west and south-east of the US) — but Indians speak Punjabi, or Gujarati, or Malayalam, and it does not make us any less Indian. The idea of India is not based on language (since we have at least 18 or 35, depending on whether you follow the Constitution or the ethnolinguists). It is no accident that Jawaharlal Nehru’s classic volume of Indian nationalism, The Discovery of India, was written in English — and it is fair to say that Nehru discovered India in English. Indeed, when two Indians meet abroad, or two educated urban Indians meet in India, unless they have prior reason to believe they have an Indian language in common, the first language they speak to each other is English. It is in English that they establish each other’s linguistic identity, and then they switch comfortably to another language, or a hybrid, depending on the link they have established.
In my books and columns i have sung a great deal about the virtues of pluralism. It is a reality that pluralism emerges from the very nature of our country; it is a choice made inevitable by India’s geography, reaffirmed by its history and reflected in its ethnography. Let us celebrate our Independence on August 15 in a multitude of languages, so long as we can say in all of them how proud we are to be Indian.
– Shashi Tharoor in The Times of India