(downloaded Dec. 2002)
Oct. 16, 2001

"I'm trying to counter the Babhani takeover of the Hindi belt"

Alok Rai's Hindi Nationalism was released earlier this year in Macmillan's 'Tracts for the Times' series. Engaging and erudite, the book traces the decline of Hindi from its glory-days to the stilted, bureaucratic, homogenized language that it has become today. Rai attributes this decline to the politicisation of Hindi by communalists and sectarians who are increasinglybeing perceived as the "owners" of the new Hindi.

Hindi has, over the years been used to counter the perceived or real "threat" posed by first Urdu and then English. En route it has been hijacked to serve the agendas of various factions, notably the upper castes. This has resulted in its degradation into an artificial language, a sort of "high Hindi" that is far removed from common speech, Rai explains.

He explores the history of Hindi -- from the first indications of linguistic polarization that arose during the Raj to the connotations of chauvinism that have come to be linked with Hindi in the post-independence era with the rise of the 'one nation' theory where Hindi was touted as the language of the unified Hindustan.

In the following discussion, historian Shahid Amin and Alok Rai debate the finer points of the book: Why does Rai fight shy of the term 'Hindustani'? Has he has been soft on official Urduwallahs? Why is there an air of 'fatedness' about the argument ? - 'every decision regarding Hindi seems to lead towards 1947 and Pakistan'. Does Rai really believe that 'somebody who is able to distinguish between two words, one jaleel and the other zaleel, is being elitist'? And when did Hindi lose the intellectual ambition to appropriate the world?

In Part 2 tomorrow, Palash Krishna Mehrotra joins the two academics for a more wide-ranging debate about Hindi as taught in India's schools, as used by our writers…and our airhostesses. Also raised and addressed are the questions: Why was the process of Sanskritizing different for different languages? When Hindi intellectuals do start doing history and sociology in Hindi, would they find themselves in alliance with their colleagues in the Hindi departments or engaged in a struggle against them? Rai also points out that the old name of Nagari (the script in which Hindi is written) was in fact Babhani - the script of the Brahmans. The initial battle for an 'Indian' script for Hindustani was between Kaithi and Babhani. And Babhani won. As he argues, "What I am trying to counter is the Babhani takeover of the politics of the Hindi belt. It's obviously not possible to wind the clock back and go back to Kaithi, but you can go forward with this history, by recognizing what happened, and understanding the politics which went into the making of this dominant script."

Shahid: You have titled your book Hindi Nationalism. Curiously, there has been a lot of discussion of nationalism from various perspectives, but there is supposed to be only one unitary history of Hindi. I find that paradoxical. As far as Hindi was concerned, you were either for Hindi or against Hindi but there could be no discussion from within Hindi. Hindi had no history whereas nationalism, which really defined us, had by the 70s begun to have different histories. So what does this signify? What does this tell us about the way Hindi and nationalism have been related?

There have been two different moments. The period of questioning of nationalism has not coincided with the questioning of Hindi. Nationalism began to be questioned post-Naxalbari, while Hindi is only being questioned now when Indians writing in English have made a certain advances. In your book, you write basically as a disappointed bilingual enthusiast, not just as a disappointed enthusiast. So this is one set of questions.

Secondly, someone might get up and say who are you to criticize Hindi? You are looking at Hindi from the viewpoint of somebody who doesn't have a stake only in Hindi. Is that a valid position?

Alok: Yes, it can be the position of those who feel the need to distance themselves from the way in which Hindi has been defined in the first half of the twentieth century.

Shahid: And it is not that one is anti-Hindi or anti-national but one is trying to understand what is constitutive of the larger claims being made both by Hindi and nationalism.

Alok: I don't know how clearly it comes through in the book, but it was certainly part of my intention to create a distinction between what I call "Hindi" and the nationalism that corresponds to that, and what I think of as a possible nationalism, which uses the language or languages of the people. I believe that as long as 'Hindi' represents or is perceived to represent the language of the people, our nationalism is in deep trouble. People are being represented fraudulently. I am trying to make a distinction between, as it were, Hindi nationalism and 'Hindi' nationalism. Hindi nationalism maybe a utopian thing in the sense it doesn't exist. Right now it exists as a kind of unfulfilled possibility. It's a kind of mass nationalism which can actually mobilize people who are at the moment not represented, except by those who presume to speak in their name. To be very blunt and I have been blunt in the book also, there is a kind of Sanskritizing upper caste which is responsible for this. This savarna Sanskritizing elite which speaks in the name of the people is unchallenged because the challenge cannot come from English. The challenge can only come from below. The challenge can only come in the name of the people.

Shahid: I'll come to that later but let me just dwell a bit longer on the title of the book: Hindi Nationalism. When you say Hindi Nationalism, you don't wish to suggest Hindi and the issue nationalism…

Alok : No…

Shahid: If not, then would there be a space for a Hindustani nationalism? You say that you don't want to use the term Hindustani since it has connotations of elitism and privilege.

Alok: Shahid, the sense in which I mean Hindi nationalism is actually very close to Hindustani nationalism. I have shied clear of the term Hindustani because it has got so encrusted with a particular politics that it would constantly need to be footnoted. In fact, the idea that I have is precisely this-of a shared common language, and therefore it might have been easier in some sense to talk about Hindustani nationalism and Hindi nationalism rather than Hindi nationalism and "Hindi" nationalism. Except for what has happened to the term Hindustani…

Shahid: Tell me: what has happened to the term Hindustani which has tethered it to a kind of politics that you will find unacceptable? I want to push you on that. So when you talk about Hindustani music it's all right; or take the use of the term 'Hindustani' in that famous Mukesh song of : Choro kal ki baatein/ kal ki baat purani/ Naye dhang se likhenge mil ke nayi kahani, hum Hindustani. That you do not have problems with. But when the term Hindustani is applied to language, you feel that it has a baggage. Doesn't this baggage really attach more to Urdu than to Hindustani?

Alok: Shahid, I don't think we really have a difference, I'm not saying don't push me…

Shahid: I quote you from page113 'Because of its origins in a specific regional politics the defence of 'Hindustani' had become identified with a status quoist defence of privilege.' This is one of the reasons you don't want to use the term. But this Hindustani or this Urdu also produced a Josh Malihabadi, also produced a Majaz, also produced a Kaifi Azmi. So to say that language was rooted in a defence of privilege…I find that troubling because it appears in a book which otherwise hits out against official Hindi.

I just got an email from Prof C M Naim from Chicago - he has translated the autobiography of the 18th century Mughal poet Mir Mohammmad Taqi 'Mir' - and he suggested that you have been a bit soft on official Urduwallahs. Naim Sahab may have a point, but in a way it doesn't matter because you have been very hard on non-official Hindustani. How would you react to that? I want to push you on that because this is a term I for one would not easily let go because it also allows you to contest this alliterative haiku that is Hindi-Hindu- Hindustan. What I am doing is making Hindustan into Hindustani and cutting that natural connection between Hindu and Hindustan. I thought Hindustani gives us that mileage purely in a semantic battle.

Alok: Does it? I don't think there a difference: the linguistic domain that I am seeking to describe by the term Hindi is identical with the linguistic domain described by Hindustani. It's merely the term I have a problem with and I think the problem is simply that it's unavailable in contemporary discourse, that the term Hindustani seems to belong to or doesn't seem to cross the threshold of 1950. The Constitution kills it.

Shahid: The Constituent Assembly kills it.

Alok: I was worried that the term might complicate the argument. I needed to free myself as it were, to say what I wanted to say. But you have a problem with the defence of privilege also.

Shahid: I do, I do. What you are implying is that a language, which appears in the hands of some people as a defence of privilege at a particular point of time, doesn't provide any wherewithal for experimentation, for using privileged positions - that a lot of us are born into - to then make an argument which is really an attack on privilege. You look at Majaaz…

Alok: The whole tradition of nationalist poetry would be practically invisible without the tradition of the Urdu poets. Definitely.

Shahid: I would have thought that if you made a purely political argument that the VIIIth Schedule doesn't mention Hindustani, that the Constituent Assembly killed it, Pakistan is there, India is here, it's like a linguistic LoC at the international border…I would be happy. But that's not the way you frame it. You insist that Urdu is the language of privilege of the elite, and now even Hindustani is that; you are therefore not left with anything except that which you don't like.

Alok: Defence of privilege is something I would hope to stick to. The way in which Hindi was opposed, the whole idea by which Nagari was opposed, was so shot through with arrogance, and that arrogance has been an extremely important factor in the shaping of a linguistic identity.

There is a deeper reason which must be considered. Due to its origins in a specific regional politics, the defence of Hindustani has become identified with a status-quoist defence of privilege.

In the Constituent Assembly debates for instance, it is very clear that the Hindiwallah seeks to speak in the name of people who are out of power. Now this to me is a very dangerous claim…

Shahid: Specious and disingenuous. Look at the way the whole move about Hindi was organized outside of the Constituent Assembly when the Constituent Assembly was seized of the matter - this I would say is the prehistory of December 6, where the State is complicit in saying that India is the land of Hindus and this leads not to a qualification: there are other people as well - but becomes a natural statement. What happens in the Constituent Assembly in 1947-49 and outside are the beginnings of linguistic majoritarianism, a "kya kar loge"attitude.

Alok: The linguistic majoritarianism, which I fear as much as you do, cannot really be countered so long as the opposition to it remains associated with what is in that context, the voice of privilege. Hindustani is obviously a shifting category, it either means one thing or another, and in so far as the Urduwallahs have not shed that history of arrogance, if today they speak in defence of Hindustani - then that baggage of arrogance travels.

Shahid: Tell me how does that happen? Tell me how Manto did not shed the arrogance with which Sir Syed Ahmad Khan addressed the education commission of 1880 on the language issue (that annoyed Babu Harishchandra). Tell me how Sahir - who actually re-wrote his lyrics for Hindi films - is guilty of arrogance? Also, not everybody who wrote in Urdu threw his lot with Pakistan. I have problems because at several places you imply that the debate between Urdu and Hindi in some respects pre-figures Pakistan. Now, this really does take all contingency away from the way the two countries came about. Is it part of a polemic?

Alok: Obviously, I am wary of that and say that there seems to be an air of fatedness. I am not saying it is so inexorably.

Shahid: So I have written in the marginal notes to your book: too dramatic, every decision regarding Hindi leads towards 1947 and Pakistan.

Alok: Shahid, what I am trying to understand is that when Maulana Hifzur Rahman is told in the Constituent Assembly by R V Dhulekar-"Today if you speak Hindustani it will not be heard. You will be misrepresented, you will be misheard. Wait two or three years, and you will have your Urdu language." In his mind Urdu and Hindustani are identical, so "wait 2 or 3 years and you will have your Urdu language and Persian script. Today let him not try to oppose this because our nation - the nation which has undergone several sufferings-is not in a mood to hear him." What I am doing is trying to understand is this sense of cultural hurt and the consequences of that sense of hurt…

Shahid: For those who are hurt or those who are…

Alok: For all of us. We are suffering under a politics which flows from this generalised sense of cultural humiliation. To me it is important to understand this feeling of hurt. To not lose sight of that, and to, as it were, bring it out in the open.

Shahid: I would say that these are declaratory statements made in the Constituent Assembly for posterity. They are almost lapidary… they keep going back. What is interesting for a person like me is that I couldn't learn Urdu in school. I could have learnt Urdu in school if I had enrolled in an Anglo-Arabic school, where I would have played football and visited the Jama Masjid with my father, maybe read the Koran. Because I belonged to the mainstream I could not learn Urdu in school. There is then a way in which if we understand this moment of initial hurt, it still doesn't fully explicate the kind of politics that emerges. It's like saying: "Because of 1947 India should not have gone for a secular constitution. But Nehru stood in the way." But that's what distinguishes India from Pakistan, and that was responsible for my father not going to Pakistan. So if there was an original hurt, it is very difficult to work out at what moment this original hurt is constructed and the way it is put forward. One moment for the construction of this moment of hurt is the 1880s and the 1890s…

Alok: But Shahid doesn't it have to do with the culture of Avadh and Allahabad and so on. I speak for myself that to my mind to be able to use Urdu with sheen qaf durust is still to me a higher culture. I still cannot-and I speak for myself- actually treat with respect someone who cannot use sheen quaf correctly. Now, to me, it is a kind of cultural elitism, obviously not acquired consciously but I have imbibed it from my environment…

Shahid: So you think that somebody who is able to distinguish between two words, one jaleel and the other zaleel, is being elitist?

I want to push this point. After all there are so many sounds in Sanskrit. Firaq Gorakhpuri has written eloquently about the way Sanskritic terms are peasantised or shall we say humanised. There was a term I heard as a kid - when somebody was running around desperately to get some work done my grandmother would say, " arre uu to bada dhavaati machaye huye hai". 'Dhavaati' is from the Sanskrit 'Dhav'= 'to run'. It has come into Bhojpuri and is now also spoken by cultured Muslim women (shurfa). So there is a way in which terms acquire meaning and pass into daily language. Kharid is popular but farokht= 'to sell' is not. Kharidar, millions of people will know but farokht kiya has not passed into popular usage. There is a way in which certain terms - even if they are of a pair - emerge, and become popular. To say that certain sounds are by definition elitist - those who are able to produce guttural sounds are less peasant and those who are able to utter dental sibilants are elitist - I find that a difficult proposition.

Alok: I don't think I am going to enunciate a principle on this.

Shahid: Let me carry on. Because this whole issue of the adamant position adopted by the Hindi alphabet, where every dot that is put below a letter is seen as a mark of excrescence or a pock mark, a concession to foreign Farsi things, while with every dot that's put on top, the chandrabindu, the more Sanskritic you get. You yourself have cited Madan Mohan Malaviya's major polemic of the 1880s on primary education and court character. You also rightly make the perceptive remark that the genius of Madan Mohan Malaviya lay in his widening this issue of the recognition of Hindi as a language to be used in court and saying, " Look, primary education benefited people to learn to read and write in this script." The pamphlet says that after all he is talking about court language and that the language you speak in court cannot be changed overnight. If there are words in Urdu as they are bound to be, we'll put a bindi, we'll out a dot under 'ja' and it will become 'za'. In 1930, Malaviya in his weekly nationalist newspaper - Abhyudaya - writes an editorial called Hindi Mein Bindi Kyon: Why should we use the bindi in Hindi because it's a different time and a different politics.

The ultimate irony is that till the day he died, Zail Singh, the President of India, could never get his name written properly in Hindi - they would never put a bindi under 'ja', it would always be 'Jail Singh', even in a magazine like Sushma which is a Hindi version of Shama, an Urdu magazine brought out by Yunus and Idris Dehlvi. The Dehlvis popularised a certain kind of Urdu by producing the first Stardust-like magazine. When he brought out a Hindi edition, he had to drop the bindi under 'ja'. Sushma would never write 'Zail Singh', it only wrote 'Jail Singh'. I have written a little bit in Hindi and every time it comes back from the printer all the bindis have systematically been taken off. Once I said very provocatively " Hindi mein bindi lagane ke liye kya mujhe Pakistan jaana padega?" I have to do it here… Hindi has to be more accommodating.

Alok: Obviously I don't disagree with you. All I am trying to do is to understand the kind of cultural politics that led to this absurd stubbornness. You rightly quote someone like Malviya who takes one kind of position at one point, who is perfectly happy with it, but over a period of half a century certain things congeal, certain attitudes congeal, and I am just trying to understand what goes into it. Some of it is certainly a case of people who have hitherto been socially disadvantaged sensing political power and a cultural opportunity to assert themselves. I am not defending that but I am trying to understand it. There is a difference.

Shahid: I am sure there is.

Alok: And I use myself as a kind of a cultural sensor and therefore, I am also aware, that if someone says 'Susma' - which is not Hindi-Urdu but Hindi itself - there is something within me which recoils. Someone says "Hum bajar se kagaj khareed layenge", there is something in me which recoils and I ask myself what is it? I am not conscious of trying to assert a social privilege but I recognise it as some sort of a leftover of a social privilege. So someone who says "Bajar se kagaj khareed lao" is somehow less than someone who says "Bazar se kagaz khareed lao."

Shahid: I perfectly understand your desire to come to terms with the difference that Malaviya travels between 1885 and 1930. I'd like to talk about the present. Take the example of Madhyakaleen Bharat - a multi-volume Hindi translation of scholarly articles on medieval India - edited by Irfan Habib and brought by a reputed Hindi publisher. They have systematically deleted, even from the sources, all diacritical marks which will give words a Farsi sound. Which is indeed quite ironic. So by definition we cannot even read original Farsi phrases properly in Hindi script because of some arbitrary notion of longstanding hurt that must now find typographical expression. We are committing a kind of vandalism which is not very different from the one faced by the makers of Fire and Water.

Alok: I agree entirely. All I am saying is that this vandalism I would define as a neurotic symptom and seek to get rid of through understanding it historically, by getting to its roots. This typographic revenge for historical hurt is a neurotic symptom; I have also described "Hindi" as a neurotic formation. And knowing this history is in some sense overcoming that history.

Shahid: I want to move now to this very venerable figure called 'Baba-i-Urdu' -Maulana Abdul Haq-the grandfather of Urdu, but now we have baba's Urdu or babalog's Urdu. And that again is quite interesting. On the one hand you have got the typographical revenge of the Hindiwallahs, these people are orthographically challenged as it were. On the other hand is the attempt by the elite to appropriate the finer things of Urdu and make them available through translations, transcriptions and so on. One is in the walled city in its Urdu habitat, and the other talks about Urdu in the Habitat Centre: now what does this tell us about the age of bilingualism, especially in North India?

Why I say this is because I definitely feel - at least for us coming from the Hindustani belt as compared to Calcutta or Bombay - that we didn't have that clutch of bilingual intellectuals. In fact the tragedy was that if you knew Hindi very well you knew everything else that was written in Hindi; Ram Bilas Sharma is a classic example of that. So we did not really have bilingual intellectuals who could, with equal felicity, write an article on history or anthropology - first in Hindi, and then in English, as they did, and still do, in Calcutta. Now, interestingly, the bilingualism that is coming about is devoid of any creative use of the two languages in North India. The exceptions that prove the rule are a Mrinal Pande or a Krishna Kumar. Does that suggest something about the cultural politics and the kinds of elites that are important in Northern India compared to Bengal or whatever?

Alok: Obviously, the chasm that has appeared in Hindustan between a vernacular elite and an English elite is much deeper than I would imagine in Bengal. That the vernacular elite in Hindustan has remained confined within its history…

Shahid: …which has been both anti-Urdu and anti-English. The vernacular elite in Bengal has produced a much more, to my understanding, Sanskritic Bengali because the problem with the vernacular elite in North India is that it was trying to standardize both a language and a history.

Alok: This is so because the vernacular elite which invents modern Sanskritized Bangla is not really throwing a challenge from the outside. They are already inside. The kind of Hindi elite which forms is in fact formed of people who are looking enviously at positions of power, seeking to appropriate those positions of power, and indeed politically succeeding in appropriating those positions of power; but they are still deprived of, and know that they are deprived of the cultural capital. There is this kind of split within which explains the limitedness of the vernacular elite of Hindustan. They come out of a much more vicious, a much more bitter history.

"Hindi" is laden with neurosis. In fact very little literary creation happens in "Hindi". The literary creation happens in a much more relaxed manner. Writers like Krishna Sobti don't use "Hindi". Of course, in Hindi the production of knowledge was an area the absence of which was noted a century back and various programmes were initiated to fill the shortcoming. Some good work was done. If you are looking at early Saraswati, one notices that there is in fact a desire to produce knowledge - so you have articles on painting, on modern art and on Latin American Politics. All of that characterised Hindi in its early stages. At some point, as it were, this ambition to take on the world gets narrowed down to actually fighting a bitter regional battle. At some point, when one moves from Hindi to "Hindi", the intellectual ambition is narrowed down.

Shahid: Would you also agree that the lack of translations into 'Hindi' can be seen as an indication of the weakness of this official Hindi? You go back to the Delhi Translation Society of the 1840s or when you have the development of a national elite or even a Communist elite, what you do first is translate everything into Hindi or Urdu. That happened with Hindi in the 1880s and the 1920s, when translations were done from Bangla. You don't get the desire anymore to say that we are a big market, everything that is important in anything must be translated into Hindi, because unless you do that, how do you read Turgenev? This is not part of a nationalist project but what I am saying that somewhere or the other we need to have this desire which was there earlier on…

Alok: …an intellectual ambition to appropriate the world. 'Hindi' - instead of the cultural labour or the accumulation of cultural capital which can result in these things - has been worked through a certain kind of politics. Indeed, Hindi's claim to be a Vishwa Bhasha - made time to time at the Vishwa Hindi Sammelan - also rests on a kind of numerical claim, that Hindi is capable of and should become one of the languages of the United Nations because there are so many nominal speakers of Hindi. Rather than, as it were, taking on the world and becoming strong enough to be recognized as that, it has sought to be worked through a kind of politics.

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