The significance of International Mother Language Day, which falls on February 21 each year, lies in its attempt to strike a fine balance. On the one hand, the event, which has the seal of approval of the United Nations, is supposed to honour the mother tongue. On the other, it also encourages linguistic diversity – the practice of speaking more than one language. In recent years, the discourse on IMLD has widened, incorporating two other elements. Today, it is at once an occasion of celebration and solemnity. It is not uncommon to find the media making use of February 21 to discuss the threat to, and the death of, languages. This year, for instance, a report in The Telegraph stated that data put out by the home ministry suggest that in a country with 22 scheduled languages and 100 non-scheduled ones, more than 40 languages and local dialects, with less than 10,000 speakers, are headed towards extinction.
This threat is unique to multi-lingual societies, and some of the findings in this respect need to be looked into closely. It has been estimated that globally, over 3,000 languages are expected to die in the course of the next decade or so. Oral languages/dialects feature prominently in this list of endangered tongues. Interestingly, the death of a language occurs not just with a precipitous decline in the number of speakers. Stipulated legislations can play a role too. For example, in India, a country known for the richness of its oral traditions, the government, in its wisdom, came up with the idea of defining languages on the basis of the existence of a script. This led to the waning and even effacement of specific dialects — such as the ones used by indigenous people — whose survival depends on oral transmission.
The other unchanging character of the discourse on languages concerns the public acknowledgement of their transformation into a kind of political capital. The subcontinent has a long history of political movements concerning language. The series of agitations in Tamil Nadu against the official status of Hindi is a classic example. The anger and dissent were, undoubtedly, a testimony to the unbreakable link among language, culture and identity. Again, of the several factors that are attributed to the creation of Bangladesh, the persecution of Bengali – it had official sanction – is understood to be of some significance. In India, where states – new and old – have been created on the basis of the dominant linguistic identity, subterranean tensions concerning local dialects continue. The response of elected governments to the dissenting voices can be patently patronizing. Recently, in Bengal, the state government passed the official language (second amendment) bill, which bestows recognition on Kuramali, Kamtapuri and Rajbanshi. It is another matter that official recognition is by no means a guarantee of survival for such dialects. But such concessions, political parties in power believe, are an effective means of mobilizing the support of ethnic groups and addressing their misgivings. Of the three, the recognition to Kuramali, which is spoken in Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore, is likely to have a special bearing on the impending panchayat elections.
There is a third — rather under-explored — dimension to the discourse on languages. This aspect, which is quite layered itself, is seldom examined because the thrust of events commemorating languages, such as the IMLD, seems to be on eulogizing spoken dialects. But a language, in its everyday functionality, can also serve as a marker of both exclusion and exclusivity. Take the example of the expression, ‘Hindu hotel’, that is usually applied to describe cheap eateries in Calcutta that serve staple food — bhaat, daal, shobji — to underprivileged citizens. (BibhutibhushanBandyopadhyay had penned a novel fictionalizing such an establishment. Adarsha Hindu Hotel, published in 1940, achieved a degree of popularity and was even made into a film.) These modest eateries have retained their popularity even today. It is not uncommon to find orthodox, vegetarian taxi drivers, many of them from undivided Bihar, relishing a meal in ‘Hindu hotels’. Enquiries with them would reveal that given a chance, they would not dine anywhere else. The cheap rates are an attraction. But a greater incentive lies in the message conveyed by the choice of the title of these hotels. What is discernible in this context is the way in which the political economy of language and food intersect to uphold the idea of purity that is also a hallmark of exclusion. Fiction, too, has mirrored this kind of implicit segregation. The enterprise in Bandyopadhyay’s novel catered to a hierarchical order, although based not on religion or caste but class. In a deft and cheeky reminder of the embedded division, Bandyopadhyay reminds his readers that those who patronized the lower tier of the Adarsha Hindu Hotel were served lentil soup mixed with rice starch in an indirect reiteration of their destitution.
It would be tempting to morally denounce this stratification that uses language as the medium of communicating prejudice. But what makes language — the vernacular or the lingua franca — beautiful and complicated is the layered nature of its resonance. The ‘Hindu’ of the ‘Hindu hotel’ may have been a conscious ploy to indicate exclusion. But if one were to look at the history of the inception of these humble institutions, one would see that language — through the chosen epithet, ‘Hindu’ — was also functioning as a means of cultural affirmation. It needs to be pointed out that the profusion of these eateries coincided with the arrival of Hindu migrants to Calcutta from East Pakistan. That is the reason why the hotels were a common sight in stretches around railway stations. (Bandyopadhyay’sAdarsha Hindu Hotel is located close to the Ranaghat railway station.) Language performed dual functions in this context. For the owner of these local hotels, the affixation of the term, Hindu, to the name of the hotel was a useful way of attracting a clientele who had experienced the anxiety of losing not just their roots but also their identity on account of Partition. For the traumatized patrons, these establishments became a vicarious means of affirming an identity — through shared language and food — that had been threatened in the land they had left.
Multilingual societies are often feted for their commitment to the idea of pluralism. Today, the direction of global politics is grim. Ultra-nationalist governments are plotting to impose unitary cultural templates on diverse societies, as is evident in India. Multilingualism is thus a noble idea that must be fought for. But multilingualism is also romanticized as an idyll shared equitably by languages. In truth, it is a space that simmers with the tension brought about by competing languages. This contest can unfold in curious ways within familiar settings. For instance, apart from its ubiquitous ‘Hindu hotels’, Calcutta also comprises shops with peculiarly English or anglicized names. J. Boseck, the shop that sells watches, stands in the heart of Chowringhee. Is the title merely a colonial inheritance, or an ode to the memory of such a past? Can the endurance of such an appellation be looked upon as an act of resistance? Is it then an outpost of anglophilia with its attendant, purported sophistication — bobbing in an otherwise vernacular (Bengali) sea?
Those with a cheery disposition would cite a thriving J. Boseck as proof of the spirit of inclusion of multilingual cultures. But the cynic is not convinced easily. If a multilingual society is indeed a nursery that is benevolent equally to languages, why is it that of India’s 22 scheduled languages, no more than two are spoken by the adivasis who make up over 8 per cent of the country’s population?
The Indian elite and the erosion of democracy
By Pragya Tiwari
On May 23, the weeks-long elections of the world’s largest democracy delivered a stupendous victory for the incumbent BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A second term for a party which is pursuing a Hindu majoritarian agenda defying India’s secular constitutional order is bound to have repercussions on India’s sociocultural fabric and institutional framework.
It is early to say what these elections might portend but they are already fuelling anxieties among the social and economic elites about an impending transformation of the country. Much of the public discourse is blaming the opposition parties for failing to stem Modi’s meteoric rise, public institutions and mainstream media for allegedly being partial towards the ruling dispensation, and voters for not knowing better than to vote in a government that will upend the Indian democracy and constitution.
The blind spot in the torrential outrage is the liberal elite’s own contribution towards this moment in history. Indian democracy is not under threat merely because majoritarian forces are gaining ground. Majoritarian forces have gained ground because democracy has been under threat. And the Indian elite, whose members have had disproportionate access to education, resources, and opportunities in India, have let that happen.
The BJP and its supporters are undoubtedly propagating an aggressive and grotesque brand of nationalism designed to consolidate a fragmented Hindu identity by othering and demonising minorities. But it is a stretch to claim that India had been robustly secular until Modi became prime minister in 2014. The BJP has deepened not created fault lines which the Indian elites had done very little to mend.
India has the world’s second-largest population of Muslims who have remained grossly underrepresented in political life and in private and public institutions. They have lagged behind nearly all other disenfranchised communities on economic and educational indicators and remained vulnerable to patriarchal and sectarian prejudices. For decades, the majority of political parties have exploited the Muslim minority as a vote bank without addressing the wider, more urgent needs of ordinary Muslims.
The liberal elite, including the relatively small part of it that is Muslim, has largely remained apathetic to the predicament of minorities for decades. They have failed not only to follow in the footsteps of India’s founding fathers and articulate an idea of Indian secularism that would take root, but also to counter the rampant bigotry in their own circles.
This inaction on part of the liberal elite has paved the way for hate speech to dominate the political discourse today and fuel attacks against minorities. Upper-class liberals have responded to the proliferation of hate crime by adopting slogans like “Not In My Name” and directing their disapproval solely towards the ruling dispensation. The rot, however, runs deeper.
Modi and the BJP are accused of undermining various state institutions but the truth is this process had started long before they took power.
Today, human life in India is cheap because the criminal justice system is broken and the rule of law is far from firm. For decades on end the liberal elite, who has had privileged access to justice, has thought little to push for necessary reforms that might have mended a broken system preying on its own people and inoculated the country against social division and upheaval.
They have turned a blind eye to endemic delays in the delivery of justice and judicial manipulation. As a result, perpetrators of crimes of various scale have not only enjoyed impunity but have also been able to infiltrate the political system.
Some 43 percent of the newly-elected members to the lower house of Parliament face criminal charges, up from 34 percent in 2014. They hail from all major political parties and have among their ranks prominent names like terror suspect Pragya Singh Thakur from BJP and Dean Kuriakose from the Congress party who stands accused in some 200 different criminal cases.
The criminal justice system is by no means the only institution to fail the masses. There has long been a deep disconnect between public institutions and the ordinary Indian; structural vulnerabilities have made the former susceptible to political pressure over time.
The liberal elite has of late been raising the alarm on infringements on the central bank, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the constitutional court of the country and the election commission. The latter came under the spotlight when it was accused of favouring the BJP in the recently concluded elections. Yet those who have followed Indian electoral politics closely would know that much-needed reforms that could have safeguarded its independence were ignored for years even before 2014.
But the commission’s lapses are not the only issue with the electoral process. There are a number of ways in which the level playing field can and was distorted by the ruling dispensation – disproportionate access to money tops the list. Campaign finance is the ageing elephant in the room and no political party has been inclined to bring about reforms that encourage transparency and regulation in this context. The elites have largely ignored the problem, as they themselves have benefitted from the status quo.
The role of the media as a watchdog of democracy in India has also been eroded. BJP’s victory was a victory of consent manufactured through propaganda by pliable mainstream media and fake news. It was aided by journalistic complacency and failure to push for self-regulation and come up with technological and regulatory solutions to defeat lies.
This complacency is the direct result of the elites’ dominance over the media sector which has reflected almost exclusively their world view, keeping the voices of the subaltern out. Dalits and tribals have been particularly underrepresented in this media dominated by upper castes.
Ignoring all these red flags, the liberal elite has used its privilege to ensconce itself in an ivory tower that resembles feebly the aspirational first world in terms of material comforts, leaving the vast majority of Indians behind. In its imagination, the poor deserve food and shelter but not aspiration.
The liberal elite’s misdirected rage towards the electorate is symptomatic of its shallow commitment towards democracy and its total disconnect from the general population. It has failed to understand that voters who cast their ballots for the BJP did so for a variety of reasons, one of them likely being their admiration for Modi, who as a member of the lower classes managed to rise to prominence and snatch power from the self-serving elitist establishment.
In order to counter toxic majoritarianism, the liberal elite needs to truly comprehend the mandate Modi has won and go beyond lamentation to educate, organise, agitate, and participate in democratic life.
On the other hand, the emerging right-wing elite who has backed the BJP needs to tread carefully not to repeat the mistakes of the liberals and make excuses for a ruling party intent on deepening India’s social and institutional crises.
It is high time that those at the top of Indian society from across the ideological spectrum face the fact that, in the long run, a hollowed-out democracy is not in anyone’s interest – especially in a country as multifarious as India, where a million negotiations and accommodations between diverse communities underpin social stability.
The New Normal of New India
By Ashraf Lone
BJP, a right-wing political party, came to power again in 2019, on the promises of “Sab kaSath, Sab kaVishwas”.But on the other side, it also raised the rhetoric of patriotism and hyper-nationalism over Pulwama blast in Kashmir and Balakot airstrike, which later proved to be mere eyewash to hide its failures in the first tenure. From calling immigrants in Bengal termites deemed as infiltrators who ought to be killed to save the honour of “Bharat Mata”, BJP played all tricks to topple opposition’s plans and regain power with a thumping majority.
BJP played its cards well and used every opportunity to demean Congress and the Left. From demonetization to Balakot strikes—it didn’t lose any opportunity to score political points. It even appeased some Muslim scholars and academicians to get Muslim votes. The catchy slogan “Sab kaSath, Sab kaVishwas” made everyone believe that this time “Acchce Din” will arrive for sure. But the sad part is that nor have the “Achche Din” arrived for ordinary people neither has BJP shown any signs that it wants to win “Sab KaVishwas” (trust of all). Indian Muslims have been at the receiving end: abused, thrashed and lynched on a daily basis.
The first lynching that happened after the landslide victory of BJP was of Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand. The mob encircled him and forced him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” while beating him with sticks. Instead of arresting the attackers, police arrested Tabrez, and he was taken to the hospital four days later and was pronounced dead on arrival. Tabrez’s family has alleged that the police denied medical aid to Tabrez. In another incident, a Muslim man, namely Sanaullah Sheikh, was assaulted in West Bengal on theft charges. It is important to mention here that after the crime, the lynchers or the police have framed the victims in false cases to shield the criminals, and this has been continuing for the last five years.
Recently, over 25 people were forced to chant “Gau Mata Ki Jai” in Madhya Pradesh and beaten ruthlessly. And this cycle of intimidation and lynchings continues without any pause.
Hate crimes, particularly lynchings over some petty issues have increased over the last five years and gained pace with the re-election of the right-wing party BJP.
There is nobody to stop these crimes. Government has given a free hand to the bigots and the police to intimidate the minority community. By the communal utterings of some of the ministers, the bigots and ultra-nationalists in the majority community and the law establishing agencies have felt encouraged to go after the Muslims. Some Muslim men were beaten in Assam recently, and in Mumbai, a Muslim driver, FaizalUsman was abused and beaten and forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram”. In Kolkata, a Muslim teacher ShahrukhHaldar was heckled and pushed out of the train. And similar reports are coming from other Indian states.
India has lost its democratic and secular ethos to Hindutva groups and fringe elements, but this hatred and lynchings are not happening in isolation. These groups have complete government backing. Police stand by their side when they commit a crime and Indian judiciary has been reduced to a mockery—where it has failed to convict any criminal and goon in the last five years. The message from the ruling dispensation is clear. To instil fear among the minorities and push them to the point of no return.
India’s Muslims are being marginalized more with each passing day. With threats, intimidation and lynchings, there is an atmosphere of terror engulfing India and its minorities. Social media and WhatsApphas made Muslims more vulnerable to violence. World powers and the United Nations has criticized India over the crimes against its minorities, but India has denied the crimes and lynchings happening on its land.
The pressing concern now is how to stop this madness, bigotry and hatred, which has made the life of Indian Muslims and other minorities hell. What is needed at least at the political level is to come together against this frenzy. To put up a united political front against the forces of hatred and Hindutva is the need of the hour.
We need to raise the issue of these crimes at every level at every front, to save India’s
(The author is a research scholar at JNU)
Sports and nationalism are joined at the hip
By Mukul Kesavan
Liberals tend to deplore perfervid nationalism in sport in a hand-wringing way, looking past the fact that many sports are mortgaged to nationalism for their needle and their audience. Latin American countries have famously gone to war over football matches. In the current cricket World Cup, Afghan and Pakistani fans came to blows when the two teams met in the round-robin stage of the tournament. International cricket is driven by nationalism; Indian fans who dominated World Cup grounds each time India played were there in their capacity as Indians first and cricketing spectators a long way afterwards. Like cricket, hockey in India was driven by nationalist feeling; when Indian teams stopped winning Olympic gold medals, hockey’s national audience abandoned it in favour of cricket because ‘India’ had just won the 1983 World Cup.
It isn’t just fans; states are very invested in using sport for the greater glory of the nation. Hitler used the Berlin Olympics of 1936 to showcase Nazi nationalism. German Jewish athletes were prevented from participating and the fact that the host country won more medals than any other country made the 1936 Games a triumph for the resurgent Nazi nation. Hitler’s twinning of national pride and Olympic achievement was imitated by many countries subsequently. During the Cold War, countries like the German Democratic Republic made the Olympics a proving ground for the virtues of Eastern Bloc socialism. Similarly, China’s remarkable Olympic success in recent times is the result of an organized bid to raise China’s profile as a great sporting nation. In Castro’s Cuba, the small island’s extraordinary success in boxing, athletics, wrestling and volleyball was an advertisement for the Cuban nation state.
For apartheid South Africa, success in international sport was both a way of raising white supremacist morale and strengthening its ties with the Western nations that it saw as its national peers. Even a game as cerebral and individual as chess became a stand-off between the US and the USSR when Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer sat across a board to play for the title in Reykjavik. Test cricket has been used as a touchstone for nationalism. In 1990, Norman Tebbit, then a cabinet minister, invented the Tebbit Test which demanded of immigrants to Britain that they prove their loyalties as citizens by clapping for England in cricket matches and not their countries of origin. Always ready to learn from their colonial masters, vigilante majoritarians apply the Tebbit test with malevolent enthusiasm to Muslims suspected of extraterritorial loyalty to Pakistan.
It isn’t just fans and states, players too are keen on gilding their nationalist credentials. Imran Khan parlayed a great cricketing career and a World Cup triumph into the prime ministership of Pakistan. Closer home, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, GautamGambhir, ChetanChauhan have found synergies between representing the nation at sport and nationalist politics. More recently, we have seen the Indian cricket team wear army fatigue caps in solidarity with the Indian army. At the start of this World Cup, the International Cricket Council forced M.S. Dhoni to remove military-style insignia from his gloves because its regulations forbade such embellishment.
Dhoni, an honorary lieutenant colonel with the Territorial Army, is taken with the idea that India’s cricketers fight for the honour of their nation much as soldiers do and sees no reason why men in sporting uniform oughtn’t pay homage to men in military uniform who give their lives for the nation.
The nation is so hegemonic in certain kinds of sport that even formally neutral commentators, meant to be impartial analysts of the game, are frequently cheerleaders. This is not new, nor is this confined to India. Bill Lawry, Iftikhar Ahmed, Don Mosey patriotically flew the flag for Australia, Pakistan and England, respectively. You can see this nationalism at work in the explicit partisanship of Indian commentators on television, where the ‘we’ is used without self-consciousness. You can see it mutate into a hectoring chauvinism when Dhoniretweets Amitabh Bachchan’s accusation that even-handed commentators (like HarshaBhogle) are insufficiently patriotic when they appreciate the performances of opposing players. It is hard, however, to be persuasively indignant about this because the idea of a representative cricket team is closely bound up with the very idea of India itself. Cricket Country, PrashantKidambi’s excellent book on the first ‘all-India’ team to tour England, goes a long way towards showing how the idea of representing British India, a colonial empire, in cricket helped consolidate the idea of the Indian nation. Cricket and nationalism are joined at the hip.
The idea that there is a way of being nationalist that is both civil and patriotic is attractive, but it seems little more than a good intention in a world where social media has made knockabout patriotism a spectator sport. In a media environment where everything — from the movies to television news to politics — is driven by competitive nationalism, it’s unlikely that India’s cricket fans or Chinese apparatchiks are going to stop seeing sport as a vehicle for national glory and self-esteem.
But luckily for the beleaguered progressive, the relationship among sports persons, the associations that organize sport, the spectators who give sport its audiences and the corporations who profit by it, is neither constituted by nationalism not exhausted by it.
First, it’s useful to remember that not all sports have the same relationship with nationalism though no sport is immune to it. Watching Roger Federer play Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon is a sporting experience that is sublime, where neither partisanship nor appreciation depends on nationalist affiliation. This is not to argue that individual sports (as opposed to team sports) are immune to hectoring chauvinism. I’m sure there are Swiss patriots who die a thousand nationalist deaths each time Federer loses, but in the larger scheme of things, they don’t matter. Federer is adored because he represents some fantasy of classical perfection. He could play Andy Murray in the final at Wimbledon and have most of Centre Court on his side. I know when Federer has won a point even if I’m in the next room because the sound of the courtside roar is different.
Watching Federer is like watching Tiger Woods light up a tournament. The throngs that follow him around the course, the millions more who look up the leader board on television only to find his name, are proof positive of how sporting genius can make national identity irrelevant.
Moreover, while the sports-industrial complex — sports associations, broadcasters, corporate sponsors and media houses — is perfectly happy to piggyback on nationalism to sell products, deals and grab eyeballs, the commercialization of sport cuts both ways. In the lead up to the 2007 World Cup, for example, PepsiCo came up with the ingenious slogan, ‘Blue Billion’, which joined the blue of the Indian team’s uniform with India’s billion-strong population and Pepsi’s corporate colours to create a nimble example of multi-national nationalism.
But on the other hand, it was corporate sponsorship that created the Indian Premier League, the most explicitly cosmopolitan professional league in the history of cricket. This is a form of cricket that threatens to supplant international cricket because the money that it offers cricketers is so much more than what they make while playing for their countries. Some of them, Chris Gayle being the most famous example, have decided to commit themselves to Twenty20 over Test cricket.
Aficionados of Test cricket have to reckon with the uncomfortable fact that it is their preferred form of cricket that is fuelled by nationalism, whereas the shortest form of the game, often derided as showbiz rather than sport, is the form that is transforming cricket into a professional sport where skilled cricketers freed from national structures become travelling mercenaries, selling their services to the highest bidder. One of the nicer things about the current World Cup has been the familiarity among players from different countries because so many of them have been team mates in the IPL.
This is, of course, what league sport has done for more than a century via the sporting franchises created in North America or via Europe’s football leagues where global capital transformed clubs from local working men’s clubs into international brands. This is not to argue that worshipping at the altar of Manchester City, the plaything for a Gulf despot, is better than honking for Team India. It is only to point out that there is no single historical arc that will necessarily end in nationalist trolls taking over sport at every level. There is a countervailing tendency, namely the trans-national fluidity of capital in a time of liberalization, that actively subverts national solidarities. In football, for example, it is clear that the default form of the game as far as fans and players are concerned is club football with national competition getting an occasional look in when a World Cup rolls round. Whether this is a good thing is a separate matter, but when liberals denounce chauvinism in sport, it’s worth remembering that there’s a force larger than the nation state remaking competitive sport in its image.
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