Last year, a hashtag trended on Twitter India: #HindiImposition. It was the online manifestation of a protest in Bengaluru over Hindi being one of the languages on the display boards of the city’s metro rail service. The protesters were Kannada-speaking people of the city. They felt that Hindi signs were not required in Karnataka.
If Hindi must be used in Kannada-speaking land, then the converse must also come true, they argued. That is, Kannada signboards be used in Hindi heartland, especially Delhi, the capital of the country. And as that seemed highly improbable, Hindi felt like an imposition over Kannada speakers, the protesters argued.
To someone not aware of the many fiery linguistic -- and thereby identity -- clashes that Hindi has stirred up in the past, this whole debate may make no sense. Indians by and large may deem the protests parochial or justified, depending on which part of the country one hails from.
To me, it seems that we may have missed an opportunity to press for a recognition of linguistic rights all over the country, starting from Bengaluru. If Hindi felt like an imposition -- and it may well have -- why not send a message out for linguistic diversity by including the top languages of Bengaluru?
And, no, Kannada is not the only language spoken in Bengaluru. This page here from a city-based translation and localization company cites at least three other languages that have more than a double-digit population in the city. An older article from The Hindu mentions pretty much the same proportion of other language speakers.
So, why can’t we have the metro displays in the four languages of the city: Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu, plus English as a catch-all language? Why can’t we take decisions related to language on an inclusive rather than an exclusive basis? That is, why should the people of Maharasthra rule out all languages apart from Marathi? Can’t every city in the state adopt a simple enough benchmark like recognising all those languages that are, say, spoken by more than 10% of the population and then have all public communication disseminated through them? Governments that have a much larger budget and certainly the central government must publish all information in all the 22 official languages of the country online.
India is a melting pot of languages. There is no one region, state, or city that speaks just one language. There may be smaller villages that perhaps speak just one or two languages, but the linguistic diversity deepens and widens a whole lot when you move to bigger towns and cities.
Why then must we insist on creating these non-existent linguistic monoliths? In doing so, we reduce the fight for linguistic rights to a much narrower and parochial squabble bordering on xenophobia. Linguistic rights need to be secured not just for us in our state, but for everyone everywhere. Only then, this call for language equality will be taken seriously by publishers of mass communication, whether it be government or private companies.
Of course, acknowledging people who speak other languages and their right to access public services in those languages requires that we understand democracy. Demanding that everyone speak the language of the land is a simplistic solution and one that frequently divides people along the lines of us and them. Which one of us wouldn’t be grateful to download bus routes in our language in any Indian city that we go to?
We need to show more maturity and inclusivity in our demand for linguistic rights. It’s not enough that we ask for shopboards to be in the local language. The demand needs to be for comprehensive language access for each citizen of India, regardless of where they are from and where they live. For, if one can have linguistic rights only in one’s state, they aren’t really rights, are they?