Linguistic Chauvinism

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the States Reorganization Act. This was a reform policy aimed at reorganizing the borders of various Indian states according to linguistic lines. The policy was enacted on the 31st of August, 1956 and came into effect on November 1st of that same year.

The new reforms had no effect on certain states, like Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Assam and Jammu & Kashmir. However, some states experienced a more drastic transition. For example, Hyderabad State was partitioned triang800px-india_administrative_divisions_1951-svgularly, with Telangana merging with Andhra State to form Andhra Pradesh (that worked out well!), the Marathwada region merging with the Marathi-speaking sections of Bombay State to form Maharashtra, and the western territory merging with Mysore State to form Karnataka.

Bombay State and Madras State respectively underwent a similar transitional phase.

Meanwhile, states like Punjab, Rajasthan and West Bengal were enlarged by absorbing new territory. Travancore-Cochin merged with the Malabar and South Canara districts of Madras State to form Kerala.  Madhya Bharat, Bhopal State and Vindhya Pradesh were combined to form Madhya Pradesh.

However, some states were forced to give up territory. Bihar ceded its eastern districts to West Bengal. In addition to Malabar and South Canara, Madras State relinquished Coorg Nadu along with its Kannada-speaking regions, and was subsequently renamed Tamil Nadu. Even Travancore-Cochin was obligated to give up Kanyakumari to Tamil Nadu.

Are you still with me? I’ll give you a minute to take it all in…

Why would the Indian government implement such a convoluted policy? Well, keep in mind that India had recently celebrated nine years of sovereignty. Unfortunately, the state of the nation was complete chaos. After all, uniting a country of one billion people, belonging to a variety of castes/religions and speaking over a thousand different languages, is a near-impossible task.

Even Ranjinikanth would have twirled his illustrious mustache in bafflement!

During the Indian Independence Movement, the freedom-fighting nationalists, including Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, promoted Sanskirtized Khariboli Hindi as the national language, potentially uniting the subcontinent in pursuit of national sovereignty. This proposal, however, faced a vigorous backlash in the Southern regions of India, where political activists like EV Ramaswami and Annadurai accused North Indian members of the Indian National Congress (INC) of linguistic imposition.

After achieving independence, the newly-formed Indian parliament conducted its proceedings in English, with the aspiration of switching to Hindi by 1965 (since then, the Indian parliament adopted a bilingual policy, allowing procedures to proceed in English and Hindi).

The motive behind the States Reorganization Act was to foster regional identities among the citizenry, which would hopefully translate into national solidarity. India would emerge as a unified nation, in defiance to Winston Churchill’s predictions of ethnic divisions and balkanization.

So what can we say about India after sixty years?

Not to sound pessimistic but the motives behind the States Organization Act have download-7completely backfired. Linguistic chauvinism have become commonplace in the supposedly-progressive metropolises in the country. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Bombay was a cosmopolitan city where numerous ethnic communities interacted, using English or the Bombay Hindi dialect as a de facto lingua franca while preserving their own respective mother tongues. Today, since the rise of the Shiv Sena, Marathi nationalism has gained traction, succeeding in transforming Bombay into ‘Mumbai’.

Shashi Tharoor, current MP representing Trivandrum, noted that when VK Krishna Menon campaigned for Tharoor’s current seat during the 1970’s, he spoke exclusively in English. However, had Tharoor followed suit, he would have received considerable backlash in today’s Kerala.

Kannada and Tulu speaking residents of Kasarogod, the northernmost district of Kerala, complain of being treated as second-class citizens when dealing with government officials. Shivalli Brahmins, Bunts and Billavas have dwelled in their respective ancestral homes at Kasarogod for hundreds of years, yet they are strangers in their own land. Ironically, many Keralite students are barely literate in Malayalam due to the CBSE/ICSE education they are currently receiving.

In addition, I’m sure we’re all aware of the debacle that occurred in Andhra Pradesh.
captureHyderabad State’s Telangana merged with Andhra State only to be bifurcated, thanks to a venomous combination of irreconcilable cultural differences and dirty politicking. That fiasco in itself is a potent testimony of the failures of the well-intentioned yet deeply misguided States Reorganization Act.

A nation like India is destined to face long-term linguistic, ethnic and religious divisions. Overtime, these divisions will hopefully be attenuated as younger generations adopt a more globalized outlook. Although the British departed from the subcontinent, English dominates as the de facto lingua franca. Hopefully, as time progresses, more Indians will acknowledge the practicality of English, despite its imperialistic baggage.

Government imposition in the cultural realm often breeds disastrous results. The enforcement of a ‘national language’ or artificial border based on linguistic lines only serves to foster hostility and ethnic tension.