In this feature essay, Language Movements and Democracy in India, Mithilesh Kumar Jha draws on his recent book Language Politics and Public Sphere in North India (Oxford UP). In the piece, he argues that capturing the real and continuing tensions and challenges of democratic practices in India requires attention to how they are performed and understood within its numerous vernacular spheres, drawing particularly on the linguistic movements that have asserted the importance of ‘minor’ or ‘non-scheduled’ languages in the nation.

This essay is part of the LSE RB Translation and Multilingualism Week, running between 10 and 14 December 2018. If you are interested in this topic, all posts published as part of the week can be accessed here. If you would like to contribute on this topic in the future, please contact us at Lsereviewofbooks@lse.ac.uk

Language Movements and Democracy in India

Democracy in India, even if it had historical roots in the ancient past, is a new development and possibly a radical experiment in a caste-ridden society characterised by graded hierarchies. There have been numerous challenges to Indian democracy, and its contemporary phase is fraught with even bigger obstacles. The functioning of democracy and its failures are once again the subject of public as well as scholarly debates. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of response. The first takes either an all-India perspective or examines the trajectories of Indian democracy through its various provinces. The second analyses these trajectories through categories like caste, class, gender or religion. These approaches have helped in understanding Indian democracy and its various fault lines. However, in Language Politics and Public Sphere in North India: Making of the Maithili Movement (OUP 2018), I have argued that they have failed to capture the real tensions and everyday confrontations to democratic practices that are enacted in its numerous vernacular spheres. It is in these spheres that the meanings and practices of democracy are constantly altered, confronted and also reinforced. Therefore, the study of language movements in modern India, I believe, could provide richer resources for examining and analysing the functioning of as well as the evolutions and challenges to democracy and politics in modern India.

Language movements have been debated in numerous ways since the beginning of modern vernacular education and classificatory exercises during colonial rule. During the nationalist phase, the question of ‘national’ language became, politically and emotionally, a very charged issue. The Hindi-Urdu debate is well-known and widely explored. In the first few decades after independence, India witnessed numerous linguistic riots, the linguistic reorganisation of states and clashes between supporters of Hindi and resistances to its ‘imposition’ as the ‘national’ language, especially from speakers of Tamil and other South Indian languages.

Since then, the language issue is seen as more or less settled, although there have been various studies that critically examine the Hindi-Urdu debates, the making of Hindi as the ‘national’ language, or the making of modern Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Panjabi and so on. But there are very few studies using language movements to understand the progress and limits of Indian democracy and its various contradictions. At best, language movements are treated merely as an identity issue. If they promote Hindi or other ‘major’ Indian languages, they are welcomed or promoted. But if they promote other ‘minor’ or ‘non-scheduled’ languages i.e. the languages which are not part of the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution, such as Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Braj, Tulu, Bodo and so on they are not only discouraged but also suspected.

Image Credit: Jalamb Junction Railway Station, Jalamb, Maharashtra, India, with station name in three languages (English, Hindi and the local language, in this case Marathi) (Ganesh Dhamodkar CC BY SA 2.0)

Language, with the beginning of print and the expansion of nationalism, is at the root of all modern social and political imaginaries. It simultaneously connects the self emotionally and psychologically with community, and that makes language a very powerful tool for social and political mobilisations. In the imaginaries of the nation, the role of a ‘national’ language is of prime ideological importance: the growth and development of one’s language is now seen as the growth and development of self and community. In modern India, Bhartendu Harishchandra’s (1850-85; a Benares-based Hindi writer and poet, also regarded as the father of the Hindi renaissance) idea of nija bhasha unnat ahai sab unnat kee mool (in the development of one’s language lies the roots of all development) became the rallying point for various linguistic communities in north India. However, this makes the language issue in a multilingual country like India even more problematic, especially when ‘minor’ and ‘non-scheduled’ languages begin to assert their demands and concerns. Usually, these movements are seen as parochial and impediments to the growth and expansion of the ‘national’ language – Hindi. However, millions of speakers of Indian languages continue to make sense of and participate in the democratic process through their vernaculars. Linguistic movements and assertions continuously alter and expand the meaning and practices of democracy in India. Therefore, without engaging with these, one’s understanding of Indian democracy shall always be incomplete or partial.

In the linguistic economy of India, we have the English elite at the top, followed by bilingual or trilingual elites with knowledge of English and one or more Indian languages. They have played a historical role in transmitting ideas like democracy or nation or swaraj (self-rule) in various vernacular spheres. Below them are the vast majority of monolingual masses with very little or no knowledge of Hindi, let alone English. In this kind of linguistic economy, one can very well infer the limits of one’s understanding of Indian democracy or polity if it takes into account the concerns of only one particular community. The majority of linguistic communities in India are still grappling with the questions of modernity, democracy, swaraj, nation and so on. And they are willing to reconcile their concerns with the nation’s, but not at the cost of their mother tongues. This make the issue of language and democracy in India even more fascinating.

Rammanohar Lohia (1910-67), the socialist ideologue, in his staunch opposition to English, understood the valuable role of Indian languages in the democratisation of state and society. He wanted Indian languages to be elevated to the status of English. However, the linguistic situation in India is very far from this ideal. English continues to be a ticket to enter into the ruling class of India. And it continues to reproduce a wide gulf between the elite and the masses. Shall India ever overcome this contradiction? Do linguistic movements have the potential to radically alter the privileges associated with a particular language?

Language, although in a limited sense, did provide a modern secular tool for people to connect together by transcending the boundries of caste, religion, class and gender. And a critical understanding of the rise and assertion of linguistic movements in different parts of the country will help one understand processes of domination and subordination. With the standardisation of a language, many languages, even those with rich literary histories, have lost their status, but the speakers of these languages are conscious of their distinctiveness. And when the opportune time comes, they do assert this. Many linguistic movements emerged as a challenge to their appropriation by a standard language. In north India, the speakers of Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi and Braj are making such claims.

There is another aspect to these linguistic movements. There are tendencies towards reproducing the age-old and existing hierarchies within them, even when these movements have been fighting against their appropriation by a standard or ‘major’ language. Within their own spheres, they also try to marginalise their own ‘varieties’ or ‘sub/dialects’. Often these movements are appropriated by the dominant castes and classes. But it is also in these spheres that such dominations are challenged and countered. For example, in the Maithili movement, the leadership has been exclusively in the hands of upper caste Brahmins and Kayasthas. But such hegemony is being increasingly questioned in the movement’s contemporary phase. To democratise the state and its institutions, it is essential to democratise society. Can it be done without democratising vernacular spheres where real battles between democratic and undemocratic forces are fought every day?

Language movements in India provide a valuable source for understanding the trajectories of ideas like democracy, swaraj and nation in modern India. Indeed, deeper engagements with Indian languages and their literary spheres will not only broaden our understanding of Indian democracy and its various challenges, but also the entanglements of these communities with modernity. Were imaginaries in these vernacular spheres distinct from national imaginaries? How did these hierarchical societies and communities reconcile with modern ideals like democracy or equal citizenship? In other words, the real entanglements of democracy in India can be better explained by closely engaging with modern Indian languages and their public spheres. These spheres are not necessarily democratic, but without making them such, trajectories of Indian democracy shall always be incomplete.


Dr. Mithilesh Kumar Jha teaches political science in the Department of Humanities and Social Science, IIT Guwahati. His most recent publication is Language Politics and Public Sphere in North India: Making of the Maithili Movement (OUP 2018).

Note: This feature essay gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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