By Yoginder Sikand
The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India by Christopher R. King, Bombay: Oxford University Press (India), 1996, PP.232. 14.99 Pounds (hardback). ISBN 0 19 563565 5
At a time when the extreme Hindu right-wing is rapidly on the ascendant in India, Christopher King’s remarkably well-researched book on the origins of the Hindi language movement is a timely contribution to an issue of tremendous import in contemporary Indian politics. King pieces together what on all counts appears as the chequered history of a language of very recent origins which Hindu communalists have sought to project as having a hoary past of its own. In doing this, this book strikingly illustrates the role of language linguistic symbols as crucial markers of identity in the process of the construction of ‘community’ and ‘nationality’.
King’s main thesis is that the origins growth of Hindi, today India’s official language, must be traced to process of the construction of a Hindu ‘community’ or ‘national’ identity that has its roots in the early decades of nineteenth-century colonial north India. There being no doctrinal unity or uniformity between various Hindu castes, sects and groups, the only common factor being their membership in the caste order headed by the Brahmins, it was, and still is, difficult to speak in terms of a homogenous Hindu community. However, processes set in motion by the onset of colonial rule, not lest the census which insisted on mapping every individual as a member of one religious community or the other, seem to have goaded Indian social elites to embark on a project of community creation, in which, in the case of the ‘Hindus’, a common Hindu identity was sought to be promoted principally by stressing what distinguished it from the Muslim ‘Other’.
It was as part of this process of community-identity creation, King argues, that ‘upper’ caste Hindu groups, principally from what is now Uttar Pradesh, sought to create a new ‘Hindu’ language by purging Khari Boli, the lingua franca spoken by both Muslims as well as Hindus in large parts of the country, of what were seen as ‘Muslim’ accretions the Persian script and words of Persian and Arabic origin. This new language, christened Hindi, was vociferously
promoted and projected as an ancient tongue deriving from Sanskrit. This ‘linguistic cleansing’, involving the substitution of Arabic and Persian words by their Sanskrit equivalents, then triggered off similar efforts among Muslim elites in the direction of an increasingly- Persianised Urdu, today the national language of Pakistan. Indeed, the Urdu-Hindi controversy, as King shows, played no small role in bringing about the rapid escalation of inter-communal rivalries in India that later culminated in the Partition of the country in 1947.
While this book is remarkably well documented, some problems still remain. King seeks to project the role of the colonial authorities as, at best, benign or, at worst, as simply muddled and confused. He dismisses, without much fuss, claims that the British may have seen in the Urdu-Hindi controversy as yet another means to further inter-communal rivalries, setting Indians against themselves and thereby helping to further strengthen colonial rule. The obvious gains that could accrue to the colonial authorities through their active involvement in the controversy is well illustrated by an instance that King himself cites, of jubilant Hindus proposing that a photograph of the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh who, in 1900, had decreed that the Hindi Nagri script be granted the same status as the Persian, should be put up in every Hindu home (P.163).
By focusing simply on the involvement of social elites, both Hindu as well as Muslim, King leaves out of all discussion the vast majority of Indians the ‘low’ castes. We need to know what role, if any, these people played in the conflict and what their views were on the question of language. This is particularly important, given the rise of the Dalits or ‘low’ castes in Indian politics today. Dalit protests against what are seen as covert attempts by the Brahmins to further strengthen the caste system by, among other means, the ‘Brahminisation’ of Hindi, are increasingly making themselves heard in India today. No longer can the ‘untouchable’ be left untouched by any study of Indian social history.
Overall, however, this is a fascinating study that contributes much to our understanding of colonial Indian history and provides important insights into issues of crucial concern in contemporary Indian politics.