Hindi imposition in Bihar and relevance of regional language in teaching

Politics of language is always an issue in India.

Just a few days ago, Rosha Kishore of Mint wrote on how a Bihari lost his mother tongue to Hindi. This was least expected as when we talk of Hindi imposition we mean how the Northern States of UP, Bihar MP etc are pushing Hindi down the throat of other States. But not really. Infact, the regional languages of Bihar have felt the imposition too:

There was a popular self-deprecating joke among Biharis in Delhi University’s North Campus in the early 2000s. Delhiwala asks his Bihari classmate why his feet are soiled. Bihari answers in Hindi, “Arre yaar, main chal kar aa raha thha, achanak pyair kaado mein chala gaya”. Now, kaado is a word used for a puddle in languages such as Bhojpuri and Magadhi. The Bihari does not use keechad, the acceptable Hindi word for puddle. It is a joke because no matter how much the Bihari tries to hide his not-so-urbane identity behind modern clothes, his language gives him away.

Jokes apart, the exchange also captures a slow but steady cultural shift that has been taking place in the Hindi heartland. Hindi, or rather sarkari Hindi (more on this later), has been slowly eating away multiple languages spoken by millions of people north of the Vindhyas. For a typical Delhiwala it could be Punjabi, Haryanvi or even Urdu. In the region I come from, the casualty has been Magadhi, or Magahi, as we call it back home. As the name suggests, it is related to the Magadh region, which was once the seat of power for mighty emperors, such as Ashoka.

It is extremely unlikely that my young cousins, who were brought up in Delhi and other metros, would ever feel comfortable speaking this language. But just a couple of generations ago, it used to be the language of conversation in my family.

Anurah Behar in another piece writes about importance of teaching in regional languages:

Episodes of unmasking those trying to hide their identities are found across storytelling cultures. From the Jataka and Arabian Nights to the grey leCarrein world of spies. The gotcha moment is often when the man is startled, sometimes in his sleep, to reflexively exclaim in his native tongue. This is a dramatic exposition of the deep truth that language is an integral part of identity. While language is at the core of individual identity, it is even more so the life blood of collective identity.

I have often wondered what language I will exclaim in, in my gotcha moment. Will it be Chhattisgarhi that I grew up speaking at home or Hindustani, which we spoke in Bhopal, or will it be English, which for a large part of my adult life has become my first language? But if you ask me, when I am awake, what is your “mother tongue”, I will unhesitatingly say Chhattisgarhi. Because it is.

So I was very disappointed, though not surprised, when Chhattisgarh became a state in 2001, and chose Hindi as the medium of instruction (MoI) in its schools. This was surrender to two ideas that I had thought Chhattisgarhis must not concede to.

First was the muddled notion that Chhattisgarhi is not a language but a dialect of Hindi. This false language and dialect dichotomy is much written about. In brief: the powerful claim the status of language for their tongue, relegating other tongues of the same linguistic family to the status of dialect. The test of mutual intelligibility will tell you in 5 minutes that Chhattisgarhi is no more a dialect of Hindi, than is Marathi, Odia or Bengali.

Second was the abandonment of their own language by the Chhattisgarhi elite. Seduced by the language of power, and almost ashamed of their own language which they saw as marker of belonging to one of the most backward regions of the country, the elite and those aspiring to that status, virtually stopped speaking Chhattisgarhi amongst themselves and in their homes.

What is interesting in Behar’s article is how the elites abandon their own language as it connotes backwardness. We see this all the time as people look to learn English as soon as possible. English is not just seen as a language but a sign of intelligence and development.

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