Book Review: Hindi Nationalism

If you grew up in North India speaking Hindi like I did, but wondered why you struggled to understand both Doordarshan Samaachaar and Gulzar’s lyrics, this book is for you. Behind the Hindi in our textbooks in school, there lies a short but stormy history of machinations and communal politics. Alok Rai’s takes you there with his book Hindi Nationalism.

Through our lived lives we associate Urdu and its script (Nastaliq or Persian) with Muslims and Hindi and its script (Devanagari or Nagari) with Hindus. That wasn’t always true. Munshi Premchand wrote in the Persian script and Amir Khusrau thought he was writing in Hindi.

For centuries Muslim sultans ruled North and Central India. They conducted their courts in Persian. Persian became the language of the elites – the rulers and their functionaries. This included Hindus as well, particularly of the Kayastha caste. Outside the courts, in Delhi, the seat of power for the Muslim sultans and the Mughals, an amalgam of the local Prakrit language, Khariboli, and Persian, developed organically. The grammar and syntax of this language followed Khariboli, with borrowed words from Persian.

What we know as Hindi today, did not exist. The amalgam that developed was called Hindustani, Hindavi or Hindi. It was spoken by a small minority of North Indians in the cities and towns. The vast majority of today’s “Hindi” speaking rural areas spoke in a wide spectrum of dialects with some regional standards like Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri, Magahi etc. Just 5% of the population could read and write. Nagari was in use but Kaithi was more widely used as a script. There were hardly any printed books, so all this diversity of languages and scripts hardly mattered to most people who needed to communicate just with the people around them.

The British made the first efforts to standardize the language of North India. They had a selfish motive – they had to govern in the language of the people. And so they needed their administrative cadre – British and Indian – to speak a common language that could be taught to them. But their efforts to standardize language text books to teach the language resulted in two languages – a persianized version and a sanskritized version – neither of which was spoken by the common man.

In 1835 the British replaced Persian in all matters of administration in North India with Hindustani, written in the Persian script. Government jobs in those days were the best jobs in an economy where unemployment and  poverty was rife. In NWP&O (present day UP)  an elite comprising of Muslims and Kayasthas, monopolized these jobs through their knowledge of Persian. Even after the British replaced Persian with Urdu, the script remained Persian allowing them to keep their grip on the courts  and administration. And with time their Urdu became more and more Persianized, to stave off competition from outsiders.

Educated Indians (the rest of the 5% literate Indians), mainly Brahmins, Khatris and Rajputs, had been left out in the cold all this while. They petitioned the British to replace the Persian script with Nagari. And soon they extended their campaign to replacing Urdu with the newly defined Hindi – where all the Persian words in Urdu/Hindustani had been replaced with Sanskrit words. A highly formal language that the common man did not speak was to be replaced by another manufactured language that no one spoke. 

In 1900 Anthony MacDonnell, the Lieutenant Governor of NWP&O (roughly present day UP) formally allowed the use of Devanagari in official business formalizing the bifurcation of a common language into two – Hindi and Urdu.

The rest of the book traces the path of today’s Hindi from its formation and formal recognition, through the independence movement and after. Hindi first became a bone of contention between Hindus and Muslims. As the two communities polarized, their languages (or registers) grew apart. And then came independence and the quest for a national language. Hindi was the obvious candidate, favored by Mahatma Gandhi and many others. But little was done to assuage the fears of South Indian states and after multiple attempts by Hindiwallahs it looks like English is here to stay.

Alok Rai’s Hindi Nationalism is short and filled with history and quotations (the ones in Hindi are translated). His grasp of the subject is clearly evident. The style of prose is a little heavy, as if it were an academic paper that got too long. Even so, given that it is just 120 pages, I would highly recommend it as an introduction to the subject.

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