Next stop: justice

Garga Chatterjee explains why Bengaluru is outraged by Hindi signs on the metro

Next stop: justice
The #NammaMetroHindiBeda movement against Hindi imposition in the Bengaluru Metro in the Kannadigas’ own capital city has gathered significant political support. Decades of forced imposition of Hindi and marginalisation of Kannada in the Karnataka capital of Bengaluru under the hubris laden smokescreen called ‘cosmopolitanism’ is coming home to roost. The aggressive Hindi imposition initiatives by the present BJP-led Union government provided the spark to the powder-keg of discontent that has been brewing for sometime now.

The Indian Union does not have a national language. It is an unheard of concept in the Constitution of India. If this sounds new to you and if you have heard textbooks, media, Delhi-headquartered party politicians and others telling you that Hindi is the national language of the Indian Union, it is quite simply a falsehood that they want you to believe, such that it almost becomes a “natural truth” by repetition. Hindi is the mother tongue of about 26% of the citizens of the Indian Union and the language is not understood by a majority of the citizens of the Indian Union. Still, Hindi is one of the two official languages of the Union government – a restrictive system in a multi-lingual union of linguistic states that casts a majority of the citizenry into second-class citizenship. The ambit of usage of the official language is limited to official functions of the Union government. Announcements in train stations, trains, airports or planes are not official functions of the Union government. They are customer service and safety functions of the travel sector. The goal of travel-related service is not “national unity”, Hindi promotion, showing who paid for the infrastructure or any other such irrelevant matters. The most important consideration is the welfare of the traveller.

A metro station display board with the Hindi covered up, Bengaluru

The Bengaluru Metro called Namma Metro (Namma meaning “our” in Kannada) is a joint venture between the Karnataka government and the Union government, implemented through an agency called the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL). When it started in 2011, it had three languages for all signs and announcements – Kannada, English and Hindi. The inclusion of Hindi for a public service in a city of Karnataka where Hindi does not even figure in the top five most commonly spoken mother tongues makes no sense. Due to a huge opposition to this initial inclusion of Hindi, two things happened. RTI activists made BMRCL admit that though there was no specific direction for inclusion of Hindi from the Union or Karnataka government: it had followed guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways – which specifies a three-language formula including Hindi in non-Hindi states for the convenience of Hindi people and a two-language formula of Hindi and English in Hindi states, again for the convenience of Hindi people only. The metro falls under none of these categories of road transport or highways and so, as such, it is not obligated to follow such Union ministry guidelines. That was the fishy bit. On further RTI inquiry-related pressure from Kannadigas, the BMRCL stated that it was the decision of the BMRCL board. It stated that “As mentioned BMRCL being a new mass rapid transit system for Bangalore and that Bangalore being a cosmopolitan city, BMRCL has thus adopted a language policy whereby the display boards should be understood by most of the commuters”. That’s all good, except that census figures show that there are actually more people with Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Urdu as mother tongues in the area than Hindi. To keep the international character and intelligibility, the presence of English is understandable. Also, many Dravidians are conversant in that language and don’t share the “English is foreign” logic of Hindi people. In fact, the Gujarat High Court has clearly stated that for non-Hindi states, Hindi is also a foreign language. So, that takes care of English. If the idea of BMRCL was that “the display boards should be understood by most of the commuters”, then Kannada and English should have been there, along with other languages. If a three-language formula was to be instituted, the candidate for the third language, based on the BMRCL principle of reach would have been eitherTelugu, Tamil or Urdu.

This was, of course, seen as an exercise in the imposition of Hindi where it does not belong. Small wonder, given that the BMRCL management is packed with Hindi-speaking people in the form of IAS cadres sent by New Delhi. The initial public opposition forced BMRCL to take a step back and remove Hindi announcements and Hindi direction boards inside the metro stations. Thus, any imposition seemed to have been foiled due to citizens’ activism and awareness.
This issue goes beyond just sign-boards, to a tussle between the reality of a diverse, multi-lingual, multi-national federal democratic union and the homogenising ideology of Hindi-Hindustan

Now, the BMRCL has again started pushing Hindi widely inside the Namma metro. What prompted this change even after a reasonable understanding had been reached? Here, it is relevant to mention that the Union ministry involved as a stakeholder in BMRCL is the Urban Development ministry. The minister in charge is one M.Venkaiah Naidu who regularly insists to the public that Hindi is the national language and who, despite winning multiple Rajya Sabha terms from Karnataka, never cared to pick up the language of the Kannadigas that he supposedly represented.

That is the sort of mentality one is dealing with here. In fact, when M. Venkaiah Naidu wanted yet another Rajya Sabha term, a justified uproar went up in Karnataka- so much so that this time M. Venkaiah Naidu was not given a nomination from Karnataka. This person lacks the power to get elected from his home state of Andhra Pradesh. His power and stature depends completely on the wishes of the Delhi headquarters of the BJP. Thus, after he took over, the BMRCL started getting Hindi imposition directives from the Union’s Urban development ministry. Such things are always best done by non-Hindi politicians without a significant native base. M. Venkaiah Naidu fits the bill perfectly. It is useful to remember that the Urban Development ministry has no such constitutional mandate to impose Hindi on BMRCL.

The whole notion that the Union government necessarily equals Hindi is imperialistic and chauvinistic and has no place in a federal democracy. The Union government is for all linguistic nationalities of the Indian Union.

This latest round of Hindi imposition in the Namme metro evoked unprecedented resistance from Kannada activists. This has now spread to large sections of Karnataka’s civil society as well as non-Kannada groups. It started out as a social media campaign with the hashtag #NammeMetroHindiBeda that trended all over India with many non-Kannadiga people joining in, who are similar victims of Hindi imposition in various ways. The protests took to the streets and demonstrations happened in front of the town hall. The Delhi media sat up and took notice – with it’s usual Delhi/North/Hindi bias in the narrative. The intensity of this movement has now isolated BJP in the Karnataka political scene. It is on the back-foot on this issue and has not successfully fought off the charge that is leveled against the party in most non-Hindi states that it is a Trojan horse for the expansion of a ‘cow belt’ type of Hindi/Hindu ideology. H. D. Deve Gowda’s JD(S) has come out strongly against Hindi in Namma Metro. Certain senior ministers of the Congress state government of Karnataka have also opposed Hindi in Namma Metro. Even Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has made a public statement about his resolve to oppose Hindi imposition by the Centre around the same time. Thus the protests are hardly ‘fringe’. They represent the Kannadiga mainstream. In the wake of rising protests, Hindi signs in some metro stations have been covered. This has been used by the wildly popular social media meme page Troll Haiku to mark this as the reliving of the feeling of independence for this present generation of Kannadigas, akin to 1947.

As #NammaMetroHindiBeda trended, Marathis started their own social media campaign with the hashtag #AapliMetroHindiNako that trended in Mumbai, Pune and in Bengaluru – thus marking a great example of disregarding their border dispute disagreement for a bigger cause. Thus, for some years now, the Hindi imposition issue has become much more than a Tamil issue as Delhi likes to portray it to minimize its relevance, reach and scope. Enthused by their success and aware of the need for unity and solidarity, Kannada groups are planning a conclave on the Hindi imposition issue and plan to invite stake holders from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

Equality and dignity are a pre-condition for unity. This issue goes beyond just Hindi sign-boards but to a tussle between the reality of a diverse, multi-lingual, multi-national federal democratic union and the homogenising ideology of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. It is not only an issue of language but also of state rights and federalism, of preserving identity in the face of obliteration and homogenisation.

That was the promise of decolonisation. It has been delivered to the Hindi belt, ironically using the funding of revenue-rich non-Hindi states. An unilateral approach is a model for division and not unity, as the ultimate result of Pakistan’s Urdu imposition was made apparent in 1971. The powers that will have to heed the signs and roll back all unpopular linguistic directives and initiatives in non-Hindi states – lest peace and unity be threatened.