[lg policy] Debate: Why Gandhi and Jinnah's Views on Language Politics Cannot Be Compared

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Nov 2 11:22:54 EDT 2018


Debate: Why Gandhi and Jinnah's Views on Language Politics Cannot Be
Compared

Ramachandra Guha evaluates the approaches of Gandhi and Jinnah to the
language problem and predictably finds Gandhi to have been oh-so-superior
to the leader of Pakistan. But the comparison itself involves a confusion
of categories.
[image: Debate: Why Gandhi and Jinnah's Views on Language Politics Cannot
Be Compared]

Muhammad Ali Jinnah and M.K. Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
[image: M. Madhava Prasad]
M. Madhava Prasad <https://thewire.in/author/m-madhav-prasad>
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The letter to the editor of *The Statesman* (August 12, 1947) by M.S. Ali
of Dum Dum, Kolkata, discovered by Ramachandra Guha and discussed in his
article for *The Wire
<https://thewire.in/culture/language-politics-in-jinnahs-pakistan-has-parallels-in-modis-india>
*is
indeed a remarkable find. It shows that there were ordinary members of the
public in the sub-continent who had thought more deeply about the vexed
question of language faced by the two countries about to be born than the
leaders of the parties that had led them to independence. Limiting himself
to the Pakistan side of the problem, Ali proposes in the most economical
terms, a plan that nevertheless attends to every pertinent aspect of the
problem.

Surprisingly, having lavished praise on Ali’s efforts, Guha does not
proceed to examine the suitability of this proposal for resolving India’s
language problem, as one might have expected. Instead, he switches to a
comparative evaluation of the respective approaches of M.K. Gandhi and
Muhammad Ali Jinnah to the problem, predictably finding Gandhi to have been
oh-so-superior to the leader of Pakistan.

Also Read: Language Politics in Jinnah’s Pakistan Has Parallels in Modi’s
India
<https://thewire.in/culture/language-politics-in-jinnahs-pakistan-has-parallels-in-modis-india>

One might say that this comparison itself involves a confusion of
categories, insofar as Jinnah was for Pakistan both spiritual leader and
lawgiver, whereas Gandhi’s spiritual leadership of Indian politics had to
be supplemented by the law-making efforts of others like Jawaharlal Nehru.
Thus a gap arises between Gandhi’s views and the actual policy decisions of
the Nehruvian state, which renders any comparison of Jinnah and Gandhi an
exercise in futility. What corresponds on the Indian side to Jinnah’s views
and decisions is the effective policy decisions of the Nehru government,
not the thoughts of Gandhi.
But even if we agree to compare Jinnah and Gandhi on the language question,
surely Gandhi’s views were not as unambiguously or consistently on the
right side as Guha makes them out to be.

When this comparison is made, it is clear that the approaches of the two
‘central’ leaderships of the respective national movements were nearly
identical in nature. Both are entirely lacking in the sagacity of Ali’s
carefully thought out plan. Both are ‘high command’ decisions imposed on
masses of people who, lacking political existence, were in no position to
resist these impositions. One difference is perhaps that while Jinnah
proclaimed his unilateral decision in imperious non-negotiable terms – as
is evident from Guha’s quotations from his speech, the Indian leadership
adopted evasive tactics bordering on subterfuge.

It suffices to read the writings of M.P. Desai, a Gandhian, to realise that
decisions with regard to language policy, even the one favoured by Gandhi,
were subject to counter-revolutionary pressures from the colonial
bourgeoisie (whose privileges would vanish without the perpetuation of
English in precisely the way that Ali warns against). The men who held the
reins of power were susceptible to the appeals and threats of this class,
even at the cost of subverting from within, the proclaimed democratic
republic. That Hindi at once is and is not the ‘national language’ of India
is also a result of the supplementation of policies with informal practical
arrangements.
[image: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit with Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. A cropped
version of this iconic photograph showing only the two leaders became very
popular shortly after independence. Courtesy: Manjari Mehta/CWDS]

Gandhi’s spiritual leadership of Indian politics had to be supplemented by
the law-making efforts of others like Jawaharlal Nehru. Courtesy: Manjari
Mehta/CWDS

But even if we agree to compare Jinnah and Gandhi on the language question,
surely Gandhi’s views were not as unambiguously or consistently on the
right side as Guha makes them out to be. To be sure, from his time in South
Africa, where he had the opportunity to compare the Boers’ language pride
with the absence of any such sentiment among the Indians he worked with,
Gandhi took a keen interest in matters of language.

He found time to explore issues which might have appeared to others as
trivial but in which he found a greater significance. For instance, he was
quite puzzled and annoyed by the fact that the word Mahasabha, which had
been in usage in the modern vernaculars to refer to the Congress, had come
to be used exclusively to refer to the Hindu Mahasabha, while the Congress
now came to be referred to only by its English name.

He took the modern position on language in education, refusing to leave the
matter to be decided by professors who were inclined to ditch the
vernaculars and use only English.

But like Jinnah who chose Urdu, Gandhi also insisted that Hindi must be the
national language. The reason being that it had to be an indigenous
language in order to reflect the autonomy and the freedom achieved. He
preferred to call it Hindustani and saw it as preserving its hybrid
character as well as transcending it. He subscribed to fantastical ideas
which smacked of a dissimulative sentimentalism and were symptomatic of a
gap between professed ideas and harboured feelings.

Also Read: Making Sense of Tamil Nadu’s Anti-Hindi Protests
<https://thewire.in/politics/tamil-nadu-anti-hindi-protests>

What was said on trips to the Madras presidency did not always agree with
what was said in exchanges with those who funded his Hindi propagation
efforts. For example, he appealed to the people of the north to learn a
south Indian language, thus reciprocating the south’s acceptance of Hindi
as national language. A distinguished educationist once described this as a
case of making children bear the costs of the problems created by adults.
The people of the north wisely ignored this melodramatic appeal. He also
seemed to think that great feats of linguistic engineering were possible,
such as transforming Hindi into a truly national language by adding to it
words taken from all the languages of the country!

Ali’s views are entirely different from either Gandhi’s or Jinnah’s, or for
that matter Nehru’s. What distinguishes his remarks is his perception that
the space that all these leaders refer to as ‘national’ is, or ought to be
perceived as, the space of meta-management of the affairs of a federation.
Gandhi would insist on his southern sojourns that Hindi would only be a
link language. But he does not seem to have asked himself why, in that
case, it has to be an indigenous language. Why not English?

If the national leaderships of the two countries had faced up to the
reality that English was a colonial legacy that could not be easily
dislodged from its important position in every aspect of life in India,
they could have devised a policy that takes this into consideration and
makes a provision for its use which is of a universal character, in keeping
with democratic state-form: in other words, education in the people’s
languages and universal provision for the teaching of English to all from a
certain age.

Gandhi appealed to the people of the north to learn a south Indian
language, thus reciprocating the south’s acceptance of Hindi as national
language. Credit: Pixabay

The clashing ideas of federalism and Indian nationalism blocked access to
this simple idea, which Ali has adumbrated so clearly. Though he begins
with the idea of boards of language specialists at all levels to deal with
inter-state and state-Centre relations, he realises that it may not be easy
to implement and suggests the alternative of using English for such
purposes. The important thing is that the kind of use of English he has in
mind would not contribute to the perpetuation of social privileges of the
kind enjoyed by the Anglophone colonial bourgeoisie, nor feed into the
implicit inferiorisation of people’s languages, both of which have come to
pass because English was allowed to stay on as official language primarily
to protect the interests of a privileged class than with a genuinely
universalist intent.

Also Read: The Economic Basis of Assam’s Linguistic Politics and
Anti-Immigrant Movements
<https://thewire.in/politics/the-economic-basis-of-assams-linguistic-politics-and-anti-immigrant-movements>

Sometimes the true meaning of an event is better grasped by attending to
its consequences rather than by searching for its origins. The true meaning
of the dual official language (English and Hindi) policy of the Centre
reveals itself in the non-Hindi speaking regions of the country: one
language for the masters and one for the servants. This has been the
intention all along. This is the Congress formula.

The BJP, on the other hand, wants to Sanskritise the vernaculars and bring
them closer to the Sanskritised Hindi that their leaders and cadres speak,
and most likely a long-term plan for the gradual reabsorption of the
vernaculars into Sanskrit-Hindi. They are building on a foundation already
laid by the Congress leaders of the past, rather than introducing anything
new. The damage done to democratic aspirations by the current crisis has
its roots in the choices made at the time of assuming charge of a colonial
legacy.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that in a way, Ali saw this coming.
In the details of his proposal, so different from anything Gandhi ever
said, lies the answer to our current predicament.

*M. Madhava Prasad is a professor at the department of cultural studies,
English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.*

-- 
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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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