Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Tamil movement: a global perspective

Recently, this post has been circulating on my Facebook feed, and while I’m on the same side of the fence as the guy who wrote it, I found his post a little hostile. For decades, Indians have been debating the national language issue, and there’s hyper linguistic fervor on both ends. I’ve tried to approach it from a nuanced perspective, but I’m not going to kid myself into believing this will silence all critics.

Chennai won’t speak Hindi. Not entirely true, but it’s truer than saying that of Bangalore or Hyderabad or Bombay. All three cities belong to states which use languages other than Hindi and English for official and government purposes. Are we fanatics for doing so? Not really, but to address this question, we need to look outside our own borders, because humans are capable of looking at other people’s problems more objectively than their own.

First, some facts: Hindi is not recognized by the Indian government as the national language of India. No language is. The official languages of India are Hindi and English, one of which have to be compulsorily used by all central government officials as well as Members of Parliament. States are allowed to add or remove any language of their choosing for state government work as well as in their Legislative Assemblies.

Language is an issue in every country whose citizens speak more than one language and/or are required to adopt global languages to improve their economy and standard of living. India’s linguistic issues are more volatile than many of these countries, but the problem itself is the same by definition: A more dominant language (by number of speakers or soft power) is required to be adopted by speakers of a less dominant language, and this causes disenchantment. Let’s take a look at some of these countries (note that my knowledge comes only from reading many many articles online, and I haven’t been to most of the countries below), but be warned, this will take a while.

U.K.: The country is composed of four states/nationalities, each of which has its own linguistic identity- England which speaks English, Scotland which speaks Scots and Scottish Gaelic apart from Scottish English, Wales which speaks Cymraeg (known to us as Welsh), and Northern Ireland which speaks Irish Gaelic. There are intense political movements for separatism in each of these regions, but they’ve only been able to put up a resistance against the government of England, and not the language of England. This is because English is far too dominant a language for anyone to resist, and so these regional languages have a low number of native speakers who can speak them fluently, and most people have switched to a standard regional form of English which borrows words from their respective languages. Not a desirable situation for the promotion of regional languages, but the political movements have received considerable success. All four regions are autonomous, and the U.K. is a weird combination of nation states. You’ll find separatist sentiments in each region but the linguistic identities of the regions are questionable.

Spain: There are at least six languages with roots in Spain, but only two apart from Spanish have considerable political backing- Catalan and Basque, so I’ll talk only about them here. Catalan is spoken in the Catalonia region of Spain, where the capital city is Barcelona, as well as the Catalonia region of France, where there isn’t much support for the movement. Catalonia in Spain, too, is an autonomous entity, and the Basque independence movement is clamoring for more autonomy as well. The difference between here and the U.K. is that these two regions have preserved the linguistic identities of their cities. The differences between these two regions are the means they used to achieve their ends and the degree to which they’ve been successful. The flag of Spain is routinely burned in Basque region, and they have a hostile attitude towards anyone from Spain or speaking the Spanish language, sort of like Kashmir in India I guess. On the other hand, you can be a Spanish speaking person in Barcelona and live a comfortable life. After various political movements, Catalan is an integral part of the local culture. You cannot be entirely assimilated as a citizen until you learn the language. Has this affected them adversely? Not really. Barcelona is a huge contributor to Spain’s economy, it has a high standard of living, and while the people are demanding a separate country, they don’t resort to violence in order to achieve their ends. They’ve also become a little more benign towards Spain. An indicator of this is that many of the players in the Spanish football team are from FC Barcelona. If you think that’s a laughable indicator, look at how important cricket is to India’s culture. Football is the same thing in Spain. If the region proudly sends its citizens to wear the country’s colors, they’re assimilating at least to some extent. Scotland and Wales both have their own Olympic teams, so that tells you something as well. Also, go read up about the contributions of this football club towards Catalan culture. It’s a huge part of the Barcelona and Catalan identity.

Switzerland: It’s when I look at the Swiss that I get really riled up about the mess in India. The majority of the populace speaks French, German, and Italian. All three languages have equal official status in the central government, and the states are mostly divided on the basis of language. There is near zero friction, and most people are multi-lingual. Each region has its own linguistic identity, and the local governments are free to govern themselves using ONLY the regional language or additional nationally recognized official languages IF THEY WANT TO. In parliament, a member representing a region is allowed to talk in any one of these three languages, and no bones are made about it. If you’re a tourist in Switzerland, English works just fine. If you move to Zurich on a permanent basis though, you will be expected to learn German if you want to assimilate, but you can get by without French or Italian. If you move to Geneva, the same can be said about French.

Here’s what will surprise you about Switzerland. The number of native speakers of German is 64%. Contrast that with 39% for Hindi in India, and you begin to wonder why the huge amount of push to make it a national language was necessary. Switzerland is one of the most peaceful countries in the world because of their neutrality, but it doesn’t have any internal issues either, because despite its linguistic diversity, the members of the major linguistic community did not force their language on everyone else.

Oil rich Arab nations in the Gulf: These countries don’t have much linguistic diversity, but they have huge numbers of expatriates who stay there for a few years and leave, making it impossible for the country to function with Arabic alone. For a majority of these countries, Arabic is the sole official language for governmental work, and that’s fine because that’s the only language their citizens speak. However, if you’re an Arab living in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, it’s impossible for you to get around with only Arabic. Literally everyone in the service industry is an expat who doesn’t speak Arabic. If an Arab goes to a shopping mall or grocery store in his own country, he’ll probably need English to communicate. If he takes a taxi, chances are the taxi driver comes from Pakistan and he might even have to know a little Urdu. There isn’t a political movement behind this as far as I know, but most Arabs are very pissed off that they need to know a foreign language to survive in their own country.

If you’re a middle-class Indian, chances are you have a friend or relative who’s lived in the Gulf for decades and yet can’t speak any Arabic. Contrast that with an Indian who moves to France or Germany to complete his Master’s degree, and you’ll find he speaks at least broken French or German within a year, despite the fact that his course is in English, and the fact that the French and Germans speak excellent English. This is what the soft power of a language is. It doesn’t threaten you, but it makes you feel left out of society at large if you don’t speak it. What you see in The Gulf and Western Europe are completely natural human tendencies. You don’t do something unless you want/have to.

Hindi’s soft power is much greater than Tamil’s, and yet you won’t find it spoken much in Tamil Nadu. This is because while its soft power in Uttar Pradesh is much greater than Tamil’s in Tamil Nadu, Hindi’s soft power doesn’t extend into Tamil Nadu. When people tried in the past to force us to speak Hindi, that wasn’t soft power. That was a harsh move which would’ve resulted in increased soft power in the future. We didn’t let them extend that soft power into the state, because that would’ve reduced the soft power of Tamil. Allow me to explain how. Today, just like western Europe, we’ve made ourselves a society where you can be a tourist and survive with languages spoken in other states and countries, but if you want to live a full life and be regarded a “local” of the land, you need to know the local language. That wouldn’t be the case if everyone spoke Hindi. The debate that goes on is whether such a society is good for the nation at large and the region in particular.

Israel: This is a relatively young country, and their culture and language was developed artificially rather than organically. In 1948, Jews from across the world moved to Israel after the holocaust. A large number spoke Arabic and Yiddish, but many also spoke Russian, French, German, Polish, and English. Since it was a country formed on the basis of religion, they decided to take their religious language, Hebrew (their equivalent of Sanskrit), and make it their native and official language. There was a political movement where the government told the people to stop speaking their native languages and switch over to Hebrew, raise their children solely on Hebrew, and use it for all official work, private or government. The movement was very successful, and a language which had near zero native speakers now has over seven million native speakers in less than 70 years. They went as far as to invent words for complex modern concepts like radar, electrostatics and fluid dynamics and added it to this ancient language. Now Israelis can study university level science and technology in their native tongues.

However, here’s why it wasn’t entirely a good idea, and why it won’t work in India. There are a huge number of native speakers of Arabic in Palestine, and many of them have taken up Israeli citizenship (20% of the country’s total population) and some are members of parliament. They don’t share the same religious sentiments towards Hebrew, so both Arabic and Hebrew are recognized as official languages which can be used in parliament and government, even though Hebrew is the more dominant language in the region. Also, the present day leaders have realized the importance of diversity, so they’ve taken a u-turn and are telling citizens to speak their native tongues at home and use Hebrew in social interactions.

For those of you toying with the idea of making Sanskrit our national language and starting a movement to Sanskritize the nation so our culture is preserved, stop. Israel and India stand for two completely different things. Our country wasn’t formed on the basis of religion. It wasn’t formed on the basis of caste, language, ethnicity or ideology either. It’s a giant piece of land which over a billion human beings call their home, and that’s all we have in common with each other. No uniform rule will work in the entire country, so we might as well go with the diversity preservation option which we pay lip service to and Switzerland successfully implemented.

After this mini tour of the world, what do we see in common among all the differences and chaos? People aren’t content with hearing their language spoken ONLY at home. They want to be able to speak it on the streets, in the shopping mall and restaurants, in their kids’ playgrounds and parks, in schools and colleges, gossip at the office water cooler and strike up a casual conversation with a fellow traveler in a train or bus. They want magazines, newspapers, TV shows and movies, music and literature which can be consumed in their own language. If it didn’t affect their fortunes, they would even read and write research papers and conduct official transactions in that language. Most of all, they want their cities, towns, and villages to be associated with that language. There are different methods people in various parts of the world used to achieve it, and the Tamil way was to keep Hindi as an option, and not a compulsion.

The lesson to be learnt is, if you push a language on another linguistic group, expect them to push back. And push back we did. Now, let’s address the cause and effects of many of the problems people say originate because of this attitude of Tamilians.

1) Chennai makes me feel unwelcome because no one speaks Hindi

There’s a problem with your attitude, not ours. You can very easily survive in Chennai without speaking Tamil, and I have friends who’ve lived here for decades without speaking a word of Tamil. The only trouble they face is that they’re never truly regarded as belonging to Chennai despite living here all their lives, because they don’t speak the language, and they complain about that no end. If you belong to that category, here’s some news for you: the ultimate test of whether or not you belong to any city in India is how well you speak the lingo. People try to prove they’re Mumbaikars by speaking the tapori Hindi of Bombay, and they show-off their Delhi-ness by speaking the Punjabified Hindi of the capital. They show they’re Hyderabadi by speaking Deccani Hindi, and they prove they’re Bangaloreans by inserting a few words like chumma and da while speaking English/Hindi, and some Kannada swear words.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Madras Tamil. If you claim to be from Chennai, we will test your knowledge of this dialect mercilessly to see if you’re really one of our own. It’s got borrowed words from Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and Urdu, and has grown completely organically. Chennai isn’t unique in having its own lingo as a metric to measure how “born and raised” you are. We just use the indigenous language instead of borrowing another language, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

In addition, I maintain that Madras Tamil, a dialect we’ve grown to love, developed to the extent it has now mainly because the city doesn’t speak much Hindi. If we had made Hindi compulsory, the same thing which happened in Bangalore and Hyderabad would’ve probably happened in Chennai too, and the lingo would’ve been a southern version of Hindi with a few borrowed words from Tamil. That’s not good enough for us.

2) If you’re not a Tamilian by birth, you aren’t treated as an equal because they’re linguistic fanatics

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. If there’s one thing I can absolutely vouch for about Chennai, it’s that they don’t care where you’ve come from as long as you make an effort to assimilate. The Marwaris of Sowcarpet, the Sardars who own auto spare part shops in Pudupet, and the Gujarati businessmen who own clothing and jewellery stores are an integral part of Chennai, and are considered true blue citizens, even if we address them as “Seth-u” or “Singh-u”. We also call Tamil Muslims “Bai” even though they’re Tamilians, so it’s not a mark of disrespect or xenophobia. It’s just a community identity, which sadly everyone has in India.

It’s also amazing when you see a Sardar speaking Tamil fluently, and they’re one of us as soon as they start learning Tamil. Those who’ve been around for a couple of generations marry into their own community like everyone else in India, but they prefer other members of their community who were born and raised in Chennai, because they’ve become Tamilized to some extent and aren’t comfortable marrying someone from the other end of the country. Most of them love Chennai and consider it their permanent home rather than a stopgap, and they’re able to do so because they speak Tamil fluently.

That was Chennai, now if you look at the rest of Tamil Nadu, you also have members of linguistic groups living in the towns and villages since god-knows-when. Cuddalore Telugus, Coimbatore Malayalis, Tanjore Marathis, and Madurai Saurashtrians have been around since before living memory, and while they continue to speak their native tongues with family, they don’t expect us to bend to their will and speak their language. You won’t find any difference between their Tamil and the Tamil spoken by a Tamilian living in their city. Walk into their houses and you’ll find Tamil newspapers and magazines on the coffee table, and Tamil serials running on their TVs. Their kids even study Tamil as a second language in school. Ask one of them innocently, “Are you from (insert state)?”, and the indignant reply will be “No! I’m from (insert city in Tamil Nadu).” Now THAT is assimilation.

If you still need any more proof, you can look up our political big-wigs and actors. MGR was a Malayali who migrated to Tamil Nadu to become an actor, and he served as our Chief Minister for ten years! In present day, Vijayakanth is a politician who comes from a Telugu speaking family in Madurai, and he heads the third largest party in Tamil Nadu which has created huge waves in the political sphere. Jayalalithaa, the present CM, is from a Tamil Family but she was born in Mysore and raised in Bangalore before she moved to Tamil Nadu. Need I even mention Rajnikanth?

So we don’t just make you one of us; we’ll actually let you rule over us and decide our futures if you learn our language and become one with the local population. If that’s not good enough for you, nothing ever will be.

3) Auto drivers cheat you in Chennai if you don’t know Tamil

We apologize for our auto drivers. No one should be made to go through that, and we will not defend them for even a second. However, their Tamil identity is not the reason they cheat you; they’re just crooks in general. We’re not much better off with them just because we know Tamil. A hapless soul from Trichy can get off a train in Egmore station and climb on to an auto without asking for the going price, and that itself is a sure fire way to get cheated. In addition, if he says Anna, naan oorukku pudhusu” (brother, I’m new to the city) in perfectly good Tamil, he’s not going to receive any brotherly love from the auto driver. He’s going to be taken for a spin around the city and charged four times the regular price, just like you.

The only way out of being cheated is asking someone who knows the going rate for that distance, and drive a hard bargain before you get into the vehicle. There are people I know who don’t speak any Tamil but know their way around Chennai, and they manage to avoid getting cheated.

Any reform attempted by the government against the autos fails, and Chennai’s autos will continue to be horrible in the foreseeable future. If you’re planning on moving to Chennai and want a fast means of transport without getting into crowded buses, I would seriously suggest getting your own scooter or bike. It’s the best investment you’ll make when you’re around.

4) I work in the service industry in Tamil Nadu and I’m being forced to learn Tamil

First of all, no one is forcing you. It’s just a necessity for you because it’s your duty to make your customers happy. Secondly, Good for you. You’re learning a new language, and your assimilation process just sped up 10x. You’ll also make more money, and I’m sure you’re not complaining about that. We’ve grown the soft power of Tamil within our region and we’re proud of it.

A Tamilian at home happily speaks Tamil, and he’ll learn English and Hindi if he wants to or needs to. If he moves to any other state, he doesn’t expect Tamil to be spoken there, and he surrenders completely to the local culture. On the other hand, a Kannadiga in Bangalore, a Maharashtrian in Mumbai, or a Telugu in Hyderabad just can’t survive knowing only his native tongue. He’ll keep finding himself in situations where he needs Hindi, and he’s as pissed off as the Arabs in Dubai. When I studied engineering in Karnataka, I learnt Kannada purely out of an academic interest. Otherwise, I could live a perfectly comfortable life knowing Hindi and English. In Chennai though, I can walk up to a U.P. or Bihari employee at Adyar Ananda Bhavan (a fast food chain in Tamil Nadu) and place an order for pani puri in Hindi, and he’ll reply in Tamil, because he knows he needs to learn the language. North-Eastern Indians can be found in huge numbers in Tamil Nadu, and many of them pick up Tamil within a year or two.

5) Tamilians are anti-national

No, you’re a hyper-nationalist who thinks being Indian means speaking Hindi, and that was the exact reason for the anti-Hindi movement in the first place. In 1946, R.V. Dhulekar, who later became a Member of Parliament representing Jhansi in U.P., declared in the Indian Constituent Assembly (drafting board of the constitution): “People who do not know Hindustani have no right to stay in India. People who are present in the House to fashion a constitution for India and do not know Hindustani are not worthy to be members of this assembly. They had better leave.” Statements of this sort were what elicited strong reactions from Tamil Nadu and its leaders, and could’ve avoided a lot of trouble for all of us.

We are a very patriotic people, and we are 100% Indian, but we will not let anyone hold us hostage to calling ourselves Indian only if we learn another language. If you don’t consider us Indian, you’re the separationist, not us. We hoist the flag high and sing the national anthem proudly, even though it’s in Bengali. Talk to your friends who are in the armed forces and you’ll find that we have significant representation in the Indian Navy. Politicians in Maharashtra and Karnataka both have a history of beating up and abusing migrant laborers or other immigrants from neighboring states for “taking away their jobs”. We don’t do that and hopefully never will, because we’re secure knowing that Tamil lives strong.

6) India has 22 recognized languages. How will we communicate without a common language?

We are aware of that issue. We’re a small region and our economy isn’t self-sufficient. That is exactly why we’ve accepted English to a large extent (the difference being WE chose English whereas Hindi was chosen for us by someone else). You can go to small towns in Tamil Nadu and get by with very little difficulty if you know English. The only people who find it impossible to navigate the state are the ones who know neither English nor Tamil. They tend to be from states which are in the hinterland of central India where there isn’t much penetration of English and the attitude is that everyone should speak Hindi. I’ll be ok because I can speak Hindi, but someone who knows only English and Tamil will not be able to navigate Gwalior, Allahabad or Patna. The onus is on the citizens of these parts to learn English, not because it’s their duty to help us (we’ll manage) or because they’ll need to come to Tamil Nadu at some point (they may not), but because they need it for themselves if they want to live a fuller life in today’s technology oriented world. No one can stop the force that English is right now.

7) But what is your problem with Hindi?

Nothing at all, as long as it isn’t forced upon us. I can speak for myself and many of my friends when I say that we know just how beautiful a language Hindustani is, and how much it has contributed to art in India. Apart from Hindi, there are three regional languages in India which are also known for their literature and poetry: Malayalam, Bengali, and Tamil. They are also found in the three states of India where you’ll find lesser Hindi, to varying degrees, compared to other states. Bengalis are a very intellectual crowd, and are not opposed to Hindi, but their language is very rich in literature, so there’s a “pull” factor for them to learn it. Life isn’t difficult in West Bengal without Bengali, but it makes things a lot easier if you know it. Malayalis also have a history of prolific writers, and they write powerful philosophical tomes in their native tongues. It’s more difficult for them to learn Hindi compared to Bengalis. They didn’t have any political movements against it, but it’s still very difficult to get by in Kerala without knowing either Malayalam or English. Tamil is one of the oldest surviving languages in the country, and it has a body of work that rivals Greek and Latin. I’ve already explained in detail about the state of Hindi in Tamil Nadu. Despite being so rich in heritage, not many people who aren’t native speakers try to learn any of the three because they are regional languages. The only thing we can do is try and make the migrant population at home speak our language by whatever ethical and legal means possible, and all three regions have achieved considerable success with the same.

So you may ask, why can’t we be like Malayalis or Bengalis? They’ve promoted their languages without opposing Hindi. My answer is a question: how many Indians look at Kerala or West Bengal as viable destinations to immigrate to? They have a history of governments which opposed industry and development, and large numbers of their own populace have left home for greener pastures because they couldn’t find jobs. Their languages continue to be a large part of their cities’ identities because there aren’t too many Indians from other states living there. Tamil Nadu is unique that way. We have very strong manufacturing, IT, and service industries despite the fact that Hindi isn’t spoken here, and the same model can be implemented elsewhere if they try. If you graduated from a decent engineering college in India with quality campus placements, chances are at least a few of your friends were posted to Chennai/Tamil Nadu, which shows how many jobs are available and continue to be created here.

In short, we succeeded where the Welsh, Scots, Irish, Arabs, Kannadigas, Telugus and Maharashtrians have all failed, and we avoided the side effects which the Basque, Malayalis and Bengalis are suffering. You can’t expect us to apologize for being successful, and we won’t. The only other place in the world which has achieved this more successfully is Catalonia in Spain, and even they did it only by threatening to form a new country. Chennai is no Barcelona, but that’s only because India is no Spain. The reason we succeeded was because we faced the problem head-on before it got out of hand. Political parties in Maharashtra and Karnataka resort to violence against immigrants to achieve the same end, and fail. These parties only lose the vote of their own linguistic groups and get a tarnished image with the media because while the people want to promote their language, they don’t condone violence. In any case, violence doesn’t get the language to be spoken more often in their cities. Tamil Nadu’s power-houses tackled the problem at the centre as well as the state, and formed a strong opposition to the national language brigade which said Hindi alone should be used as an official language in India, and rightly so. Our leaders are the main reason why you still have the option of carrying out government work in English instead of Hindi, and I’m sure many of you agree that’s for the best. Imagine the nightmare of filling out a driving license form or bank document in Hindi.

So move to Chennai, and we’ll welcome you with open arms*.

*subject to terms and conditions.


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