Language politics are, as a general rule, messy. When Jawaharlal Nehru became the Prime Minister of newly independent India, one of the crises he weathered was rioting that forced his government to redraw the map of some southern Indian states along linguistic lines. Although it is largely forgotten today, the decision to change the boundaries was one that Nehru deeply regretted because he thought it elevated regional differences at the expense of the unity of the Indian nation.
Nehru’s concerns about the capacity inherent in language for dividing people still ring true. In a roundabout way, an account of divisive language politics in Mumbai recently made it into the Western media.
Mumbai, whose very name embodies the politicization of language (it was known as Bombay until 1995), is a place where Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and English are all spoken. There is, however, simmering tension as right-wing political parties exploit perceived slights against Marathi speakers to advance their program of asserting the cultural superiority of Hindu, Marathi-speaking Maharashtrians. (Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra state.)
Over the past year, there has been street violence in Mumbai as cadres of the right-wing Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) party have been trashing shops owned by people originally from northern states like Uttar Pradesh. But now these thugs have a pretext for their campaign of intimidation: store signboards in languages other than Marathi.
The leader of the MNS, Raj Thackeray (nephew of Bal Thackeray, the chief of the Shiv Sena, the right-wing party from which the MNS split off two years ago), gave shopkeepers a deadline of August 28 to put up Marathi signs... or else.
However, the Bombay High Court ruled in 2001 that it was discriminatory and therefore illegal to require shop owners to have signs with only Marathi text or to have the Marathi lettering be larger than text in other languages. When the violence committed by the MNS against shopkeepers was recently examined in court, the court declared that the MNS could not enforce its diktat, but nonetheless Thackeray has stood by his deadline and denies reports that he was willing to give shopkeepers three more months to comply.
This kind of local thuggery, pervasive as it appears to be in Mumbai, is not ordinarily something the Western media would report except that the language issue spilled into the star-studded world of Bollywood. Jaya Bachchan, the wife of star Amitabh Bachchan, made a remark about Hindi and the BBC, The Guardian, AFP and The Independent (UK) covered the ensuing furor.
Mr. Bachchan’s film premiere was cancelled because of what the BBC calls “security fears for guests” stemming from Raj Thackeray’s condemnation of Mrs. Bachchan’s comments.
According to The Hindu, Mrs. Bachchan’s comments, made at a promotion for the film "Drona," were apparently: “Hum U.P. ke log hai, hume Hindi mein baat karni chahiye” (We are people from Uttar Pradesh [a state in the so-called ‘Hindi belt’] so we should speak in Hindi). It is difficult to see the malice in that.
However, it is very easy to see how it fits into Raj Thackeray’s attempts to stir up antagonism against “outsiders.” In an interview with The Economic Times he explains (not very cogently in my view) why such action is warranted:
"Though every Indian citizen has the right to movement, the Constitution also says the movement and source of livelihood should not cause nuisance to natives. And is it commitment constitutionalism to break several other laws to exercise one Fundamental Right? South superstar Rajnikant is actually Shivajirao Gaikwad. Do you think his fans in the southern states will pay for his films, if he starts flaunting his Maharashtrian identity there?
"If a superstar like Amitabh Bachchan can be proud of his region, what’s wrong if I call upon everybody to protect my sense of pride and dignity as a Maharashtrian? The non-performance of one state should not become the handicap of the other."
Bal Thackeray (Raj Thackeray’s uncle and the grandee of right-wing politics in Mumbai) has now launched a similar attack on Shah Rukh Khan, another famous actor from northern India. He repeats his nephew’s logic that the Marathi language is somehow threatened by the machinations of evil Hindi-speaking outsiders, who are content to make money in Maharashtra but remain loyal to their home states:
"Shah Rukh says he is a Dilliwala. If you are from Delhi, then why have you come to Maharashtra," Sena Chief Bal Thackeray said in an editorial in party mouthpiece Saamana on Tuesday.
"You come to Maharashtra to earn fame and wealth but once you have had your fill, then you will evoke the name of the region from where you came from. And Marathi people are expected not to utter a word in their own state," the Sena mouthpiece said.
Indeed, Bal Thackeray’s new war of words directed at northern Indians has fractured his own Shiv Sena party on the national level: northern Indian leaders in the party have resigned in protest and are forming their own party.
Obviously, issues of language and culture are very complex so this can only be a rough sketch of the situation. Still, it interests me that the best coverage of the issue in the Western media has been in entertainment news. I also hope that at some point on SAJAforum we can think more deeply about language and the media in India: how is the news reported differently in English or in Hindi or in one of India’s other languages? It’s worth noting that the MNS was originally unsatisfied with Jaya Bachchan’s apology because it was first made in an English-language tabloid, rather than in a vernacular outlet.