One country, one script: Writing all Indian languages in Devanagari script is yet another push for Hindi imposition

One country, one script: Writing all Indian languages in Devanagari script is yet another push for Hindi imposition

The suggestion in the Rajya Sabha might be toothless, but it’s just one more attempt to recast other languages as subservient to Hindi.

By Karthik Malli

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In a Rajya Sabha session on March 13, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Shiv Pratap Shukla put forth a proposal during Zero Hour for all 22 Scheduled Indian Languages to be written in the Devanagari script, the script used for Hindi. This move, Shukla argued, would broaden the reach of these languages, making them more accessible since, as he claimed, “Hindi is spoken and understood in every corner of India”.

His statement caused uproar in the House, with Tamil Nadu MP Vaiko among those raising objections.

Devanagari imposition

Make no mistake. Expecting speakers of all Indian languages to use the Devanagari script would essentially be Devanagari imposition, akin to the Centre’s already well documented policies of Hindi imposition.

Even assuming that Shukla’s suggestion was made in good faith, there is no justifiable reason for the onus of understanding these languages to fall on the speakers themselves.

Nor would changing the script these languages are written in be of any substantial help to people literate in Devanagari — Tamil or Kannada written in Devanagari would still be utterly unintelligible to a Hindi speaker, and sounds like the “zh” sound in Malayalam would still require active effort to learn.

Apart from that, of course, is the obvious fact that vocabulary and grammar would still need to actively be acquired, with listening and speaking skills developed in tandem.

After all, it’s not like English speakers magically understand Vietnamese or Somali because they’re written in the Latin script too. Script wouldn’t help beyond being able to recognise place names.

Existing tensions

It’s important to note that Shukla’s suggestion was merely that: a suggestion. His membership in India’s governing party notwithstanding, proposals during the Rajya Sabha’s Zero Hour session carry no legal standing. The proposal, while audacious, was toothless and not cause for immediate concern.

That being said, the suggestion did highlight existing tensions — it was not made in a vacuum, and must be seen in the context of the current government’s renewed push for Hindi imposition.

Although not as vile as direct Hindi imposition, where languages are pushed out of the public sphere by Hindi, this is essentially driven by the same forces: a desire to homogenise India's cultural diversity using a Delhi-centric model.

Needless to say, this runs contrary to the very essence of federalism, and would be a direct attack on the safeguards in place — insufficient and superficial as they are — for Indian linguistic diversity.

Script and identity in India

Indian scripts are not merely vehicles for writing; they are charged with identity, virtual representatives of languages themselves, given their immediate visibility.

In fact, so intimately tied are script and identity that many Indians believe having a unique script is a prerequisite for a language to have its own linguistic identity, an idea that has percolated into mainstream language discourse from the early days of linguistic nationalism.

Many languages were written in multiple scripts pre-Independence; this was not seen as inherently contradictory, since different scripts were used for different contexts and situations.

Marathi and Gujarati, the chief languages of Bombay Presidency, used Devanagari and its local freehand variants, Moḍī and Mahājanī, respectively, side by side. After Independence, Marathi phased out Moḍī, while Gujarati chose Mahājanī (what we now call the Gujarati script) over Devanagari.

In our own times, many activists seeking recognition and promotion for Tulu, spoken primarily in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts, have also promoted the medieval era Tulu script side by side with the language itself, although Tulu is mostly written in the Kannada script.

Devanagari imposition would subsume these other scripts under it, with obvious implications for regional identities.

The foundation of the Hindi imposition project has been identifying India with one sole language at the expense of others. Expecting all Indian languages to be written in a script primarily associated with Hindi is to recast them as subservient to Hindi’s role in India, one highlighted by writing.

One country, one script?

None of these suggestions manage to answer a simple question, however. If it’s not broken, why fix it?

Outside certain miniscule, primarily Anglophone circles, Indians do not have trouble reading Indian scripts; in fact, more people can read Indian scripts than ever before, thanks to massive strides in literacy since Independence (only 18 percent of India was literate in 1951).

It’s true that having a single script across the country’s length and breadth would be useful for a host of reasons, but this is an extremely utilitarian position to have — one that would require a level of objectivity that is frankly unfeasible in a country where cultural identities are so important.

These reasons also have to do more with efficient centralisation, and ignore various regional identities and histories.

Unless necessitated by other considerations, any attempt to replace Indian scripts with a unified script, whether Devanagari or otherwise neutral Latin, would be tantamount to brazen cultural erasure.

We’ve already seen how closely script and linguistic identity are linked in India, and it would be exceedingly naive, if not outright insensitive, to ignore this cultural reality.

Lessons from Pakistan

If the central government were to go ahead with Devanagari imposition, they would be taking a leaf out of Pakistan’s book, ironically enough.

After Partition, Pakistan’s geographical divide also corresponded to a linguistic one: West Pakistan’s languages, and Urdu, Pakistan’s sole official language, used the Perso Arabic script, while Bengali speaking East Pakistan used the Eastern Nagari script.

Pakistan’s official language policy was more strident in granting privilege to Urdu, but it didn’t end there. In 1949, the Pakistani government “strongly recommended the Arabic script as the only script for all Pakistani languages”.

Sounds familiar?

In fact, the Pakistani government returned again and again to its desire to force the Perso Arabic script on East Pakistan over the following decades, mingling with existing linguistic tensions to provoke sharp reactions and widespread protests from Bengalis, even mass hartals across East Pakistan.

Auxiliary Romanisation

That being said, a strong case could be made for bridging the gap between Indic scripts, but without threatening their independence, so to speak.

A romanisation scheme used as an auxiliary script, and not with an intent to displace Indic scripts could actually prove usual.

Mainland China, for example, uses pinyin, a romanisation standard used for Standard Mandarin. Its most salient feature is how fixed rules dictate the mapping of Latin letters and combinations thereof to sounds in Mandarin, taking unpredictability out of the equation. Mandarin and other Chinese languages are tonal, meaning that each syllable is further distinguished by its pitch; all four Mandarin tones, as essential to the language as vowels, are represented in pinyin as well.

The end result being that if you know the sound rules of pinyin, you will be able to accurately pronounce any given text sample written in pinyin.

School students in Mainland China are taught Chinese characters using pinyin, and pinyin is also widely used to interface with digital devices and allow users to type in Chinese characters.

It’s easy to see how a unified romanisation standard would be useful in an Indian context for very similar purposes. One to one mapping using special characters would make this a lot easier, like using t for the “soft” t sound, like in the name Tara, and ṭ (t with a dot underneath) for the “hard” t sound, like in Indian English “time” to disambiguate two distinct sounds that would otherwise be represented with the same letter.

Such romanisation systems are already adhered to in much of academia, chiefly in the form of the IAST and ISO 15919 standards. If widely taught and implemented, standardised Indic romanisation could help Indians interact with digital devices more smoothly, something that localisation experts are already attempting to tackle.

To reiterate, this would need to be a standard with fixed rules and minimal ambiguity, a far cry from the current mess of ad hoc romanization that currently finds its way online.

The threat of Hindi imposition

Shukla’s suggestion in the Rajya Sabha might not have carried any real weight, but the threat of Hindi imposition constantly looms behind a sometimes innocuous facade. The central government’s obstinacy in pushing Hindi on non-Hindi speaking communities does not exactly inspire confidence either.

Threats to linguistic diversity, whether they be imagined, proposed, introduced, or even already implemented, warrant opposition from civil society, especially from non-Hindi speaking regions and communities.

After all, holding back the tide of cultural homogenisation can only be an active process, one involving civil society.