There are many different angles from which the matter of Hindi, so to speak, may be addressed today. Thus, there is the huge expansion of the Hindi public sphere, the explosive growth of Hindi media. The circulation figures of the Hindi newspapers—Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagaran, to name but two—far outstrip the circulation figures of the English newspapers. There are signs that apart from the newspapers, even the world of Hindi book publishing is, finally, in the process of leveraging its demographic magnitude, converting numbers into profit and consequence.

At another level, one might be tempted into thinking that the ‘purist’ history of the past—the making of that linguistic oddity, modern ‘Hindi’ the unbeloved—is, so to speak, past. This is not to deny the legitimacy of the original motivations of the pioneers: the Hindu upper castes of the ‘cow belt’ in the late-19th and early-20th century, who were only seeking a place in the sun of official employment. These local aims gradually transmogrified, became national—generating mutant conceptions of both language and nation. As it happens, their Sanskritic excess—dog-Sanskrit for the ignorant, in awe of Sanskrit’s incantatory associations—has become the subject of mockery, and one notices, in popular media, in song and cinema, an explosion of diversity, a celebration of Hindi’s polyglot diversity. But there is also, lest one be carried away by this diversity, Hinglish, and advertisers’ Hindi, and the barbarous dialect of Zee News. But all this notwithstanding, one is tempted to say that ‘skooli or sarkari Hindi’ is dead. And yet—a matter to which I shall return—the tatsama longing to undo the workings of time, on language of course, but also on social evolution generally, a dream of returning to some ‘pure’ Vedic past of secure hierarchies and unchallenged privilege, still rears its ugly head from time to time. Gurgaon becomes Gurugram, and my beloved Allahabad is diminished into Prayagraj, which is only the traditional locality where pandas ply their trade, preying on pilgrims.

Still, thinking about Hindi today, one cannot help noticing, intercut oddly with the triumphal narrative indicated above, a sense of defeat, of arrest, of frustration. Hindi’s self-consciousness is an oddly discrepant compound of a sense of savarna entitlement and a destiny of mediocrity, a lingering sense of being both second-class and second-rate. The merest conversation with any Hindi-wallah reveals a reservoir of ressentiment, of betrayal, of denial. English is the great villain in this latter narrative, but there are others too. Even poor Urdu—the ‘poverty’ of Urdu is another story—was famously castigated by none other than Namwar Singh for seeking to share Hindi’s modest portion: ‘baasi bhaat mein khuda ka saajha’, he wrote, my late and widely-admired teacher, may he forgive me for recalling! The fact of the matter is that Hindi-wallahs have been firmly resistant to the need to examine their own history—their bogus myths of divine or at least Sanskritic origin (jyeshtha putri, Devanagari, no less!), the fateful imbrication of the evolution of modern Hindi with the cultural ambitions and political longings of the savarna castes of the Hindi belt, to examine the pernicious effects of the Brahmin-Thakur-Bania assertion that underlies the emergence of modern ‘Hindi’.

1965 was to have been the moment of delayed consummation, the final realization of that triumph, the installation of Hindi as ‘the’ national language, which had only been narrowly averted in 1950 in the Constituent Assembly by the people who were alarmed by ‘Hindi imperialism’. Mr G L Nanda, PM  and cow-lover, had even issued the necessary orders for the replacement of English by Hindi—and then all those dark-skinned non-Aryans from across the Vindhyas began to assert themselves in all kinds of incendiary ways, and poor Hindi was forced to remain unconsummated, interruptus. The hated J L Nehru’s assurance to the non-Hindi States that Hindi would not be imposed on them was written into law—the Official Languages Act, as amended in 1967.

And from then on, I’m afraid, it’s been downhill all the way, in a manner of speaking. There are no more dates to wait for. And English, that hated usurper, is stronger than ever, globally rampant. Ironically, it might even be the case that English is a key factor in India’s ascent to global consequence. This is ironic precisely because it is this English-dependent (alleged) global consequence—already a ‘superpower’, are we?—that gives the Hindi elite the confidence to assert themselves: ‘We are like this only’. Only too true, alas.

And yet, despite the desperate and rather pathetic longing for English that one notices in a million English-teaching shops, no one can seriously imagine that the current dominance of English can be anything other than fraught and unstable. English is too much the language of privilege, it is too visibly a symbol of a ruling elite whose social base and claim to legitimacy is becoming ever narrower and ever more untenable. English cannot easily break out of its narcissistic confinement, its historical complicity with a scavenging elite. But ‘Hindi’, burdened with its own repressed history, its own suspect legitimacy, confined to its own upper-caste elite with its divisive and lethal national design, cannot really challenge English. Indeed, though it must perforce remain unacknowledged, there is even a kind of symbiosis, a mutual dependence between English and ‘Hindi’: their complementary disabilities impart a kind of tense stability to the status quo. Each holds the other in check: the ‘pseudo-secularism’ of the Anglophone elite, protecting its position of privilege atop an exploitative social arrangement in the name of ‘inclusion’; and the ‘pseudo-democracy’ of the upper-caste Hindi elite, pretending to speak for the great mass of the people.

One final question remains—perhaps the most awkward. What is the relation between Hindi and Hindu nationalism? This is awkward for all kinds of reasons—Hindi is also, after all, the name of the language in which Ghalib composed the divaan that we know and love! But rather more crucially, it is part of the self-consciousness of the Hindi world that, following Ramvilas Sharma, Hindi was the vehicle of the modern renaissance of the Hindi belt—the famous navajagaran. But Gandhi’s disapproval of this navajagrit Hindi was also one of Godse’s stated reasons for murdering Gandhi. And one needs little more than a passing glance at Hindi’s booming newspapers to see that this navajagaran has some very ugly, obscurantist, downright reactionary sides to it. In crisis after crisis, it is the Hindi newspapers that have been found to be stoking dangerous, communal tendencies.

To my mind, the explanation for this convergence goes back to the ‘symbiosis’ that I mentioned earlier. ‘English’ as the vehicle and symbol of ‘secularism’ is rightly an object of popular contempt and derision—because English is also tightly correlated with grave social inequality. And the derision and hostility that relates to the inequality rubs off, inevitably, onto its correspondent ‘secularism’. But another consequence of this dialectic is that Hindi, as the great antagonist, gets polarized to the ‘anti-secular’, the Hindu-communal. I am not suggesting that this is an exhaustive explanation, or that the Hindu-communal ideological formation—Sangh, for short—has only one determinant. It is an over-determined formation–i.e., it derives from many causes, many sources. (Trolls, please read Freud!)

So, one asks—what comes first, ‘Hindi’, or its correspondent ‘Hindu nationalism’? Does ‘Hindi’beget ‘Hindu Rashtra’, or does ‘Hindu Rashtra’ beget ‘Hindi’? I would argue that it is the former: the language comes first, ‘Hindu nationalism, or Hindu Rashtra’ is the political conception that corresponds to that language—and, like the language itself, is limited by the imagination (and the circumstances) of the people who forged the language in the fervent decades around the turn of the 20th century. Because this history is unacknowledged, masked in lies and bad faith, ‘Hindi’ and its correspondent nationalism is condemned to remaking—trying to remake—the nation in the image of the invented and jealous language—tatsama-laden, Brahminical ‘Hindi’—rather than allowing the language—Hindustani, but also Hindi—to evolve along with the plural, diverse, heterogeneous nation that is evolving forever, forever new.


Alok Rai doesn’t work in Delhi any more.Truth to tell, not that much anywhere else either.