November 1, 2013 By

What’s with Modi and Hindi?

modiWhatever his politics, Modi deserves credit for forcing us to pay attention to him on his terms, in the language of his choice ‐ Hindi. The hint of shuffling apology which has often characterized the urban educated Indian’s relationship to Hindi, has been conveniently removed from his speeches. Earlier Indians were puffed up with pride at hearing Indira Gandhi’s clipped English at press conferences in Washington DC, but those times are fading fast. Atal Bihari Vajpayee changed it by choosing to address the UN in Hindi. Modi, in his speeches, whether in Gujarati at home, or in Hindi outside the state, continues it.
One of the most abiding impressions of his mammoth rallies is the odd sight of foreign delegates seated on a side stage, sitting quietly for hours, listening to a speech they do not understand. It was an image that conveyed power almost as potently as Modi’s actual oratory. Modi made no concessions to them either. The tension in the relationship between English and Indian languages is wellknown and longstanding. English has never been just another language. It’s always been the language of power and aspiration as Farsi once was in the imperial courts. It has been a language that has erased difference and yet also imposed its own hierarchy. We have wielded our command over it as a weapon to silence others and often garner undeserved clout based on accent rather than content.
In a way Modi shears English of the privilege it enjoys. On the flip side, we could read it as the beginning of a very different kind of linguistic hegemony– of Hindi.

(Image credit: IBNLive)

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