Monday, October 18, 2010

Nehru on Hindi

It has become customary to dub English as the language of the ‘elites’, thus very comfortably eclipsing the elitism that guides the Indian languages--Hindi, in the present context. Without being passionate about the desirability of Hindi emerging as ‘the’ national language in true sense, it will be instructive to have a peak into the damage done to the language in the post-independence decades when the clamour for according Hindi its due position in national life as a corollary to the attainment of independence ran highest at all levels.

The root cause of the lack of the growth of Hindi as the language of social, economic and cultural discourse, can be traced to the ‘sectarian’ as well as ‘purist’ mindset with which the ‘job’ of the development of Hindi was taken up. This was ‘detected’ with lot of concern by none other than the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself, whose best of the intentions to promote the interest of Hindi and other Indian languages seemed to have been sabotaged by the conservative language enthusiasts.

Five letters written by Nehru, two each to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, his Education Minister, and Ravi Shankar Shukla, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, and one to Jagjivan Ram, the Minister for Communications (1952–56), in October 1953 in quick succession, show the highest concern that Nehru accorded to the apparent deterioration in the development of a ‘modern Hindi’ with the aim to project it as the national language.

Nehru (left) with Azad at the inuaguration of Delhi Public Library, 1951

The first of these letters, included in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 24, pages 212-217, (General Editor: S Gopal, Vol. Editors Ravinder Kumar & H Y Sharada Prasad; published by Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1999), was written to Ram on 11 October, enclosing a Money Order form in Hindi with these comments: “Reading it, I find myself wholly unable to understand a great part of it. I am quite certain that most of our people will not understand it. Whom then is it meant for? What kind of language are we evolving which is neither graceful, artistic, nor generally understood? As a writer myself and one interested in languages, I am terribly shocked at the way things are developing. The same day Nehru shoots off a letter to Maulana Azad enclosing a little booklet containing Hindi equivalents of official and technical terms in English with these comments: ‘In reading it, I found that a large number of words suggested were totally incomprehensible to me and seemed to be wholly inappropriate. I do not know what is happening to our language; but I see more and more evidence from day to day of rapid deterioration which will ultimately land us in complete chaos, so far as language is concerned.’ The letter ends on a rather somber note: ‘I suffer shock after shock as I see these.

The very next day, on 12 October, Nehru writes a letter to Shukla on a complaint of the All India Newspaper Editors Conference regarding an English-Hindi dictionary being got prepared by the Madhya Pradesh Government. Nehru writes: ‘I can only say that looking at these words, I have had a sense of extreme shock. I do not quite know where we are going in regard to language. But it is clear to me that if we pursue this course, we shall kill our language, apart from making ourselves ridiculous before the public…We have rightly decided to make Hindi as our National Language. But the kind of stuff that is being produced is not language at all, Hindi or other. It is purely artificial creation with no meaning. I might mention one word which seems to me typical of amazing length of folly to which we are being led into. “Zig-zag” is translated as “Gomutrakar”.

In another letter to Maulan Azad written on the 18 October, Nehru, while being quite aware that ‘there are strong forces at work’, (he actually names the people of his own government behind it) suggests, ‘This matter can not be dealt with our officials… It must be dealt with more vitally and personally. Both aspects have to be considered—the encouragement of Hindi and the discouragement of this new-fangled and distorted Hindi.’

The last letter of this sequence written to Shukla, takes a broad view of the issue and almost like a teacher Nehru tries to make the Hindi enthusiasts see reason and purpose of developing a national language: ‘The…question that arises is about the content of the language…It has to be related to the daily life of the people and cannot come out of the head of a scholar living with dictionaries and lexicons…any word or phrase is a living throbbing thing and not a mere creation out of nothing. The content of each word is not its literal meaning, but the history attached to it in people’s mind.’

It is obvious that the point Nehru is making relates to Sanskritisation of Hindi by the conservative Hindi enthusiasts with their anti-Urdu bias. When we talk of UNO coming out with a list of endangered languages, we should realize how the death wish of certain languages lead them to be included in such a list. It is no wonder then that after 60 years of independence, a situation has got created wherein the marginalized class in small towns and semi-urban areas, which is coming up educationally now, shows more inclination to study English rather than Hindi as the latter is seen as a language carrying burden of a prejudiced past.

Certainly, the elitism of a different hue with their casteist and other conservative prejudices have worked overtime to dig the graves of a composite Hindustani language, which the Hindi litterateurs of the 1960s under the 'Nai Kahani' movement and modern Hindi poetry tried to save. In the hindsight, however, it appears that the Hindi officials and academics, with access to the social, economic and cultural power structure, have got the better of them thus reducing Hindi as a language of the globalised world meant only for translating ideas but unable to generate them on its own.


  1. Hi,
    Good that you have also joined the 'blogwagon'.
    Interesting reading, particularly because I am also engaged in translation and coining of words. Shah

  2. Thanks a lot. I expect informed people like you to read and comment and share on this blog...

  3. Nehru was a visionary, but he could not help taking the help of soft-Hindutava people in running the government due to the rise of communal forces after indepedence and partition

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  5. Nehru was a great contradiction. He never abolished English, but pitched for Hindi. Too much of idealism, but laced with practical wisdom!

  6. To use the term “Sanskritisation of Hindi” with reference to Nehru’s view on Hindi is factually incorrect. In his book “The Discovery of India” he devotes one whole chapter named “Vitality and Persistence of Sanskrit”.He writes “Sanskrit is a language amazingly rich,efflorescent,full of luxuriant growth”.He goes on to say that the modern language descended from Sanskrit are :”Hindi-Urdu,Bengali,Marathi,Gujrati,Oriya,Assamese,Rajasthani,Punjabi,Sindhi,Pashto and Kashmiri……Our modern languages are children of Sanskrit,and to it we owe most of their vocabulary and their form of expression”He says that even Singhalese,the language of Sri Lanka, is directly derived from Sanskrit.It is true that it could never become the language of masses largely because of the fact that it could never free itself from the rigid grammatical framework laid down by Panini.The language demanded a high level of discipline which could not have been achieved by the masses hence it remained purely a language of the priestly and educated class. Nehru says that,”Sanskrit ,like other classical languages,is full of words which have not only poetic beauty but a deep significance,a host of associated ideas,which cannot be translated into any other foreign language in spirit and outlook.Even its grammar,its philosophy ,have a strong poetic content;one of its old dictionaries is in poetic form”.This abundance and richness of Sankrit which its greater emphasis on rhythmic and musical quality made it a language very complexly structured.Nehru says,”Special efforts were made to ensure the correct enunciation of words and elaborate rules were laid down for this purpose”.Buddha chose Pali for his discourses over Sanskrit not because he wanted anti Brahminical medium but largely because of the fact that he had a job at hand which could have been done in the popular tongue only.Buddha was never radical in his outlook none of his preachings suggest so.He was a rationalist and based his inquiries on experience.All his life he aimed to develop a rationalist philosophy towards life and its problems.
    What classical Sanskrit literature achieved in its prime remains unsurpassed by any other classical literature.Nehru quotes Sir William Jones,an authority on Indo European languages,”The Sanskrit language….is more perfect than Greek ,more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined than either”.The Upanishads are highest form of secular philosophy.Writing about it Schopenhauer says,”From every sentence of Upnishads deep,original and sublime thoughts arise,and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit……….In the whole world there is no study ………so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upnishads………It is destined to became sooner or later the faith of the people”.I need not write here that Upnishads were written in Sanskrit.To associate Sanskrit with radical religious groups which you are trying to suggest in your blog is highly misleading and the truth is that Sanskrit is the legacy of all Indians irrespective of caste,colour,creed and religion.

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  8. A very well-written post. I read and liked the post and have also bookmarked you. All the best for future endeavors
    IT Company India


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