I have been fascinated recently by archaeological reports of early 20th-century Karnataka, particularly those written by scholarly, polyglot Brahmins. Although most of were visibly religious, with elaborate caste marks on their foreheads, their findings were recorded without comment or religious context. The primary underlying characteristic I discerned from these annual reports — written when the area was the British-controlled royal state of Mysore — was the remarkable diversity of people and cultures that inhabited the region. In sum, the languages discovered on inscriptions, many of which survive to this day, include: Old and modern Kannada, Sanskrit, Persian, Tamil, Prakrits (regional dialects of Sanskrit), Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi, Urdu and English. As elsewhere, this linguistic fecundity reflects the interplay of diverse civilisations that gave rise to modern India.
The majority of these languages continue to be used in Karnataka, some modified by time, others kept pure by isolation. Consider the Marathi spoken by many Bangalore families.
When my mother — a native speaker of Marathi conversant with the language’s literature — first came to the city in 1969, she was fascinated to find some shop-owners in a business neighbourhood called Commercial Street speaking an archaic version of Marathi that she, sometimes, struggled to understand. That’s because Bangalore’s Marathi is a version spoken more than 350 years ago, from a period of Maratha rule, which started when Shahaji Bhosale, father to the great Shivaji, conquered the city. The descendants of settlers from the Maratha armies — many with the last name Rao — were the people my mother spoke with. In the warren of lanes that flow out of today’s Commercial street, you will find more linguistic migrants whose languages were firmly established — and refreshed by new immigrants — over the centuries: Dakhni (a dialect of Urdu), Tamil, Hindi (from Marwari moneylenders and traders) and Telugu.
Yet, when you travel the shiny Bangalore metro — or use the airport — you will find no evidence of these languages. There are only English and Kannada. Announcements on the metro were in Hindi as well, but these were recently dropped on the western corridor, with metro officials claiming the names of some stations were simply too long, such as Sri Balagangadhara Natha Swamiji (the area is known only as Hosahalli) Station, a title forced on the metro by politicians. The suspension of Hindi led to a flurry of online protests, but as for the other languages, there is little chance, although Telugu, Dakhni and Tamil are the leading minority languages.
The two-language formula is manifest in a host of new metro systems across Indian cities and is a metaphor for the exclusion of minorities from other government-run services. In Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata or Delhi, little effort is made to accommodate minorities — linguistic or religious. In Bangalore, this year, a proposal for a multi-lingual call centre was rejected by angry corporators. In Mumbai, knowing Marathi now is a prerequisite for getting an autorickshaw permit.
The new metro in Chennai speaks only Tamil and English, as does the older system in Delhi, a city that traditionally used four languages on road signs — English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. Delhi’s airports, too, now use only English and Hindi. Earlier this month, I was in Delhi’s largest and most modern aero hub, Terminal 3 (T3), when a man in a skull cap and kurta-pyjama came up to me and asked where the exit was. That way, I said, pointing up at the board, it’s on the signs. He looked away, then looked back, “I can read only Urdu,” he said.
The fading of Urdu from public spaces across India is a largely unspoken but largely accepted practice that illustrates how emerging India hobbles minorities and migrants by religion, language and culture. Among Indian languages, Urdu is an outlier in this debate of disenfranchisement because it is driven by religious bigotry, which does not make it any more acceptable. Although millions of Muslims across India speak a variety of languages, Urdu is spoken largely by Muslims. In 2001 (the latest data are not available), it was India’s sixth most widely spoken language with more than 51 million native speakers. In many northern and some southern cities with large Muslim populations, its status as a leading language is ignored.
With the blossoming of often insecure and muscular local identities, regional linguistic domination hobbles Indians who move in search of their dream or to survive. Nearly 350 million Indians are internal migrants, according to various estimates. Short-term or so-called “seasonal” migrants — who circulate between their homes and workplaces — could range from 15 million to 100 million, according to a United Nations review of data. Even if you consider 100 million seasonal migrants, that leaves 250 million long-term migrants. That is more than the population of Brazil, the world’s fifth-most populous country. This vast migration should encourage Indian cities to be more multilingual and overall more inclusive. Instead, the opposite is happening. It is ironic that as our cities grow more diverse, public services are becoming linguistically less diverse than ever.
Worldwide, language use in public services is often based not on the narrowest majoritarian impulses but on the greatest good. In Berkeley, California, where I was a visiting lecturer three years ago, the notices pasted in local buses were not just in English but Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean, a recognition of changing demographics. In Singapore, depending on the areas served, Tamil is used, alongside English, Mandarin and Malay, on bus and metro signs and for announcements. In Manchester airport in Britain, Punjabi announcements are common. These regions and countries also deploy translators in government offices. In Seoul, capital of a unilingual country, subway announcements are in four languages (English, Korean, Japanese, Chinese).
To be sure, this is not always the case. There are a host of linguistically narrow-minded countries that refuse to make lives easier for minorities, but that, surely, is not something India should aspire to.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit
The views expressed are personal