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Language: not a minor matter

Violence or threats are on the rise against Hindi-speaking migrants in Maharashtra and in the North-east, writes Vinod Sharma.

india Updated: May 28, 2008 22:37 IST
Platform | Vinod Sharma

Why the dumbshow about ensuring the safety of linguistic minorities?

Xenophobia, chauvinism and parochialism aren’t mere assertions of identity. They are as much by-products of the fear, distrust or derision of the ‘Outsider’ — the one who speaks another language, has a distinct ethnicity, faith or a way of life. Violence or threats are on the rise against Hindi-speaking migrants in Maharashtra and in the North-east. Infiltration from Bangladesh is another festering issue, the attack in Jaipur blasting home the pan-Indian dimension of the menace. The Indian administration’s xenophobic response to the wanton killings in Jaipur isn’t based on any conclusive evidence. But not many people are complaining.

In Mumbai, Assam, Belgaum and elsewhere, the ‘Native-versus-Outsider’ syndrome is being fomented by elements seeking to draw the media’s attention, to secure a sectarian constituency, and to make the authorities take cognisance of their chauvinistic demands. But where is the mechanism to build consensus on issues lending themselves to electoral use — especially in a polity that’s in disagreement on a requirement as basic as a federal investigating agency to fight terrorism? Such partisan positions have robbed forums like the Inter-State Council and the National Development Council of the vision with which they were conceived.

A consultative mechanism that Jawaharlal Nehru’s government established in 1957 after the language-based reorganisation of states has met a similar fate. This is not as much out of political one-upmanship as out of executive inertia. For years now, the Commission for Linguistic Minorities (CLM) is in a state of disuse. The Centre has disregarded its urgings for more money and manpower to safeguard the rights of linguistic minorities constituting 16 per cent of the country’s 1.2 billion population.

The result? The commission is expected to keep track of over 16 crore people vulnerable to persecution or confrontation and concomitant alienation with a measly annual budget of Rs 1 crore. Most of its staff are past their prime and its headquarters is located in ‘faraway’ Allahabad. A year has lapsed but the Centre hasn’t responded to a memorandum signed by 40-odd MPs for making the panel more accessible to the linguistic groups it serves. The demand can be easily met by moving its headquarters to New Delhi and reopening the regional outposts it earlier had in Chandigarh and Mumbai.

The other anomaly is the commission’s reporting line to the Ministry of Minority Affairs. The incongruity is all the more glaring as the Union Home Ministry deals with language and inter-state issues. The CLM’s demand for more offices, money and manpower isn’t without a context. Think of a Tamilian in Kerala, a Buddhist in Kargil, a Bihari in Assam, a north Indian in Maharashtra and a Maratha in Karnataka and you’ll recognise the rapidity with which major languages, ethnicities and communities could become ‘minor’ with just a change of location.

Spread over 28 states and Union Territories, nearly 90 per cent of linguistic minorities are migrant labourers denied, more often than not, equal opportunities in jobs and education. The primary school-level drop-out rate among their children is 70-90 per cent. The reason? Denial of instructions in their mother tongue in the host states. “Linguistic issues are becoming law and order issues,” the commission, headed by former Parliamentarian Suresh Keswani warned in its latest report to the Prime Minister and Minority Affairs Minister A.R. Antulay. The ‘Outsider’ tag and the resultant discrimination compounded by official apathy make the migrants resort to retributive action.

The trend has been ‘officially noticed’ in 250 districts across Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It’s the gravity of this threat that drives the CLM’s blueprint for setting up advisory committees in all states in consultation with elected representatives. These committees will help ensure implementation of constitutional safeguards for linguistic minorities — such as primary and secondary school instructions in their mother tongue — while addressing the ‘democratic deficit’ in the commission’s own functioning. But the government doesn’t obviously believe that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Why else would it be willing to spend an additional Rs 100 crore every year in each Naxal-affected area while keeping the commission cash-strapped?

It’s difficult to disagree with the argument for enhancing the CLM’s contact with the people even if it means a 20-fold increase in its budget. Regular collection and collation of information from regions where linguistic issues are turning volatile will help Parliament and the government make realistic policies and arrive at decisions in tune with ground realities. The commission’s institutional knowledge could be of help also in drafting legislation to translate the linguistic minorities’ constitutional safeguards into ‘realisable’ rights.