Recognise the vitality of Indian languages - Hindustan Times
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Recognise the vitality of Indian languages

Sep 04, 2023 10:40 PM IST

In our 76 years of freedom, neither the governments nor research institutions or industry have done much for Indian languages

Addressing the country on the 77th anniversary of India’s Independence, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi complemented the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud on his initiative to make available the essence of the top court’s judgements in regional languages. Talking about education, the PM remarked that we are now realising the importance of regional languages. It is a mockery of our democracy that it has taken 76 years to understand why regional languages are crucial.

Governments would be well advised to pay those who write stories, screenplays and songs involved to prepare government documents in languages that are not only understandable but enjoyable for ordinary people (GETTY IMAGES.) PREMIUM
Governments would be well advised to pay those who write stories, screenplays and songs involved to prepare government documents in languages that are not only understandable but enjoyable for ordinary people (GETTY IMAGES.)

The British termed these tongues vernaculars, or the languages of domestic slaves. This was a part of their strategy to persuade Indians that their own culture and languages were inferior to those of the British. They wanted the vernaculars to survive merely as the languages of the lower, uneducated classes, but the well-educated upper classes needed to become, as Macaulay put it, “persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

This was challenged by many patriots, culminating in Mahatma Gandhi calling on the British to quit India in 1942. In 1909, he wrote in his Hind Swaraj that free India should become a republic of self-governing village communities. These village communities would, of course, employ their own regional languages, and English would be replaced by Indian languages as soon as the British left. Our progressive Constitution later declaring that the people are sovereign strongly supported this position.

So, on Independence in 1947, regional languages should have been adopted as languages of administration, of judiciary, of industry and commerce, and of learning. Notably, this was fully achieved in South Korea, an industrially and technologically advanced country with a population density greater than that of India and a total population smaller than that of most linguistic states of India. Nevertheless, India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, found English the most convenient medium to govern our multilingual country. But there were other people-oriented freedom fighters who disagreed. They wanted regional languages to take over from English in every way. One such leader was Potti Sreeramulu who fasted unto death in December 1952 while demanding a separate Telugu state. This created pressure from people all over India, forcing Nehru to accept the linguistic reorganisation of Indian states, which was fully accomplished by 1960. Regretfully, however, this linguistic reorganisation failed to genuinely achieve its objective since many vested interests did not want to empower the people.

The states created their own strange convoluted lingo, often excessively Sanskritised with peculiar constructions of sentences that made no sense to anybody. In Maharashtra, for example, the government issues many government resolutions (GR) on issues of vital interest to my friends from rural communities. They call them Gangarams and ask me what these mean. I, too, cannot understand that weird Marathi, so I read the English version and explained the Gangarams to them.

In our 76 years of freedom, neither the governments nor research institutions or industry have done much for Indian languages. It is films and shows on television employing vibrant versions of Indian languages that have kept them alive. Governments would be well advised to pay those who write stories, screenplays and songs to prepare government documents in languages that are not only understandable but enjoyable for ordinary people.

Now, commercial enterprises have stepped in to back Indian languages, naturally to promote their own interests. Google supports many Indian languages and scripts and provides several facilities of great value to Indian language users. Samsung smartphones have reached remote Indian villages and support Indian language scripts. Social media such as WhatsApp with its audio/video clips allows even illiterates to communicate with each other with complete ease. But the Artificial Intelligence-based translation facilities that the Supreme Court is relying on continue to have serious limitations because many words in English and Indian languages have multiple meanings. For the correct meaning to be used in translation, a very large amount of searchable text has to be available on the web. Since this is unavailable for Indian languages, the translations tend to be not only faulty but sometimes plain misleading.

The only way forward is for more good texts in Indian languages to be made available on the web. This calls for the involvement of people with a mastery over their own languages. There are many such among newly educated members from rural communities. They must be brought to the forefront, and encouraged to help enrich online repositories of the languages they have mastered.

Madhav Gadgil is one of India’s most widely regarded ecologists. His autobiography ‘A Walk up the Hill: Living with People and Nature’ was published in eight Indian languages, namely, Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. The views expressed are personal

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