Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Is India splitting up emotionally?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Should states protect their ethnicity and treat others as outsiders, asks NOEL G DESOUZA

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The High Court in Gujarat has recently declared Hindi to be a “foreign language” where Gujaratis are concerned. The reason cited is that state-run primary schools teach in Gujarati. The issue in question was that farmers from Junagadh were objecting to a notification published by the National Highways Authority of India concerning the widening of a national highway from two to four lanes. The notification had been published in Hindi, which the farmers claim is unintelligible to them.

Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India for simple conversational purposes, thus making it India’s lingua franca. However, that does not mean that people outside the Hindi region can read official documents or newspapers in the language. Widely-spoken Hindi has absorbed words from Turkish, Persian, Arabic and English. It is the language of Bollywood movies. Movie-speak Hindi (or call it Hindustani or Urdu) is widely understandable in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It has made Indian movies popular wherever subcontinentals live such as in the UK, Mauritius, Fiji and Guyana.

When the current Maharashtra Assembly MLAs took their oath, a Samajwadi Party member Abu Azmi was attacked by Raj Thackeray, leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Party for not taking his oath in Marathi, but in Hindi. Raj Thackeray had insisted that all legislators take their oaths in the regional language, Marathi. He had sometime earlier been attacking Hindi-speaking Biharis for coming to Mumbai.

Azmi’s point was that he was taking his oath in the national language. But then both Hindi and Marathi, along with 15 other languages, are national languages. Hindi, along with English, is a link language with which states can communicate with the centre. However, protagonists of regional languages are seeking to confirm the pre-eminence of the regional language within each state.

The Mullaperiyar dam was built 116 years ago by an Englishman, Major J. Pennycuick. Following the reorganisation of states on a linguistic basis, the dam got located in Kerala but continued to provide large quantities of water to Tamil Nadu.

The Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments are in dispute about the dam. An Empowered Committee (EC), led by the former Chief Justice of India, A S Anand, is looking into the issue. The Kerala government has asked the Empowered Committee to demand that the Tamil Nadu government lower the storage level of the dam from 136 ft. to 120 ft. till a new dam is constructed.

The reason cited by Kerala is that a tremor of magnitude 6 or more could lead to the dam collapsing and threatening its structure, thus causing serious concern to the 50 lakh people who live downstream; tremors in the vicinity of the dam have been noted recently.  But the Empowered Committee has refused the plea on the ground that the Supreme Court has directed that the current status quo be maintained.

Another such interstate quarrel is the Madhei River diversion dispute between Goa and Karnataka. The west-flowing Mhadei river, which reaches the sea in Goa as the Mandovi River, has its headwaters in Karnataka. It is Goa’s lifeline in that water-deficient state. Karnataka has initiated work on the Kalasa-Bandura Nala project which proposes to supply drinking water to several cities (Hubli-Dharwar, Belgaum  and Gadag) in Karnataka.

The plan involves building barrages across the Kalasa and Banduri tributaries of the Madhei River and diverting water to the east-flowing Malaptabha River. By reversing the natural direction of flow, Goa would be deprived of the Madhei water.

On December 9, 2011, a devastating fire ripped through AMRI which is an upmarket hospital in Kolkata claiming 90 lives. The managerial staff of the hospital were arrested. But also arrested were some members of the board of the company that ran the hospital. These all happened to be Marwaris, an immigrant group from Rajasthan, who have made Kolkata their home for generations.

Amongst these are six individuals who claim not to have anything to do with the day-to-day running of the hospital. They pleaded not to be sent to jail. The FICCI (The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry), India’s peak industrial body, appealed to the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, to arrange for their release but she has refused on the grounds that the law should take its course.

The aftermath is that Marwaris now feel insecure in West Bengal and have begun to resign from company directorships. The fear is that this could drive a long-settled entrepreneurial community out of the state.

If every Indian state treats Indians who do not belong to the ethnic communities of that state as outsiders, then the protagonists of chauvinism will have won. If that unfortunately eventuates, then each state could become culturally watertight and the emotional splitting up of India could follow with unpredictable consequences.

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