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Mahatma Gandhi and the language games

  • Mahatma Gandhi was firmly against English, the language of the colonizer
  • Gandhi viewed Hindi differently from those engaged in a battle to purge it of its Arabic and Persian vocabulary and create a Sanskrit-based language

Gandhi’s objection to English was that it was alienating and, as the language of government, created an unbridgeable distance between the rulers and the ruled.
Gandhi’s objection to English was that it was alienating and, as the language of government, created an unbridgeable distance between the rulers and the ruled. (Photo: Alamy)

Among M.K. Gandhi’s lesser-known associates was his long-standing personal secretary, Mahadev Desai. Desai shepherded the Mahatma through his appointments, handled his travel arrangements and also played the role of Gandhi’s Boswell…of sorts. The title page of the English edition of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, mentions his name as the translator.

This book was published in serial form in weekly instalments in Gandhi’s Gujarati-language journal, Navajivan, between 1925-29. Desai later translated it from Gujarati to English; this was published in 1940.

When Gandhi chose to narrate his own life story, he was well past the age of 50. He had studied in England, lived for close to two decades in South Africa and been the acknowledged leader of the freedom movement for almost a decade. All his life’s activities up to this point would have involved his transacting in English a great deal and yet, when he chose to write his life story, he chose to do so in his mother tongue. Incidentally, his autobiography wasn’t his first work in Gujarati. His 1909 work, Hind Swaraj, a meditation on the problems of modern civilization, was also in Gujarati. The Gujarati scholar and criticSitanshu Yashaschandra credits this work with pulling Gujarati prose away from its hesitant steps of the middle to late 19th century and infusing an element of confidence in the language.

Given that both Hind Swaraj and My Experiments With Truth were written in Gujarati in spite of the fact that its writer was an English-educated Indian clearly indicate where Gandhi stood on the language issue. Indeed, if he had not chosen to dwell on the language question anywhere else, these would have been sufficient evidence of his stance in favour of the mother tongue. But, throughout his life, Gandhi held forth on the language issue in many instances.

In his autobiography, Gandhi mentions his early struggles with English, which became the medium of instruction when he was in class IV. Geometry in particular, taught as it was in English, troubled him no end. He also struggled with Sanskrit, and, before joining class VI, toyed with the idea of opting for Persian instead of Sanskrit, since the Persian teacher was of a more lenient disposition. When the Sanskrit teacher learnt of Gandhi’s inclination for Persian, he proceeded to remind him of his Vaishnava roots and the need to learn the language of his “own religion". A chastened Gandhi stayed faithful to Sanskrit.

In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi articulated his idea of a linguistic order for India which consisted of what he called “provincial languages" and a “universal language", which in his view should have been “Hindi, with the option of writing it in Persian or Nagari characters". Clearly, English, in Gandhi’s view, did not have much of a place in India. That Hind Swaraj rejected English education and its purported benefits is not surprising at all since the work also rejected many of the trappings of modern civilization. English, in his view, could function as the language of international communication but was a blot on the Indian character, to the extent that later in life he tersely stated in one of his writings that “it is we, the English-knowing Indians, that have enslaved India".

One of Gandhi’s most enduring crusades throughout his public life, next only to his attempts to root out untouchability, was to consecrate Hindi as the national language of India. While this might raise the hackles of non-Hindi speakers now, it is necessary to understand his stand in its proper context as well as unpack what he meant when he used the term “Hindi". Gandhi’s objection to English was that it was alienating and created distance between those who knew English (largely the privileged class) and those who didn’t (the vast majority). And when English was the language of government, as was the case then, the distance between the rulers and the ruled was unbridgeable and resulted in a situation where communication and mutual understanding were poor. This was a fatal flaw, in Gandhi’s view, and sufficient cause to limit the use of English. Hindi, which in any case was known to north Indians and could, in Gandhi’s view, be learnt by south Indians, would not suffer from the limitations of English and hence was suitable to be the national language.

In 1918, Gandhi even founded the Dakshina Hindi Prachar Sabha to teach Hindi to south Indians, convinced as he was of its emancipatory potential to unshackle Indians from the vestiges of colonial rule, a great deal of which flowed from the extensive usage of English. Gandhi himself had learnt some Hindi in South Africa but he was aware that his command of the language was poor, and, on more than one public occasion, he apologized for his poor Hindi.

But Gandhi imagined his Hindi differently from the Hindi zealots of the time who were engaged in a battle to purge it of its Arabic and Persian vocabulary and create a Sanskrit-based language. Gandhi’s Hindi, as he stated in an address to the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan in 1918, included Urdu and, as articulated in Hind Swaraj, could be written in either the Nagari or the Persian-derived script.

The script issue was a dangerously loaded one in north India at the time. In fact, the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, which worked closely with the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, had been formed to strive for the Nagari script and Gandhi’s either/or solution when it came to the choice of script was unlikely to endear him to Hindi protagonists. But Gandhi’s view of the script arose from political considerations and his desire that Hindus and Muslims should jointly oppose British rule. Given that, it was well-nigh impossible for him to weigh-in in favour of one script, though he did fondly express the hope that at a future date, “when our hearts have become one", a common script would be found.

From 1942 onwards, Gandhi chose to use the term “Hindustani" rather than Hindi, since Hindi by then had been enshrined in the public view as a Sanskritized tongue even as Urdu came to be seen as a Persianized tongue. Choosing to forgo these extreme positions, Gandhi batted for a midpoint that incorporated elements of both—this, in his view, was the language of the common man throughout north India.

Even as he stated his case for Hindi-Hindustani, Gandhi was not unaware of the potential of India’s languages. On sea voyages from South Africa to India, Gandhi had engaged a teacher to teach him Urdu and, interestingly, attempted to learn Tamil from a British primer. Later, at his experimental Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, he even taught the Urdu and Tamil scripts to children, and throughout his spells in prison, attempted to further his learning of Urdu and Tamil. In Hind Swaraj, he even recommended that northerners learn Tamil.

How would Gandhi have viewed the current-day language scenario? Given the continued preponderance of English in Indian life, the state of affairs today would have displeased him. But he would also not have approved of the Sanskritized Hindi that is the preferred tongue of the ruling dispensation. In fact, he may well have approved of Bollywood Hindi, given its extensive Urdu usage, even if he did not agree with the violence it chooses to show on screen. And the fact that the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha in Chennai is still thriving, with a large number of students on its rolls, would have surely warmed his heart.

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and is based in Bengaluru.

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