Apr 17 • 21M

#167 Sare Jahan Se Achha..

The Hindi question. Nehru v Iqbal. Political parties for women.

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India Policy Watch #1: Hindi Hain Hum...

Insights on burning policy issues in India


There’s that oft-quoted line of sociolinguist Max Weinreich that goes ‘a language is a dialect with an army and navy’. Like many facetious remarks, it isn’t scientific, but it sounds great. Also, there’s a kernel of truth in it. The only reason a particular dialect races ahead of others and transcends a threshold to turn into a language is when it is backed by political patronage and the power of the state. Examples abound.

The version of Hindi that’s official in India today, for instance, wasn’t the kind that was spoken by anyone even two hundred years ago. Many in India find this hard to believe. But it isn’t too difficult to prove. Read any text or literature that was popular in north India before the 19th century, and you will find the language bears no similarity to the official Hindi of today. The great texts of 16th century India will help you with this. Ramacharitmanas by Tulsidas was written in Awadhi, Surdas used Brij bhasha and Guru Granth Sahib is an eclectic mix of languages ranging from Sindhi, Lahnda, Persian and Brij bhasha. The first works that bear a strong resemblance to the Hindi of today appeared in 1870-80s when Bharatendu sought to popularise a combination of Awadhi and Brij with a generous sprinkling of tatsam words from Sanskrit while stripping away the Urdu words. This project gained political support in the late 19th century when there was Hindu revivalism in the air. The decimation of the Mughal empire was complete and with it went the state patronage of Farsi and Urdu. There was desire then to find a purified version of the Hindustani language that preceded the Delhi Sultanate. Bharatendu filled this gap and his efforts were ably supported by the Raja of Benaras and the Kashi Dharma Sabha. Post-independence, this version of Hindi got its ‘army and navy’ with the might of the state behind it. And it turned into a language.

Quite appropriately, it was called the ‘rajbhasha’; the language of administration or the language of power. 

What’s the point of this bit of historicising? Well, here’s the press release from the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee held last week that was presided over by the Union Home Minister (HM):

“Hindi should be accepted as an alternative to English and not to local languages.

Time has come to make the Official Language an important part of the unity of the country, when persons from States which speak other languages communicate with each other, it should be in the language of India.”

The usual furore followed. 

This isn’t the first time the HM has made this sort of an appeal. Every year on the occasion of Hindi Diwas there’s a similar pitch about Hindi. The usual benefits are stated. That we need a ‘link’ language for India and Hindi is best suited for it. Not English. That’s a foreign tongue and the language of our colonial humiliation. We will be somehow more united if we all speak in Hindi. It will foster a feeling of togetherness among Indians. Or that’s what I have understood as the benefits of this push. 

I’m sceptical of the unity argument because it makes limited sense. There are better ways of fostering unity than asking people to privilege a specific language in a country that has as many languages with long histories as India. In fact, it will likely lead to more divisions and strife. On the other hand, the ‘link’ language argument has some merit. What common language should people use to converse with each other when they are native speakers of languages as diverse as Punjabi, Bangla and Tamizh? It is a good question. But there’s no need to find a planned answer to this question. This is a question that was possibly as relevant during the times of Ashoka, Chandragupta, Akbar and Lord Canning, as it is today. The courts of those times used Pali, Persian or English as the official language of the state. But that didn’t mean these became the languages of the masses. People developed their own dialects and languages that worked for them to communicate with one another. A language can have its army and navy but those won’t make it the ‘link’ language. Because the adoption of a language and its usage in a society is the best example of spontaneous order at play. 

Spontaneous orders aren’t planned by anyone. There is no intentional coordination of actions by any external agent. Every participant acts in their individual best interest for their own objectives. However, these individual actions aggregate into a pattern of their own. It is the ‘unintended order of intentional action’ that emerges on its own and it adapts to the ongoing changes. Language is a classic example of this. No one individual could have designed it. There’s no central design of associating a sound with an object or an emotion. It evolves by the attempt of separate individuals trying to solve the problem of communicating with one another. The sounds that are easy to use and adopted by most individuals evolve into the lingua franca of the community. Language is ‘the result of human action, but not of human design’. As the language becomes more widely adopted, there are attempts to formalise its structure and syntax. As these structures become more rigid and people are forced to use a language in only a certain way, it begins losing its flexibility and its utility. People find a more flexible mode of communication and a new order emerges. A new language of the people is born. This is how Latin, Sanskrit, and Persian continued to be the languages of the church, court or the temples but the continuing rigidity of their grammar and their top-down imposition on people led to their decline. Spontaneous order killed them off. 

If the people feel the need for a link language, they will find one through the millions of everyday transactions that they undertake. In India, this could be Hindi, English or some motley mix of tongues that will work for people. That’s the direction we will head into as we find more reasons for domestic mobility and interactions. Any attempt to centrally plan for greater usage of an official language is therefore futile. It takes away time and attention of the state to focus on more real issues. And it leads to divisive politics over the imposition of Hindi over regional languages. World history is rife with examples of civil unrest and strife because of such impositions. These are unnecessary distractions that we can live without.

Or maybe that’s the point of all this.

India Policy Watch #2: …Watan Hai Hindustan Hamara

Insights on burning policy issues in India


I wrote a couple of weeks back about ‘Nehru: The Debates that Defined India’ by Adeel Hussain and Tripurdaman Singh. The book examines the key debates Nehru had with four of his peers, namely, Iqbal, Jinnah, Patel and S.P. Mookerjee, on questions of religion, foreign policy and civil liberties. The authors set up the historical context for each debate and why it was critical at that juncture and then reproduce the letters, columns, or speeches of the protagonists.

I have picked up the debate between Nehru and Iqbal this week. Iqbal and Nehru were temperamentally similar with both having studied at Cambridge and trained as barristers. They were steeped in enlightenment philosophy, had a taste for western literature and were socialists by instinct. Where they differed sharply was in their confidence in the transplanting of such values into Indian soil. They came at the idea of nationalism in a subcontinent as diverse as India with widely divergent first principles.

Nehru believed in a kind of inclusive nationalism where people would voluntarily shed those parts of their identity that separated them from others while retaining the core somehow. This was a difficult notion to explain, let alone implement. For Nehru, the state was to be secular with joint electorates, a reformed social code for Hindus and Muslims while simultaneously letting people practise their religions without any other interferences. Iqbal thought this was an impossible task. This utopian ideal of fusing the different communities into a single nation was fraught with disappointing everyone equally. The state would tread into areas of citizens’ lives that it had no business to be in. Democracy where numbers matter would make this risky for the minorities. There was a need to think of nationalism while protecting the identities of communities and giving them their space to breathe. Trying to hoist a unitary, majoritarian version of democracy without thinking about proportional or specific representation would lead to a situation where ‘the country will have to be redistributed on the basis of religious, historical and cultural affinities.’ Iqbal thought Nehru wasn’t thinking of the long term where those holding the power of the state would be different from them.

Needless to say, this idea itself was abhorrent to Nehru. He wrote a long response to Iqbal from the Almora district jail where he has housed in 1935. Titled ‘Orthodox of All Religions, Unite’, it gives us a window into Nehru’s thoughts on the consequences of the nationalism advocated by Iqbal. Reading it 87 years later is clarifying. It is a debate between an idealist who wants to ‘will’ a perfect society. Against whom is pitted a realist who knows this is futile and the best course is to set up a system that’s in sync with how the society works. This would then be supplemented by a code or set of guidelines that would provide the incentives for right behaviours by those in power than force a philosophy down their throats.

I have quoted parts of Nehru’s response below. It is a fascinating blend of idealism and naïveté which characterised the man:

“Other far-reaching consequences would follow the adoption and application of the joint views of Sir Mohamad Iqbal and the sanatanist Hindus. The ideals aimed at will largely be (subject to some inevitable adjustment with modern conditions) the reproduction of the social conditions prevailing in Arabia in the seventh century (in the case of the Muslims) or those of India two thousand or more years ago (in the case of Hindus). With all the goodwill in the world, a complete return to the golden ages of the past will not be possible, but at any rate all avoidable deviations will be prevented, and an attempt will be made to stereotype our social and economic structure and make it incapable of change. So-called reform movements will, of course, be frowned upon or suppressed. The long tentacles of the law of sedition may grow longer still and new crimes may be created. Thus to advocate the abolition of the purdah (veil) by women might (from the Muslim side) be made into an offence, to preach the loosening of caste restrictions or inter-dining might (from the sanatanist side) be also made criminal. Beards may become de rigueur for Muslims, caste-marks and top knots for Hindus. And, of course, all the orthodox of all shapes and hues would join in the worship and service of Property, especially the extensive and wealthy properties and endowments belonging to religious or semi-religious bodies.

Perhaps all this is a somewhat exaggerated picture of what might happen under the joint regime of the sanatanists and the ulemas, but it is by no means a fanciful picture as anyone who has followed their recent activities can demonstrate. Only two months ago (in June 1935) a Sanatan Dharma Conference was held in Bezwada [Vijayawada]. The holy and learned Swami who opened the Conference told us that ‘co-education, divorce and post-puberty marriages would mean the annihilation of Hinduism’. I had not realized till then that these three or rather the absence of them, were the main props of Hinduism – this is rather involved but I suppose my meaning is clear.

It is an astonishing thing to me that while our millions starve and live like beasts of the field, we ignore their lot and talk of vague metaphysical ideas and the good of their souls; that we shirk the problems of today in futile debate about yesterday and the day before yesterday; that when thoughtful men and women all over the world are considering problems of human welfare and how to lessen human misery and stupidity, we, who need betterment and raising most, should think complacently of what our ancestors did thousands of years ago and for ourselves should continue to grovel on the ground. It astonishes me that a poet like Sir Mohamad Iqbal should be insensitive to the suffering that surrounds him, that a scholar and thinker like Sir Mohamad should put forward fantastic schemes of states within states, and advocate a social structure which may have suited a past age but is a hopeless anachronism today. Does his reading of history not tell him that nations fell because they could not adapt themselves to changing conditions and because they stuck too long to that very structure which he wants to introduce in a measure in India today? We were not wise enough in India and the other countries of the East in the past, and we have suffered for our folly. Are we to be so singularly foolish as not even to profit by our and others’ experience?

Bertrand Russell says somewhere: ‘If existing knowledge were used and tested methods applied, we could in a generation produce a population almost wholly free from disease, malevolence and stupidity. In one generation, if we chose, we could bring in the millennium. It is the supreme tragedy of our lives that this millennium should be within our reach, so tantalizingly near us and yet so far as almost to seem unattainable. I do not know what the future has in store for India and her unhappy people, what further agonies, what greater humiliation and torture of the soul. But I am confident of this that whatever happens, we cannot go back inside the shell out of which we have emerged.”  


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Global Policy Watch: Why have Political Parties by Women and for Women Not been Successful Electorally?

Indian perspectives on global events

— Pranay Kotasthane

On International Women's Day last month, I went back to a question that has perplexed me for a long time: what explains the electoral insignificance of political parties by women and for women?

We see in India that political tribes—and parties—get created along many different identitarian dimensions. The proliferation of political parties backed by a small and reliable electoral base is quite common in India. And yet, we don’t see political parties created on the basis of gender. Most probably, there are structural reasons why this hasn’t happened yet in a society prejudiced against women.

However, India is not an exception in this case. Women’s political parties have been electorally insignificant even in Western Europe and Scandinavia. What gives? In this article, I am sharing a few notes from my ongoing search.

The Quillette asked this question in the UK context. Louise Perry's article has interesting insights. For instance, she writes that political tribes form when there is little interaction across tribes, which is not possible with gender as an identity variable. In her words,

Most political tribes live in close proximity to one another. We tend to live in neighbourhoods in which most people share our race, class, and regional identities, and therefore vote in the same way. One thing to emerge from the aftermath of the Brexit referendum is that many voters knew very few people—if any—who had voted differently from themselves. The Remainer and Leaver bubbles have significant influence and it’s easy to feel animosity towards other political tribes when they are imagined as faceless strangers.

None of this is true for women. The dream of a minority of Second Wave feminists that women would leave their husbands en masse and establish female-only communities never came to pass. Women are not an isolated group—they not only live among men, but also often love them as spouses, sons, fathers, and brothers. And that’s as it should be. But one effect of this is that true female solidarity is vanishingly rare. When asked to choose between identifying with other women, or identifying with “their” men, most women will choose the latter option. This means that women’s political parties will always struggle to gain a significant share of the vote.

Of course, Perry also highlights that feminist parties are not the only way to reduce gender discrimination.

We have witnessed within the last century the most remarkable progress in women’s political representation in the West. Decriminalized abortion, funding for rape crisis centres, reforms to the criminal justice system, anti-discrimination legislation, and many more landmark achievements—all this has taken place within a democratic system and without the existence of women’s political parties.

Further, Perry cites more studies to highlight that gender does not impact voting behaviour by much.

When it comes to electoral politics, however, women are not an identity bloc and they never have been. Gender has a small impact on voting behaviour, in that women tend to lean left and are also less politically engaged on average. But, on the whole, knowing a person’s sex gives you very little insight into how they are likely to vote. Although the gender gap is enough to influence an election result, sex has much less of an impact than other demographic factors. Simplistic references to “the women’s vote” overlook this fact.

In another article, Corwell-Meyers et al make an important distinction: not all women’s political parties are feminist parties.

In fact, surveying the platforms and manifestos of women’s parties reveals three types of parties: depending on the degree of transformation the party seeks, women’s parties can be feminist (challenging patriarchy), proactive (advancing women’s inclusion) or reactive (espousing conservative or traditional roles for women).

The authors conclude with a more considerate view of women's political parties and argue that there are some second-order benefits of such organisations, such as:

They tend to emerge in places where women perceive that the mainstream political parties neglect women or their issues, usually by not running female candidates or addressing women’s concerns. Because they typically emerge alongside or out of the grassroots politics of the women’s movement, they tend to do politics differently. As outsider organisations operating inside the system, they can recruit women to political activism, disrupt the perception that politics is a male-domain and connect women’s movement organisations to formal politics. And, even those that lack a large following have, in some cases, pressured the larger, more mainstream parties to run more female candidates or pay greater attention to women’s interests in their platforms and policies; because women’s parties have resources that civil society actors lack, they can impact both the descriptive and substantive representation of women and women’s interests. And, as both established and emerging democracies currently face reactionary pressure from populist and far right actors, women’s parties can challenge anti-woman and anti-minority group narratives.

That’s all I’ve managed to gather on this topic thus far. If you have any helpful links or articles on this topic, do leave a comment.

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Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters
  1. [Podcast playlist] Ambedkar Jayanti was celebrated earlier this past week. Check out our four episodes (1,2,3, and 4) on the great man’s writings at Puliyabaazi. We often like to say that the best way to understand Ambedkar is to read him rather than read about him.

  2. [Article] Arthur C Brooks’ three-step approach to changing people’s minds on contentious issues. To be read together with Ian Leslie’s Guardian article on the same issue.