Reserve Bank of India’s new 500 and 2000 Rupee notes confirm what many feared – that this design overhaul will be used to push certain iconographies that suit the incumbent BJP government. The difference between the old and new designs seem to be centred on three things - Hindi, Delhi, and Modi.
The new currency notes introduce numerals in Devanagri script. This was not the case earlier. Is it the case that the government thinks that only Hindi people should be able to read the numerals in a script they are familiar with while the rest of us, the non-Hindi majority, would not need to read numerals in our languages? Why was there no Devanagri numeral before this? Maybe because it is actually unconstitutional. Do the Government of India and RBI exist to serve only Hindi speakers? They might believe so. But non-Hindi linguistic groups are bound to Hindi people and to each other, only by the compact of the Constitution and not by the Hindi imperialist whims or ideologies of the Union government and its agencies. Policies that make a majority of the population feel like second-class citizens in their own homeland have typically had very bitter outcomes. The example of Pakistan’s imposition of Urdu vis-à-vis the marginalisation of Bangla is close at hand. If the government actually cared about the numerical readability of the numbers, they could have opted for the Euro model, where it is a single currency, but there are specific variants to accommodate the diverse stakeholders. Thus, a proportion of the currency notes could have had numerals in Devanagari, a proportion could have had Bangla, a proportion could have had Tamil and so on, based on population proportion of citizens using those languages. The BJP, in its efforts to impose Hindi, is reopening the wounds of 1965 anti-Hindi imposition struggles that have not been forgotten by non-Hindi peoples. In this regard, the British had done a much better job, where numerals all many South Asian languages were given equal footing in font size, vis-à-vis English. Thus English, Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, etc all had same font size numerals on bank notes as evidenced on the 10 Rupee currency note of 1910.
While Hindi and English are both foreign to all non-Hindi people, Hindi is foreign only to non-Hindi people. The historic judgement of the Gujarat High Court in this regard must be remembered which stated that Hindi was a “foreign language” vis-à-vis the state of Gujarat. In a diverse, federal Union of States, like the Indian Union, the legendary Tamil Nadu leader and Chief Minister had laid down a principle that every citizen must share advantages and disadvantages equally. The usage of Hindi/Devanagari violates this fundamental principle of peaceful coexistence and cooperation as it is not equidistant from all stakeholders and give undue advantage to those for whom this is the mother-tongue and standard script. English provides that equidistance. The Indian Union itself is the product of coordination and cross-linking of disparate ethno-linguistic nationalities mediated by English knowing elites of their respective groups. Most trans-linguistic discussions on political issues in the Indian Union happen in English.
Thirdly, the actual proportion of area on the currency note that is given to Devanagari vis-à-vis other language scripts has gone up. The relative space and size of Devanagari-Hindi things vis-a-vis our non-Hindi mother tongues reflects exactly what New Delhi thinks of the rest of us. And there is a temporal pattern to it that has gone from equality to inequality. About 100 years ago, when the British ruled South Asia from their capital in New Delhi, they introduced the One Rupee currency note in 1917.
It is quite unfortunate that British colonisers treated our languages at a more equal footing than those they transferred power to – this is true for the post-colonial fragments that came to be known as India and Pakistan. If after 1947, the absence of a British 'referee' becomes a reason for Hindi to be imposed by brute force of Union government majority, nothing can be a greater betrayal to the anti-colonial ideals of the freedom struggle of which resistance to forcibly imposed culture was an important component. 1947 sadly marks the watershed year for the loss of status for non-Hindi languages. In all the subsequent currency notes of the RBI, the proportion of space given to non-Hindi languages has shrunk progressively. This is not by accident and is my conscious policy of Hindi imposition that is evident in all actions of the Union government and its agencies, since 1947. The pace of that has visibly quickened with a militant edge under the present BJP regime in New Delhi. Thus, in RBI issued currency notes, Hindi-Devanagari words are big and are supposed to carry information. Non-Hindi language scripts are progressively smaller and are basically decoration with no practical use except for non-Hindi citizens to console themselves that 'diversity' is alive, though certainly not kicking. The Indian Union might want to take lessons from Singapore where the Chinese ethnicity’s (at 75 per cent of the population) Chinese characters and less than 10 per cent Tamil ethnicity’s (at less than 10 per cent of the population) Tamil characters find equal font size and space on the Singapore Dollar. Hindi speakers in the Indian Union form a minority of the Indian Union population. Hindi mother tongue people form about 25 per cent of the Indian population – even that number is arrived at after counting various linguistically non-Hindi languages as Hindi because New Delhi orders so according to its political agenda.
Fourthly, the new currency notes do not have all the scripts of all the languages recognised in Schedule VIII of the Constitution. Santhali is an example of a Schedule VIII language with its own Olchiki script that remains unrepresented in the currency note. Sanskrit with less than 20,000 self-reported speakers is represented while Santhali with nearly 70 lakh speakers is not. The same goes for Meiteilon (Manipuri), which is another Schedule VIII language with its own script. The new currency note was an opportunity to include Santhali and Meiteilon but clearly, Hindi and its expansion are the only driving force in the linguistic changes. People should know that the Indian Union government considers languages to be a security issue! Which is why language groups and their scripts have to have their official stamp of recognition and approval from the Union Home Ministry. This apparently innocuous fact shows how the Union Home Ministry views the linguistic diversity of India as a security issue where it dictates rules. Deep down, it views diversity as a threat to the 'idea of India', in spite of its public posturing of 'unity in diversity'.
The old currency notes tried to avoid location-based political symbolism except for the Parliament House in the denomination of 50 that arguably is for all. However, the Red Fort of Delhi in the new 500 denomination touches a raw nerve for many. The Red Fort was the political headquarters of the Mughal Empire for a long time. The Indian Union came into existence in 1947. It is not a successor state to the Mughal Empire. The Red Fort is a sign of pre-British Delhi-based imperialism, signifying the power of imperial invaders who attacked the countries of Bengalis, Marathis, Axomiya, Odiyas, and many others. Our ancestors resisted such invasions but Delhi won by brute power. Imperial Delhi ruled by posting mostly Hindi/Urdu speaking military people in our homelands. Delusions of civilisational continuity premised on imperial occupation do not help cooperation, slogans of ‘cooperative federalism’ notwithstanding. What does the Government of the Indian Union want to remind the people who were conquered and defeated by the forces headquartered in the Red Fort by putting this picture on the bank note?
The use of the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” (Clean India expedition) logo accompanied by its Hindi slogan in Devanagari script crosses all limits of propriety. Never before has a government put one of its own schemes on something as non-partisan and common as a currency note. Now, nothing stops any later day Union government to use currency notes as their pet scheme advertising billboards. The abuse started earlier during the Congress regime with the use of the face of MK Gandhi.
Narendra Modi announced the new currency notes after the 500-1000 demonetisation announcement. His address was in Hindi, without any subtitles and then in English (with Hindi subtitles). So, the Union government does care whether Hindi speakers comprehend the English speech but doesn’t care whether the majority of the citizens, that is, non-Hindi-English speakers understand anything at all. Last heard, the new currency notes do not match the structural specifications of the ATM machines all over. Since the top-down imposition of currency notes by New Delhi is sacred, all the ATM machines have to be structurally changed to match and fit what New Delhi has produced. New Delhi won't change what it produces to match what already exists all over. And that is a good analogy of how New Delhi frames its policies in all matters regarding non-Hindi people, currency notes included.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)