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Joining the bandwagon

The historic political importance of compulsory Telugu language.

Joining the bandwagon
Telugu is the 15th most spoken mother tongue in the world. To put this rank in perspective, some of the mother languages that are behind Telugu include French, Turkish, Italian, Persian, and Dutch. Let that sink in a bit. All of these lower-ranked languages are official languages of independent states (and with the exception of Urdu) that are smaller in population than the Telugu linguistic homeland (that is, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh combined) , one is a UN language, and some are languages in which hundreds of science journals are published including works that went on to win Nobel prizes in the sciences. That these lesser-ranked languages are compulsory in their respective linguistic nations is not even a question of debate. However, all hell breaks lose from the small but rich and hence influential CBSE school parents and authorities groups when any non-Hindi language is made compulsory in any state of the Indian Union. I stress on non-Hindi since Hindi learning is compulsory in all boards of all schools in each and every state where Hindi is the primary state language and no parent of any CBSE school, irrespective of what the mother tongue of the child is, has ever protested that. Somehow all concerns about 'choice' and 'freedom' emanate from CBSE schools when it comes to non-Hindi languages and never in case of Hindi. In fact, this sort of 'choice' rhetoric is quite rich as CBSE is the only board that does not give any choice about what should be first language of the child, which must necessarily be English. All major non-Hindi state boards give multiple choices for the first language.
Thus, it was not surprising when the declaration of Telugu to be compulsory in schools of Telangana saw similar murmurs of unhappiness from some CBSE schools. But let that minor irritation not take us away from this momentous historical event. In no part of the Telugu homeland has learning Telugu ever been compulsory in the 2 millenia old past of the Telugu language. That changed on November 14, 2017, with a communiqué from Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao's office which read, "the CM has instructed all educational institutions in the state, both private and public, to teach Telugu as a compulsory subject from 1st to 12th standard." This move was cemented further on 21st November 2017 in a review meeting of the Telangana government, chaired by the Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister Kadiyam Srihari, that put its assent to a sub-committee report proposing Telugu as a compulsory subject in all schools of Telangana from Class I to intermediate. Telugu linguistic nationality never had supreme state power and supreme official language rights in their own homeland in the last 300 years. With the passage of the The Andhra Pradesh Official Language Act in 1966, the latter issue was partially remedied but barely so. They don't have that power now either given Union and concurrent list controls much of Andhra and Telangana affairs as well as Telugu people's affairs. That is because the life of a Telugu person is governed by subjects controlled by the Union government as well as the State government and the expansive powers and ambit of the Union government vis-à-vis the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh State governments ensures that a Telugu person does not receive most of the linguistic communication necessary for his life in Telugu, because the Union government does not speak to him/her in Telugu. It speaks to the Telugu person in Hindi and English and progressively more in the former.
While the Telangana government decision to make Telugu compulsory in schools was a much belated yet necessary step, those who oppose this and think that Union government's Hindi imposition is somehow 'normal', should really get themselves acquainted with the actual political and Constitutional reality. The Constitution mandates that no one can be discriminated on the basis of language. This makes all the attempts of Hindi imposition by the Union government on non-Hindi people unconstitutional. But more fundamentally, the Indian Union was not formed on the basis of any language. However, most of the non-Hindi States were, in fact, formed on the basis of language. The explicit mention of language as a primary basis for the reorganisation of states after the bigger swathe of the British controlled territories of South Asia was constituted as the Indian Union. In fact, most of the non-Hindi linguistic States had been sovereign political units much before the "idea of India" existed. In the linguistic reorganisation of States, Telugu has a very special place. It was the first State carved out on a linguistic basis from the erstwhile poly-lingual Madras province. Again, Telugu is one of the two non-Hindi languages (the other being Bengali) that is the primary state official language of more than one State.
The bifurcation of the Telugu national homeland into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states after the Telangana state demand had been seen as a breakage in Telugu unity. Thus, it is extremely significant that it was Telangana and not Andhra Pradesh that took the lead in making Telugu compulsory in all schools. With this act, Telangana had, consciously or otherwise, thrown the gauntlet towards Andhra Pradesh and it was a matter of time before Andhra Pradesh made the same decision, so that it would not appear to be reluctant and left behind when came to standing up for Telugu. On November 24, 2017, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N.Chandrababu Naidu signed an official document setting off the process that ultimately aims at making Telugu compulsory in all schools of Andhra Pradesh till Class XII. United Telugu cooperation, a casualty of the Telugu homeland bifurcation, is thus back in play, albeit in a competitive sense.
This points to a shifting ground in the Telugu homeland and none other than Indian Union Vice President M.Venkaiah Naidu, himself a native Telugu speaker, has reacted to it. Given that he never had any serious support base in his own homeland, he has used this opportunity to voice support for these Telugu prioritisation initiatives, in an effort to position himself as a Telugu patriarch of sorts. The Telugu people always denied him any such status and he owed his Rajya Sabha to other BJP ruled states and not to the Telugu states. He has long been an ardent supporter of Hindi imposition as non-Hindi leaders of BJP are expected to be, but it has been particularly egregious in his case, probably part of his zeal to present himself as trustworthy and more loyal than the king to BJP's Hindi heartland base and RSS's Nagpur headquarters. One loses count of the number of times he has oft-repeated the false and unconstitutional propaganda that Hindi is the "national language" or "rashtrabhasha" when it isn't so. As a part of his flash in the pan Telugu advocacy, he said that those having jobs in Andhra Pradesh must know Telugu. This is a pretty amazing statement because only a few days ago he said all non-Hindi students must learn Hindi to be "acceptable" at "national level". What is this "national" that he is talking about? Is Andhra Pradesh not part of that nation? Does he imagine a "nation" that is 5-feet above the ground of non-Hindi national homelands and is a product of Union government-controlled offices, institutions, mines, ports, airports, highways, CBSE, and KV schools? It is this Hindi-centric cow-belt hegemony-seeking viewpoint that has made compulsory Telugu possible. It is at the same time an aspiration as well as a response.
Telangana and Andhra Pradesh join a growing list of States where the primary State language has been made compulsory in school since 2014. Between 2014 and 2017, official announcements have been made making Bengali compulsory in schools of West Bengal, Kannada compulsory in schools of Karnataka, and Malayalam compulsory in Kerala. What is important to note is that these are all non-BJP states, representing a very wide political range – from state rights ideology parties like Trinamool to a strong state right advocate in a weakening Delhi party like Siddaramaiah in Karnataka to a universalist ideology party with a strong local base in CPI(M) in Kerala. What these states – West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh have started doing in this short period of 2014-2017 is something that they didn't do since 1947. Thus, one must look to emergent realities of the 2014-2017 period to understand that this represents, why language and why now. Across the non-Hindi states, there is a realisation that soft linguistic nationalism has the potential to be an effective counter to BJP's Hindi-Hindu nationalism. It is one of the last remaining dykes against all round Hindi imposition, communalisation of politics and unprecedented attacks on, erosion of and interference in state rights, with NEET, GST, and NITI Ayog interference being just a few examples among many others. It is this combination of factors that had led to this moment. In some ways, the language identity fights are essentially a proxy fight to protect the federal structure of the Indian Union. If state rights erode, there is no Indian Union, for the linguistic homelands predate the Indian Union. The fight to preserve State rights is a fight to preserve the unity and integrity of the Indian Union itself.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Garga Chatterjee

Garga Chatterjee

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