By Divya Karthikeyan Jun. 05, 2019
I wasn’t born during Tamil Nadu’s anti-Hindi agitation in the ’60s, but I do know enough to say the imposition was a source of vexation for my grandparents, my parents, and now me. The knowledge of Hindi has always been equated with national pride. And efforts to make the language mandatory every few years, accords it a ranking above all other regional languages.
Atop a worn-out table stood a transparent jar with a metal lid, bearing the weight of thick, five-rupee coins numbering in hundreds. Its presence in a Protestant girls’ school might lead the casual observer to think it was a Swear Jar, but they’d be wrong. In my school, we had the Tamil Jar.
If my teachers overheard a student speaking Tamil instead of English in the corridors or the playground, the student was immediately asked to drop a coin into the jar. As its weight testified, many students fell afoul of the Tamil Jar, except for me. I was a model student – no matter how much fun was made of me, the best English speaker in school, raking in all the awards and lollipops, was me.
It seemed ironic that Tamil was taboo at school, but is at the centre of a furious debate today over the National Education Policy draft. The HRD Ministry’s suggestion that schools in non-Hindi-speaking states should also teach Hindi as a second language was met with a wave of resistance from those who viewed it as an imposition on the linguistic heritage of Tamil Nadu and other states.
Back in the day, my grandmother felt the same; the difference was that the language being imposed was that of our colonisers. Compared to my pro-English school, my grandmother’s home was a stark contrast. On a towering steel shelf sat yellowing books and magazines boasting the best historical and contemporary Tamil literature. My father, who studied in a Tamil-medium school, would stop the car halfway from work or Sunday family brunches, and pick up a horde of Tamil publications – he would have a stack of issues spilling over on the backseat.
But my world was different, filled with Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl. I took pride in the fact that my English was revered, both at home and in school. Tamil was like a quiet, humble secret, bunched up behind the nooks and corners of the family home, and I could never truly access any of it. And during my growing-up years, I remained largely oblivious to the language of my ancestors.
We are far removed from the concept of nationalism because we have never seen ourselves in the building of an identity that is attached to Hindi.
Years later, in 2016, I was assigned as a reporter to cover the state assembly elections. I pounced at the opportunity, despite my laughable Tamil and my zero knowledge of the nuances of Tamil politics. I learnt on the job, and amid interviewing politicians and being laughed at for inserting English words in Tamil sentences, I discovered the wonders of Tamil literature and linguistic culture. I read poets – first translations and the original Tamil scripts next – and began to unravel the little secret carefully hidden between the pages of my father’s Kumudam. I also delved deep into the state’s history and learnt about its long fight to preserve Tamil identity.
In the ’60s, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam capitalised on the Hindi imposition narrative and led protests which brought together Tamil people across socio-economic boundaries. The agitation also went tragically awry, with a riot killing over 70 people in January 1965. Decades later, the issue remains unresolved with a proposed New Education Policy by the NDA government that is seen as a strategy to impose Hindi in non-Hindi speaking states. DMK leader MK Stalin called the move akin to a “stone thrown at a beehive.” Eventually, the uproar died down, after the clause recommending mandatory Hindi teaching in all schools was dropped. But how many years, before the Centre once again goes back to its “Hindi cause”?
I wasn’t born during the anti-Hindi agitation in the ’60s, but I do know enough to say the imposition was a source of vexation for my grandparents, my parents, and now me. The knowledge of Hindi has always been equated with national pride. And its imposition, though quickly withdrawn, once again accords the language a ranking above all other regional languages. In terms of forging a national identity, Tamil has always felt ignored and that exclusion is no longer subtle.
Our reluctance to learn Hindi has often made us feel like the “other”. We are far removed from the concept of nationalism because we have never seen ourselves in the building of an identity that is attached to Hindi. The flaw, I believe, then lies with this identity, which is based on uniformity and goes against the grain of a nation that prides itself for its diversity.
Back in school, English was preferred over Tamil. Now, we are once again being told to pay more attention to another language. The jar in my classroom was not just a punishment then – it symbolises that imposition can be quiet and unassuming, slithering into our psyche.
Today, I feel the weight of this imposition. And my grandmother’s shelf remains my only gateway to the Tamil word that stands loud and proud.
Divya Karthikeyan is an independent journalist. When she's not out reporting from a small town, she's crying over brilliant writing and trying to impress editors with her terrible social skills.