Two apparently unrelated yet deeply interconnected events of July invite serious reflection. One belongs to an unending story of crime, the other a not-so-interesting bureaucratic muddle. One will continue to fetch headlines for long and the other will survive, if it does at all, in footnotes for researches. Yet, both are of a piece in a larger plot threatening our republic. One is a murder story, the other is a not-so-eloquent and yet sordid saga of a genocide of a kind.
Murders of intellectuals
Throughout the month of July, reports of arrests of the suspects in the Gauri Lankesh murder featured in the news. The SIT constituted by the Karnataka government deserves praise for getting closer to cracking the conspiracy of killing several intellectuals. Those involved in the Gauri Lankesh murder are believed to have had a hand in killing Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi. The press reports tell us that many others are on the hit list. Some reports say that the list includes about 50 names. The SIT will be able to ascertain or deny this. As a result of the recovery of the list of ‘to be murdered’ writers and thinkers, more than 15 writers in Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra had to be provided special security. In recent weeks, I have met several writers and thinkers who have had to move wherever they go with these security men accompanying them.
Atmosphere of fear
The whole sequence of murders and their fallout sends a clear signal to writers, media persons and thinkers: ‘do not speak or write anything that will critique the Hindutva forces and the government that tacitly supports them.’ It is another thing that many writers and media persons still show the courage to speak when it is necessary to do so. Yet, the atmosphere of intimidation and fear is pervasive. Earlier this week, the Goa assembly witnessed a discussion on the threats given to writers. While the Chief Minister assured the legislature that security was being provided to the writers, he avoided answering why the organisation located in Goa and so clearly named by the investigating agencies in Maharashtra and Karnataka is not being banned or restricted. And, there lies the rub. Several times, the Prime Minister has stated that violence and mob lynching will not be tolerated. That is admirable. The only difficulty is every time an assault takes place, it is the victim that is placed in the dock. The perpetrators continue to roam all over, unhindered, free.
Doctored data on languages
I now turn to the relatively less eye-catching event of July 2018. The Census of India 2011 data related to languages was released by the Census office. With all its tables and charts, it looks perfectly harmless. But, scratch the surface and you find that it is heavily doctored. It tells us that in 2011, our countrymen stated a total of 19,569 ‘raw returns’ (read, non-doctored claims). Out of these close to 17,000 were outright rejected and another 1,474 were dumped because not enough scholarly corroboration for them exists. Only 1,369, roughly six per cent of the total claims, were admitted as ‘classified mother tongues.’ Rather than placing them as languages, they were grouped under 121 headings. These 121 were declared as languages of India.
One may ask, but how does this matter? It matters because the data for Hindi has been bolstered up – shown at 52 plus crores – by adding to its core figure of speakers, the speakers of nearly 50 other languages. These include Bhojpuri, claimed by over five crore people, and many languages in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Bihar, claimed by close to a total of six crores. At the same time, 17 of the 22 scheduled languages are reported by the Census as showing a downward trend in their rate of growth in comparison to the growth in the previous decade. The architecture of the presentation of the language census data has at its foundation the principle of exclusion. And the exclusion is imposed on the languages that the people of India have claimed in the census exercise as being their languages. To use a term from the medical sciences, this act amounts to imposing an involuntary aphasia on citizens. In this instance, the numbers on whom it is imposed run into crores. And that is no small matter.
Denial of mother tongues
Since our Constitution gives us the fundamental and non-negotiable right to free expression, and since it not only accepts but encourages the idea of a multilingual India, is there not something profoundly unconstitutional in intimidating writers and thinkers or in wilfully suppressing people’s languages? The UNESCO brief for language rights describes denial of mother tongues or any wilful concealment of a mother tongue by the member States as equivalent to genocide; a strong word, indeed, but, necessary, thinks UNESCO. Quite ironically, the justification for both these actions is drawn from a common source; and that is, a deeply flawed idea of nationalism. It holds that anyone critical of the current regime is an enemy of India, an anti-national trying to ‘spread disaffection towards the State,’ in simpler words, seditious. With respect to languages, the argument says that if we have any large multiplicity of languages, it may result in disintegration of our national territory.
The love for the nation, its integrity is, of course, of prime importance. But a nation becomes great by the thought and knowledge it produces, by nurturing the freedom of mind and by the fearlessness of its citizens. States that consciously encourage creating societies that are incapable or cannot critique the system generate what in ancient Latin is described as hegemony. And, governments that become intolerant of differences of opinion become heavy with hubris. Hubris and hegemony produce a pervasive mediocrity. Excessively proud rulers, intellectual mediocrity and lynching mobs form a combine that threatens speech and forces civilizations to close their minds.