The Politics Of Dialect In Indian Regionalism (Shivani Bhasin)

A dialect is defined as a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a region or social group. Yet what exactly helps maintain a strict boundary between a dialect and a language?

The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich said that a language essentially is a “dialect with an army and a navy.” Here, it is understood that a language is built on certain standard rules and conventions, which a dialect may ultimately deviate from. A language is fortified by the amount of literature produced by it, whereas the scope of literature produced in a dialect is limited. Yet, when a language is adopted for official or state purposes, the ‘standard’ imposed in the spoken form is nothing but the dialect of the ruling class.

In America, General American English (GAE), a dialect of English spoken by urban whites, is upheld as the standard for the country whereas the dialect primarily spoken by working-class black Americans (AAVE or African American Vernacular English) is considered “broken English” or “incorrect English.” The racism in the implied difference between these two dialects is apparent.

Similarly, in England, standard English with the Received Pronunciation accent is upheld as the norm, even though it is spoken by a minimal number of people. This paper will analyze the politics of dialect in modern Marathi through the lens of regionalism, the politics of Hindi imposition and centre-state relations in India.

The question of dialect, therefore, must not be separated from power relations. In nearly every society, the dialect of the ruling elite or hegemonical force is considered the ‘standard’ of the language. In India, the stunning diversity of languages is usually attributed to geographical and cultural factors. However, the stunning diversity of dialects within the language is rarely accorded critical commentary. In fact, these numerous dialects have developed because of the caste system prevalent amongst Hindu society. Caste imposes geographical limits along with endogamy and segregation.

Historically, Dalit castes have been restricted from entering the areas populated by the upper castes. They have been ghetto-ized to the outer limits of the village, where interaction with other castes would be minimal. For purposes of ensuring strict endogamy and abating the threat of miscegenation, upper-caste women have also historically been restricted to the limits of their domestic spheres.

This has not been the case for Dalit women, who gained a degree of mobility simply on the basis of caste-ruled occupation. However, these circumstances must not be understood in opposition to one another for the lower caste woman’s mobility always came with the threat of sexual violence outside their homes. Thus, it is understood that caste, caste-based occupation and endogamy have resulted in a strict segregation of Indian society.

If in Kerala, the Nair upper-caste woman would be restricted to the geographical limit of her “tharavad” or ancestral home, she would be likely to speak a very specific kind of Malayalam. It is this dialect of Malayalam that she would eventually pass on to her child, as learning a language is usually attributed to the influence of the mother.

Therefore, caste differences ensure the distinct nature and number of dialects, and this difference will persist as long as caste-based segregation does. Often, the grammar and intonation of one caste’s dialect may be so radically different from another’s so as to give the impression that the two castes are not speaking the same language.

This has implications for political aspirations of a unified national or state language. If even a cosmopolitan centre such as Mumbai retains different dialects due to persistent caste segregation and caste-marked localities, the goal of a populace speaking a unified language seems almost futile.

However, before pursuing this proposition any further, we must understand the linguistic politics that creates “national” or “regional” languages in India. The impetus for regionalism on the basis of language stems from a reaction against the central government’s push for Hindi as the nation’s language. According to the Constitution of India, Hindi and English are adopted as the official federal languages of India, used for centre-state relations, although there is no such thing as a ‘national language.’ However, each state may choose the language for its own official purposes from a list of 22 officially recognized languages.

The push for Hindi as an “unofficial” national language, which began in the 1920s, led to frantic re-organization of states on linguistic lines post-independence. Thus, the multilingual Bombay and Madras Presidencies turned into the monolingual states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. Hindi imposition is often met with an equally defiant push of regional languages from states that do not use Hindi in their daily communications.

Thus, Papia Sengupta notes that it was made compulsory to study Malayalam and Bengali in “government, aided, unaided, and self-financing schools in Kerala and in all CBSE and Indian Council of Secondary Education (ICSE) board schools in West Bengal” after the central government indicated that it would make Hindi a compulsory subject in secondary education.  The centre and non-Hindi speaking states are caught in a mirroring relation. As the centre attempts to impose Hindi on non-Hindi states in order to create a ‘unified’ national culture, these states follow suit with various assertions of linguistic pride.

Meanwhile, modern Hindi, long excised from its Persio-Arabic words, has slowly evolved into a highly Sanskritized Hindi for official purposes. This was far from what its creator, Bhartendu Harishchandra had envisioned, preferring instead a modern standard of Hindi based on the ‘khari-boli’ dialect. The official standard of highly Sanskritized Hindi has led to Magahi, Bhojpuri, Bundelkhandi and other languages with proximity to Hindi being reduced to petty dialects even though they have a staggering amount of speakers. According to Reenu Punnoose and Muhammed Haneefa, the imposition of Hindi has created at least three binaries functioning on different levels:

Hindi–Hindu as “self,” Urdu–Muslim as “other”; Sanskrit-laden Hindi favouring upper caste Hindus as “self,” vernacular Hindi dialects often represented by the lower castes and classes as “other”; and finally, Hindi as the epitome of “desi self,” English as “foreign other.” (19)

It is via this lens that one must understand the formation of states on linguistic basis and the advent of regionalism. In 1960, the Samyukta Maharashtra movement successfully led to the creation of Maharashtra state. The movement initially had a strong working-class character and was inclusive of subaltern Marathi speakers, propelled by common fears of business elites attempting to retain Bombay as a union territory.

The establishment of Maharashtra was seen as a victory over hostile government forces, which had fired upon and martyred more than a hundred Marathi speakers who were fighting for self- respect and rights to their mother tongue. The Samyukta Maharashtra movement was built on the premise that the new state would be inclusive of all Marathi speakers, irrespective of caste or creed. This has proven to be a lie.

In recent years, Marathi linguistic pride has devolved into regional chauvinism and the formation of the communal, majoritarian political parties. Linguistic pride has become closely associated with the dominant Maratha caste, thereby erasing connections between subaltern Marathi speakers and the state of Maharashtra. In her study of Kannada nationalism, Janaki Nair posits the problem with regionalism on a linguistic basis. She says:

Like all nationalisms, (it) attempts to produce solidarity between all Kannada speakers in order to efface the specificities of caste and class, and pits itself against other dominated minorities rather than addressing the hierarchical division of labour that has ensured Kannada’s dominated status. As long as it continues to privilege the identity of Kannada over other democratic aspirations, the movement will tend increasingly towards alignment with strident communal or anti-minority forces. (2809)

This may be a comparable thesis for Marathi regionalism. The specificities of caste and class and the caste structure that ensures hierarchical division of labour is erased in order to maintain the ‘unity’ of Marathi speakers in the face of hostile central government forces. In this regard, Marathi is promoted in government-aided schools and colleges and education in Marathi is encouraged. This is done to keep the fears of Hindi imposition at bay.

However, it is worth emphasizing that both Hindi and Marathi-speaking political elites will ensure that their children receive education in English while mandating education in Marathi for a largely lower caste population. In this way, the lower caste population is deprived of all the material benefits that accompany education in English. The anti-caste thinker Kancha Ilaiah is a supporter of education in English for Dalit-Bahujan students. In his essay on why he changed his surname designated by caste to the English ‘Shepherd,’ Ilaiah writes:

The only way left for the Dalit-Bahujans in the globalised world is to trump Sanskrit with English. Though not many among them are well educated in English language, they must adopt and own English as their language – in all aspects, from their names to addressing God in their prayers. Let their prayers be to a God of equality, as against the Brahmin gods of inequality.

Here, Ilaiah contends that every Indian language will necessarily bear the rot of caste signifiers. Caste-laden associations will always abound in Indian languages. These associations will always have a negative impact on Dalit-Bahujan children as slurs, profanity and negative attributes will always be associated with their castes. For Ilaiah, it is better then, for Dalit-Bahujans to dump Indian languages all together and embrace the neutrality of English; which is free from negative caste associations and guaranteed to give its speakers a leg up in the neoliberal global economy.

In his paper on “Bahujan Students’ Language and Education,” Tejas Harad speaks about the radically different caste dialects that constitute Marathi. The official standard of Marathi closely resembles Brahmani Marathi, the dialect of Marathi spoken by the Brahmin caste. Due to their status right on top of the caste pyramid and the logic of caste-derived occupations, the Brahmins have always controlled knowledge production. In ancient India, knowledge was strictly disseminated by Brahmin priests due to their exacting control of Sanskrit, the language most closely associated with Gods and divinity. In modern times, Brahmins have benefited from their place on top of the caste hierarchy and overrepresentation in colonial learning institutions.

As a caste group, they are overrepresented in terms of decision-making roles. Despite being a numerical minority, they exert a firm control over knowledge production in the media, English universities, schools and other governmental decision-making bodies through an overrepresentation in posts. As a result, the Brahmin dialect is usually treasured as the purest and most knowledgeable form of most Indian languages.

In his paper, Harad describes the consequences of ascribing to a Brahmin model of Marathi. In the following extract, he describes various incongruities between his dialect (derived from a Bahujan caste) and the Brahmin dialect of Marathi. This in turn, played havoc on both his education and self- confidence within learning institutions.

My mother tongue is Marathi and I also studied in Marathi medium school till 10th standard. But the Marathi I spoke at home, and the Marathi of the textbooks were not the same. Our dialect does not have the letter ळ (ḷa). In our dialect the word Kamaḷa (कमळ) is spoken as Kamala (कमल), Śhāḷā (शाळा) as śhālā (शाला) and bāḷa (बाळ) as bālā (बाला). The letter ṇa (ण) also doesn’t exist in our dialect. Therefore, phaṇasa (फणस) becomes phanasa (फनस) and bāṇa (बाण) becomes bāna (बान). I learned to pronounce the letter ळ by third–fourth standard. But by the time I learned to make the distinction between न (na) and ण, I was already in 9th standard. Some of my classmates never learned these extra letters. They probably did not even feel the need to. As with letters, it’s the same with some words. In my dialect lagna (लग्न) is lagīna (लगीन), rakta (रक्त) is ragata (रगत) and vihīra (विहीर) is ira (इर). Since the local dialect didn’t exactly match the textbook language, students faced a lot of problems.

Harad describes feeling estranged from the Marathi taught at his school, despite calling himself as a native speaker of Marathi. The difference in the dialect known to him and the dialect taught at his school is so great that it impedes communication between him and a fellow classmate belonging to the Brahmin caste. This vast difference between dialects is common to other speakers of Marathi, too. The dialect of the Agri caste is thought to be phonetically different from other Marathi speakers. Such differences will only lead to feelings of inadequacy and humiliation among schoolchildren who do not speak the standard Brahmani Marathi.

Therefore, if a language is to be truly inclusive of its speakers it must be moulded on a standard that is more inclusive of other dialects and free of archaic grammatical rules. After all, the primary purpose of a language is communication. If communication is impeded because of the vast differences in dialect, the custodians of the language have failed in creating a pan-state mode of communication.

The propagation of Brahmani Marathi as the standard of Marathi will only benefit the Brahmin castes while ensuring the alienation of other castes from their own mother tongue.

Shivani Bhasin is currently pursuing her MA in English Literature at the University of Mumbai. She is interested in the interconnections of queer theory and body politics. In her free time, she enjoys Iranian films and the novels of J.M. Coetzee. 

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