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Modi Ignites Language Wars in Lutyens' Delhi

With the rise and rise of Narendra Modi, India’s first truly post-Independence prime minister, who also happens to be its least “classically educated” one, Lutyens’ Delhi is confronting a brand new reality.

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The heart of Delhi is sore. Lutyens’ Delhi, the 26-square-kilometer hub of India’s political elite, bureaucrats, media moguls, journalists, top academics and writers, public intellectuals, as well as the wealthiest corporates, lobbyists, political PR brigade, connected lawyers, dynasty hangers-on, and bleeding heart liberals, is undergoing a tectonic shift. The deep roots it had grown since the dawn of Indian Independence, nurtured by the might of the Queen’s English, are being uprooted at a frenetic pace. Call it it the Modi effect.

In July this year, an official circular from the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government asked ministers and bureaucrats to “prioritize” communication in Hindi, instead of English. It not only directed government officials to use Hindi during official electronic relays, to spruce up hitherto neglected Hindi versions of the government websites, but also to tweet in Hindi, as a part of the organized attempt to boost the “national language.” Its advocates assert that Modi represents “Bharat” while the previous government was the face of a lopsided “babalog” culture, represented by the insular Lutyens’ elite that has been perpetuating colonial-era privilege over generations, with plum English as its rude source of strength and class marker. This shift to Hindi has been paraded as a coming of age of a self-confident India, for whose teeming multitudes English exists as an omnipresent chimera and an instrument of discrimination.

With the rise and rise of Narendra Modi, India’s first truly post-Independence prime minister, who also happens to be its least “classically educated” one, Lutyens’ Delhi is confronting a brand new reality. The man they had long dismissed as a provincial parvenu from the western state of Gujarat is now the most powerful man in the country, leaving his firm imprint on the territories that had been under their thumbs for over six decades. Delhi’s pride and the British-designed, sprawlingly landscaped Lutyens’ zone (named after the famous architect Edwin Lutyens), that boasts of the president’s residence or Rashtrapati Bhawan, Central Secretariat, which houses most of the ministries and government offices, including the Prime Minister’s Office, is now home to the strongman from Gujarat and Hindi heartland, a far cry from the Oxbridge-educated ministers peopling the grand old party, the 129-year-old Indian National Congress, and the posh bureaucrats they presided over.

With a chaiwallah prime minister now at the helm of affairs, it is not just the traditional political elite, but also the enormous English-educated urban middle class that has woken up to a changed circumstance. What is at play is a definitive battle for, if not the soul of India, but certainly, its seat of power, the deep state, its tools and instruments of wrenching and retaining political, economic, ideological and cultural supremacy.

The old swaggering in English has lost its charm. Now it’s the confident, muscular utterances in Hindi, or some of the regional languages, such as Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati, that will do the trick, nationally and even internationally. This was most evident when Narendra Modi, India’s 15th prime minister, addressed the 69th United Nations General Assembly in New York City in Hindi to rapturous applause.

Modi has certainly made the vernacular very cool, both in India and abroad.

But this is not just individual bravura. Under Modi, there’s a more than active push to not just promote Hindi, one of the two official languages used by the federal government in its everyday activities and communications, but in fact, to root out English and its sphere of influence. Under the garb of promoting “rashtrabhasha,” or national language, Hindi is getting a boost it hasn’t witnessed since former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee encouraged its usage a decade earlier. However, this move has come under attack since no such provision for a national language exists in the Indian Constitution, and even though Parliament could so legislate, the Hindi belt faces formidable opposition in the Southern states, which bitterly resent the imposition of the North Indian language. Its civil servants, conversant in English and their state languages, scoff at Hindi, while its politicians, when visiting Delhi, doggedly stick to English, despite attempts to popularize Hindi through Bollywood and cultural centers for decades.

However, for Lutyens’ Delhi, the abode of India’s traditional elite, especially those who inherited the massive administrative mantle from the British, preserving each piece of architectural marvel, ritual and procedural whims as well as the general Raj hangover in its extreme Anglophilia (which over the last two decades has translated into a love of everything American), this is a traumatic transition. Accepting the sudden indisposition of English language, and all its habitual benefits, including occupying the cushy posts and minting the benefits of crony pseudo-socialism of former Congress-led central government, is proving to be delirious for the Lutyens’ brigade. It’s oscillating between complete denial and absolute volte-face, either dismissing the Modi phenomenon as a temporary hiccup in a long innings of governance by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, or embracing the change without its caveats. It is not criticizing the ever-growing baggage of hardline Hindu nationalism that is piggybacking on this push for a highly Sanskritized Brahminical Hindi, and not the common parlance Hindustani, which is really a mix of Hindi languages and Urdu, as well as a smattering of English at this present juncture.

Planting the English Seed

From being Macaulay’s Minutemen to Global Indians, the story of English in India was a journey from an imposition to an addiction, at least for its power elites. “Who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia [?].” In the universal disparagement handed out by Thomas Babington Macaulay, this (half-)sentence remains the most-quoted verbal proof attributed to the nineteenth century British historian and bureaucrat’s typical racism and his prescient anticipation of English as the next world language. Every educated Indian, whether residing in India, or in the innumerable diasporic communities across the world, is aware that had it not been for Macaulay, and his (in)famous “Minute on Education” presented on February 2, 1835 before the Governor-General’s Council in erstwhile Calcutta, their uses and abuses of the English language, as much as the casualness with which the proximity to English is taken for granted by Indians all over, would have perhaps never happened.

“Bleddy Macaulay’s minutemen! … English-medium misfits … Square-peg freaks” — thus screams a character in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) in his effort to describe the class of people that Tom Macaulay, and indeed much of the liberal-imperial British establishment of early 19th century, had sought to create. In Macaulay’s own words, they were to be “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

“Macaulay’s Minutemen,” as this band of Westernized Indian elite came to be called, were the product of that primordial linguistic miscegenation that grafted English on the top of the language tree of the subcontinent and made the language the “grandmother tongue” of all subsequent generations of Indians.

Whether it was at all necessary to install English as the official language of governance and education and immerse India in an up-to-date version of liberal British education, are considerations and speculations that eat up a serious chunk of academic writing in the departments of South Asian studies in leading global universities. Nevertheless, the primal English-ing of India and, the later “desification” of British and American cultural landscapes by the Indian-origin literary architects in the last quarter of the twentieth century, were indisputable and complementary essentials that guide our understanding of the broader and greater Indian consciousness in present times.

So much so, that even Bollywood film scripts are written in English, the Hindi dialogue is transcribed in English, the instructions on the set and the pre-release interactions with media occur in English. What started out as a colonial era administrative apparatus is now the link language, connecting the Hindi/Punjabi/Urdu-speaking North with the Tamil/Telegu/Konkani/Kannada-speaking South, or the Bengali/Oriya-speaking East, or Gujarati/Marathi-speaking West. With 22 official languages, it was difficult to pick a national language, even though Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and undoubtedly one of the chief architects of modern Indian political consciousness, had put his weight behind Hindi. However, the backlash from the southern states had forced his government to relent and give primacy to English.

Making it Official

Although the Indian Constitution, during its unveiling in 1950, provided that Hindi would gradually replace English as the language of administration and empowered Parliament to legislate to such effect when the time is right, it proved to be a Herculean task that could never be accomplished. So staunch and violent were resistances from the South and East of India, particularly, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, that the Official Languages Act (1963) designated Hindi and English as the two official languages for the federal government, while various state laws, rules and regulations made subsequently framed English and the state language to carry out a similar function in regional provinces. However, certain core functions, such as legislating, arguing in Supreme Court (and several High Courts), as well as handing down judgments, were designated for English and only English. The justification for this was obviously to maintain continuity with the past, given that Indian Penal Code, written in 1860, was, along with Indian Civil Service, another gift of Lord Macaulay, and the Indian federal government was too steeped in Western liberal education to opt for a sudden termination of the apparatus. However, parliamentary proceedings could be conducted in Hindi and English, as well as, with the Speaker’s permission, in the member’s mother tongue, usually one of the 22 official languages accepted in India.

While state governments dabbled in both English and the regional official language, Lutyens’ Delhi was heavily indebted to English, segregating its political and executive class from the vast expanse of suburbia, inhabited by refugees from West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). While Lutyens’ Delhi, including the North and South Blocks where the ministries and departments of the Government of India are housed, as well as Raisina Hill (with the famous Lutyens’ bungalows), Janpath, Sujan Singh Park, Connaught Place, Sansad Marg (where Parliament House is located), belongs to the political, economic, social and intellectual top brass, the rest of Delhi remains almost cut off from this sanctum sanctorum, save for occasional public places like India Gate that still attract occasional strollers and lovers out for a happy time.

But they cannot claim Lutyens’ Delhi, which happens to be one of the most expensive slices of the real estate pie that is sending land prices through the roof in India. Moreover, Lutyens’ Delhi, which is contiguous with landmarks of affluence, such as the Delhi Gymkhana Clun, the Diplomatic Enclave, Lodi Gardens with its magnificent Lodi-era tombs, Delhi Golf Club, National Zoological Park, Old Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Jho rBagh, Khan Market, is the last bastion of decadent aristocrats, only recently fawning at the now out-of-steam Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, flaunting their political connections with as much ease as the newest acquisition — Lois Vuitton handbags, Jimmy Choo shoes, Gucci sunglasses, highest-end iPhones and gadgets.

Over the past two decades, since the time of late former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the socialist restraint and educated austerity that came to be identified with Congress and Delhi’s political elite during the first 40 years since Independence, was gradually replaced by a thirst for Euro-American bling. The halting giving in to overt markers of money that started from Rajiv-Sonia’s drawing room at 7 Race Course Road during mid-1980s, was emulated and accelerated after 1991, when India liberalized its economy.

English Augusts of Delhi

With globalization of capital, came the cultural tow. English was more widely spoken now, but the regional languages infused in English an enriching “glocal” flavor. Migration to Delhi escalated to astronomical levels, more than tripling its population in the last 30 years. Delhi was a veritable cauldron, bubbling with tongues, languages, people, customs, but somehow everything was sublimated into the officiousness of English within the Lutyens’ zone. Nothing could escape its grand snigger, and no amount of brilliance could outmatch the entrenched value of hereditary privilege, passed on through generations.

Until now, Lutyens’ Delhi guarded its walls with a ferocity that was both casual and vicious, half-hearted and zealous. This traditional elite replicated itself in politics obviously, with more than half of Congress party leaders being sons and daughters of earlier stalwarts, but also in every other conceivable sphere of influence. Be it bureaucracy, judiciary, media, academia, business and commerce, public sector industries, lobbying sector, banking and finance, advertising or publishing, the coterie was tightly maintained and only selective entry was allowed to a chosen few outside this hallowed coven. Because the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had ruled India for 50 years of its 67-year-old Independence, there was no question of this status quo being challenged, at least not in its inner echelons of well-groomed power emanating from a pseudo-socialist aristocracy.

While most of the Congress old guard could be said to be belonging to this category of uber-erudite, but distressingly delusional men and women, flaunting their proximity to 10 Janpath (the residence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi) or 7 Race Course Road (the Prime Minister’s residence), nothing beats the antics of the glib talkers of the St Stephen’s Club, such as Shashi Tharoor, and Mani Shankar Aiyar. Both are highly educated diplomats turned politicians, whose globe-trotting had endeared them to the inner chambers of Lutyens’ Delhi as well as the international circuits of political “soft power,” where smooth talking ambassadors discuss national fates over Scotch whiskeys and French wines.

Aiyar, for one, had charted the entire arc that groomed and ushered in a typical Lutyens’ member: he attended Welham Boys’ School, The Doon School, St. Stephen’s College and University of Cambridge, where the crème de la crème of India’s top brass have been sending their children to become emissaries of the “babalog” culture. Aiyar had, in addition, the distinction of being close to Rajiv Gandhi, who was his junior in both Doon and Cambridge, and his proximity to Sonia Gandhi was unquestionable until, in the later half of UPA-II, he became something of a loose cannon. Forever dismissive and intellectually arrogant, he wore the sobriquet with pride. During Modi’s robust campaign to claim the top job in Indian government, the swashbuckling Aiyar taunted that Modi should distribute tea outside the Congress Party office in Delhi. The BJP strongman turned this jibe, reeking of class bias, into another campaign inviting people to debate issues over cups of tea (chai pe charcha). Aiyar lost his parliamentary seat, while Modi went on to claim Delhi in a landslide victory, ending the coalition era by gaining simple majority in Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament.

Another India

Following the Emergency-era Janata movement and its short-lived stints during 1977-80, 1989-91, 1998-2004, India witnessed an era of ramshackle coalition governments that were propped up by unruly allies unwilling to tow the government line. Each time though Hindi made a temporary comeback as an alternative to the insular, mai-baap culture of Congress-led political and bureaucratic class and their appendages in the public sphere. But never did it make a re-entry as colossal as it did during the buildup to Modi’s campaign. There were regional politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh or Lalu Yadav in Bihar, who spoke in the only language they knew: Hindi. Yet neither did their ambition pave the highway to Delhi, nor did they ever enthuse a whole generation of Indians in the manner that Modi managed to achieve, and that too within a period of just one and half years.

From a déclassé strongman with the stellar sobriquet “Butcher of Gujarat,” Modi reinvented himself into the messiah of millions of aspirational Indians who had to fight it out from scratch. This was the India that thrived in its villages itching to partake of India’s miraculous growth story, and, according to Modi, not to be burdened by Congress’ politics of “welfare patronage.” Modi gave his rousing speeches in Hindi, wearing headgears from states, attacking the leaky schemes that the previous Manmohan Singh-led UPA government had legislated.

Modi alluded to the son of the soil idea, attacking the “Italian widow” in Sonia Gandhi, the “pappu” in son Rahul, and the corrupt Congress corroding the idea of India. In all this, Modi’s strongest pitch was to sever the umbilical chord that attached India to Nehru and his idea of statist welfare, non-alignment, liberal education and secularism. Moreover, it was an idea that accepted that a country as vast as India would be ruled by a tiny minority of foreign-educated elite who wrote and spoke English with greater ease than any other language. After denuding English of its traditional sublimity, Modi rushed Hindi in to fill up the void.

From his inaugural speech as prime minister to all the significant addresses, Modi has used Hindi, a language he’s comfortable in, to brilliant effect. With his penchant for high drama and inclination toward political bling, Modi heightens and modulates the pitch and tone of his rousing speeches in Hindi, at national and international podiums. During his maiden trip to the USA after nine years of visa denial over the Godhra riots, when Modi addressed Indian Americans at Madison Square Garden, before the 20,000 present at the venue and another three million tuned to their television sets, Modi was embraced by the diaspora like never before.

Modi-fication of Lutyens’ Delhi

Since 2012, with a perceived resurgence of the regional languages and the increased penetration of Hindi-language news and television channels, media houses began pursuing an active policy of pumping in more money to the Hindi siblings of prominent English-language national dailies, such as Times of India and Hindustan Times. The regional language press is growing rapidly and becoming a greater source of revenue against a dwindling market for English dailies. National and assembly elections became platforms to launch or overhaul publications, and the vernacular press is having a field time making its presence felt even in the tightly-sealed corridors of Delhi. During the national elections this year the Gujarat model was much flaunted (even though by most measures it is just average), the highly effective public relations machinery at work, catapulted everything Hindi and Gujarati to a starry fame.

After Modi won a massive mandate in the April-May 2014 general elections, Hindi returned with an unprecedented gusto. Lutyens’ Delhi watched in awe and felt a shiver down its spine as Modi invited topmost leaders and dignitaries from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries to attend his swearing-in ceremony. Since then, Modi has regaled audiences in Hindi, during televised addresses abroad, or during his monthly radio address Mann Ki Baat broadcast on All India Radio.

But the push came to shove when the government directed ministers and bureaucrats to switch to Hindi in official correspondence as well as prioritize Hindi while communicating with the world at large over social media. Reflective of a resurgent India, as well as emulating the biggest world powers, such as Russia, Germany, France, China, and Japan, that resolutely use their own language, the embrace of Hindi is being viewed as India finally shedding its colonial baggage and asserting its homegrown pride on the international dais. While critics charge that Modi’s Hindi push is part of its larger Hindutva bogey, they are far outnumbered by those who see in this an expression of newfound self-confidence, minus the crutch of British-aided language or statecraft.

But Lutyens’ Delhi, the bastion of providential privilege, is shaken, stirred. While many still are batting for English, and even the government has since backpedalled, saying the circular to prioritize Hindi was meant for the Hindi belt only, bureaucrats are brushing up their written and spoken Hindi. Grapevine in the political corridors of India is that high-profile appointments are now being made keeping fluency in Hindi in mind, even though no overt discrimination against English has been cited so far. Bilinguality is being seen as an asset, while scientists are getting research papers translated into Hindi for broader appeal. Public servants in North and South Blocks are now presenting a different face, one that is less couched in imported tradition and more steeped in the miscegenation of here and now. 

Several reports in the Indian media have quoted former and current bureaucrats expressing either umbrage at the ongoing change in style or grudgingly welcoming it. Subhash Kashyap, a former official in Parliament, admitted that India was run on the colonial model that relied on English, but if Hindi was making a comeback on the national stage, it should not be resented, adding a caveat, “It should be a slow, natural process. It should take its own time, there should be no feeling of any language being forced.”

Yet, as is clear in Nripendra Mishra, the principal secretary to Prime Minister Modi, a formidable knowledge of Hindi, particularly in its Sanskritized avatar, is an asset to anyone seeking to quickly rise in the current regime. Mishra, a former chairman of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, is as much a votary of no-nonsense bureaucracy as the prime minister himself. Hailing from Uttar Pradesh, the heart of the Hindi belt, his Harvard background and rapport with ministers, he’s the perfect embodiment of the kind of India and Indian that PM Modi wants to bring about.

Sanskritizing India

The push for Hindi has been coterminous with a prioritizion of Sanskrit over German in the Kendriya Vidyalayas (Central government-run schools) across India. A sudden diktat by the Ministry of Human Resource Development announced that Sanskrit would replace German as the third language in all these schools, and there are thousands of them, to promote greater understanding of Indian culture. Despite major protest from the left-leaning liberal intelligentsia as well as the secular opposition, the language wars seem to be mirroring and facilitating each other. And behind all the linguistic shenanigans, there is the looming shadow of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the twin think-tanks that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party draws heavily from.

The project of rewriting destiny and revisioning history has claimed the very soul and idea of India, at least the way it was envisioned by the founding fathers. From Nehruvian secularism and non-alignment and sublimating the religious, class, caste, language identities under the rubric Indian, it has now come to asserting  and flaunting one’s own identity, including religious.

As the Modi regime appropriates neglected Congress-era icons, such as Sardar Patel, B R Ambedkar, to give Hinduism a push, the many ironies and nuances die several deaths. For example, trying to circulate Ambedkar as a Hindu, non-Congress icon is an affront to very cause that he lived for: to end the tyranny of caste within Hinduism.

The strong Dalit movement has always defined itself against the Brahminical rule of upper caste Hindus, and no amount of political mollycoddling has until now yielded dividends to unite Dalits and caste Hindus against a religious other – such as Muslims and Christians.

While novelists like Aatish Taseer, and his mother, journalist Tavleen Singh, find in the Modi regime a “civilization reclaiming,” rediscovering’ Sanskrit at Ivy League American universities and linking it back to a new, self-confident (or hyper-nationalist?) twenty-first century India, many fear this regress into a majoritarian straitjacket will completely tear apart the already ragtag fabric of multiethnic, multireligious, multilinguistic India.

Tongue-in-cheek Democracies

Given that the two largest democracies in the world, India and America, share this historical vulnerability, it is both odd and ironic that in the current context, it is the United States of America, with its three million strong Indian American population, that is courting Prime Minister Narendra Modi most in his international forays. Barack Obama will be the first US president to be the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day celebrations on 26 January 2015. The Modi-fication of Madison Square Garden and of Lutyens’ Delhi, , cannot be understood without reading them together in this tightly knit and fast-paced chapter of contemporary Indianness, both within its territories as well as in its expansive diaspora.   

The Snobs of St Stephens


Shashi Tharoor (left) at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Perhaps no two people better personified the hubris and arragance of the St Stephens jet setters better than Shashi Tharoor and Mani Shankar Aiyar, both former diplomats turned politicians and cabinet ministers in the Manmohan Singh government.

Aiyar, a contemporary of Rajiv Gandhi at the Doon School and the University of Cambridge, was particularly outlandish. He was once accused by a politician Amar Singh of taunting Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Hindi-speaking, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, with the comment: “Oh that bloody Mulayam — he looks just like me. It could be because my father visited Uttar Pradesh at some point. Why don’t you check with Mulayam’s mother.”

On another occasion he mocked fellow cabinet minister Ajay Maken, a graduate of a regional college, with whom he had crossed swords: “Firstly, we have to establish the authenticity of this letter. It contains words like ‘dichotomous’ which I cannot believe that a BA Pass from Hansraj College would know…. There are such big big words used that unless Maken had a thesaurus by his side, I don’t believe that he wrote that letter perhaps.”

Accosted by students of Hansraj College to apologize, Aiyar was even more defiant, challenging them to bring together BA-Pass students from Hans Raj and St Stephen’s to pronounce “dichotomous,” asserting that “I do not believe the student from Hansraj will be able to do it.”

Tharoor, who rose to become an under-secretary-general at the United Nations, was roundly criticized early in his political career after tweeting that he would travel “in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!” In April 2010, he was forced to quit as a minister after his links to the Kochi IPL franchise, which had granted equity to his then girlfriend, later wife, were exposed. Early in the election campaign, Narendra Modi mocked Tharoor’s “50-crore girlfriend,” Sunanda Pushkar. She was found dead under mysterious circumstances in a Delhi hotel in January 2014.

Soon after the elections, after Tharoor wrote several columns praising Narendra Modi, a bristling Aiyar derided his former cabinet colleague as a “sychophant” and a “chameleon” abhishek.

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September 24, 2016 at 2:06 AM
few misdeed like that of Nehru manishankar, shashi tharoor should not color our judgement on higher education in foreign universities, it is or lopsided positive view of the men with feudal mentality that is the culprit.
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Politics | December 2014

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Mani Shankar Aiyar is one of several highly educated diplomats turned politicians. Modi turned Aiyar's jibe into another campaign, chai pe charcha. The social restraint and educated austerity of Congress was gradually replaced by a thirst for Euro-American bling. This shift to Hindi has been paraded as a coming of age of a self- confident India. Delhites are almost cut off from the sanctum sanctorum of Lutyens' Delhi, save for public places like India Gate.

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