As the official language of the Union of India, Hindi is a potent reminder of the political and cultural effects of nineteenth century communalism and twentieth century partition. The creation of certain upper-caste Hindu communities, Hindi, with its Devanagri script and Sanskrit vocabulary, privileges the culture of those communities to the exclusion of others. Its association with “Hindu” in the slogan “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” moreover (versus ‘Urdu, Muslim, Pakistan’) leaves one to question its implications for India’s “unity in diversity.”
Since 1947, the Government of India has presented diversity as natural to the idea of India. India has “instituted” diversity whereby symbols and institutions are (re)imagined to reflect the “unity in diversity” credo. So, we have the Indian flag, the national anthem-state-sponsored documentary films on the life of the nation and the pageantry of the Republic Day parade. Each of these is officially patronized, sold to India’s citizens, “naturalizing” the idea of a pluralistic and multicultural India.
Hindi though is a major exception to this rule, naturalizing instead the idea that one particular Indian culture or community is officially more deserving of recognition than others. With over six decades having passed since partition, India can reconfigure Hindi so it is less communally colored and more inclusive in its vocabulary and borrowings. Like any national symbol of institution, Hindi is an ongoing historical project which each passing generation of citizens is free to renegotiate, reinstitute and pursue.
Alongside Sanskrit, Hindi can add words from Tamil, Bengali, Punjabi, English or Japanese, Yoruba and Basque. Where Hindi can really become a common language and create common civic space and inheritance though, is to bring it back into touch with Hindustani, and in particular, Urdu. While at the level of popular culture Urdu and Hindustani are already subsumed into Hindi through cinema, film songs, popular music and poetry, so too has the Devanagri script proved accommodating with magazines like Sarai which sports a Hindi with a mix of Sanskrit, Urdu and English words and Mahakta Anchal, an “Urdu” monthly magazine, published in Devanagri script but with a higher proportion of Persianized Urdu vocabulary.
An official Hindi that can grow and absorb easily will not help in its own development but can more properly be called the property of all citizens who wish to debate, deliberate, dream and protest in it. If after sixty-five years, a Hindustani or Urdu influenced Hindi proves popular culturally, so too should a more open and demotic style of Hindi officially, a common enterprise in which all citizens can partake, a move at least in spirit toward “unity in diversity.”