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Marathi: The Indian “national language”?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on November 9, 2009 No Comment

The newly constituted Maharashtra Assembly in India was the site of an eventful brawl when Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) workers prevented Samajwadi Party legislator Abu Azmi from taking his oath of office in Hindi: as soon as he began taking the oath, the workers snatched his mike and attempted to shred the oath written in Hindi. In the melee that ensued, Azmi ended up being “slapped…[and] hit…on the face and chest,” to the astonishment of the 288 Assembly members in attendance at the ceremony.

To some extent this could have been anticipated. According to India Today, Raj Thakaray, the much-feared MNS party chief, had “written to all 288 MLAs asking them take their oath in Marathi. He also said Hindi is not the national language of Marathis.” In addition, with reference to Azmi, he had been quoted as saying, “”If Azmi wants the House agenda in Hindi, then he should go to Uttar Pradesh [at the heart of the so-called Indian Hindi Belt].”

Now while the constitution of India privileges Hindi, states are given the power to legislate on the issue of official languages. The state of Maharashtra recognizes Marathi as its official language, and hence Azmi’s attempt to take the oath in Hindi was framed as an insult to the state, as well as an attempt to reinforce the hegemony of Hindi and the flexing of North Indian political muscle. This perspective is neither entirely atypical nor unusual in regional political discourse in India; but what I found oddly intriguing was Thakaray’s claim that “Hindi is not the national language of Marathis.” The Times of India, in its report, noted that the MNS spokesperson Shirish Parker “even argued that Hindi was not the national language of the country” (emphasis added). Now, Marathi is one of the 22 “languages of the 8th Schedule,” but doesn’t enjoy the kind of political reach or sway as Hindi does in the national political discourse. In constitutionally recognizing multiple national languages, and providing states with significant autonomy over the question of official languages, I wonder, how does the nation itself get (re)imagined? Who gets to lay claim to a “national language”? In what ways, and how? Can it-a question one thinks to ask-simply be the language in which the nation is imagined by a people? Hmmm…obviously there are no easy answers here, and that’s not even the point. What’s important is where the questions will lead us.

To watch video of the brawl, click here.

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