When the British ordered the exclusive use of the Nagari script in schools in 1880 to meet a Hindu demand in the state of Bihar, Muslims were outraged. The Hindi-Urdu duel finally exploded into a Hindu-Muslim war. In free India, Hindi gained national stature as a symbol of Hindu pride and spread across the country like wildfire, in part thanks to the Bombay films.
This may come as a surprise to many people, but it’s true: Bengali has been fortunate enough to become the main language of India. The idea was killed after facing stiff resistance from the Bengalis themselves, the rich and powerful, who favored Persian.
The Bengali-Persian feud may be dead, but language politics are alive and well in India even today, nearly 200 years after the previous episode.
Faced with strong opposition from non-Hindi, who make up 75 percent of the country’s population, pressure led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Bharatiya Janata Party to impose Hindi as India’s national language has been suspended for the moment, but the war is still raging.
Fighting has a history dating back to the 1800s when the British began to think they were going to rule India for a long time. To prepare for this, they embarked on the establishment of an administration that could keep the Indians under tight control and, at the same time, generate significant tax revenues for them.
It was a time when Bengal, then the most prosperous part of India, was under the control of the British East India Company, whose main objective was to make tons of money for its owners. This massive company, founded under Queen Elizabeth I, was the largest entity in the world then engaged in foreign trade. Incorporated on December 31, 1600, the company acted partly as a trading organization, partly as a nation state and made huge profits from trade with India, China, Persia and Indonesia during over 200 years.
One of the challenges the company faced in Bengal – and really difficult – was resolving land ownership and contract disputes as well as tax collection. After taking control of the region in the mid-1700s, the British retained the official Mughal language, Persian, as their official language. But in due course, they learned to their annoyance that the people kept their land and tax records in their local dialects. And, they used to submit vernacular documents to the courts whenever they encountered property or contract disputes.
It created a nightmare for the judges. They needed to hire numerous translators to decipher the local archives and interpret the statements of the warring parties. It cost the company a bundle and its directors weren’t too happy with it. The company therefore set out to rationalize the languages used in courts and tax collections.
While profitability was certainly the primary driver of the company’s efforts to remove language anomalies, its top dogs had other concerns as well. Some liberal trustees wanted justice to be served in a language familiar to the judge as well as to the general public. Others believed that the language of the people should be the language of the courts. Getting there, however, wasn’t much of a piece of cake.
Colonial bosses had different views as to which vernacular or which script to use. Some favored maintaining Farsi, others supported Hindustani in Persian [Urdu], and other Hindustani in Nagari [Hindi]. But they, in general, agreed that the convenience of the people should take precedence over the convenience of their rulers.
In the 1830s, when the company finally began to replace Farsi with different dialects, clashes erupted across India. Some communities feared that many of their residents, who were doing yard-related work, would be unemployed if they had to switch to a new script; others took it as an attack on their religion.
In the presidencies of Bombay and Madras, English and the local languages had replaced Persian by 1832. In Bengal, a law passed in 1837 lifted the mandate that Persian should be used in court cases or tax disputes. . The law also gave the governor the power to come up with ideas to create a new language to replace Farsi.
In 1838, the governor decided to use the vernacular languages of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The governor’s staff described several options for languages and scriptures: Persian in Persian scriptures; Hindustani in Persian script, that is to say Urdu; English in Roman script; Hindi in Nagari and Bengali in Bengali script.
To the surprise of many, nearly 500 residents of Dhaka petitioned the government in 1839 in support of Persian against their native Bengali. The Bengalis of today are very proud of the glory of their mother tongue, but their brethren of generations ago were of another form. Call them materialistic or reckless whatever you like, they liked money more than language. Here, the Bengali common interest has replaced the religious division. When it comes to money, everyone speaks the same language!
They argued that the Bengali script varied from place to place; one line of Persian could do the work of ten lines of Bengali; awkward writing style [derisively dubbed the crab style] Bengali was read more slowly than Persian; and people in one district could barely understand the dialect of those in another district.
The petition surprised many people, not only because Bengalis objected to their native language, but also because Muslims and Hindus jointly favor Farsi. Of the signatories, 200 were Hindus and the rest were Muslims.
Hindus and Muslims, especially landowners and those who have dealt with the courts, understood Persian and Arabic related to their affairs much better than any expression in the Shanscript, [to use the spelling of Nathaniel Halhed, the Englishman who wrote the first Bengali grammar book in English] which has greatly contributed to Bengali.
The Sadar Court of Bengal accepted the argument that many dialects made Bengali unsuitable for being a court language; the court would need as many translators as there are dialects. The court also noted that recording court proceedings in Bengali or Hindi would take a third longer than in Persian, as Bengali and Hindi scripts take longer to write.
Thus, it enabled plaintiffs and defendants in all civil and criminal cases to submit documents in the language of their choice in districts where Urdu or Bengali were in use. Essentially, the court overturned an earlier decision to replace Farsi with the vernacular languages and instead allowed the addition of local dialects to Persian for the conduct of official business.
But the struggle over which language to choose continued, with different parties making different arguments in support of their respective positions. As a result, in 1940, the government prohibited district courts from using Nagari without the prior approval of superiors. In the end, the government of India, in consultation with provincial administrators, strongly opposed Nagari, as a large majority of judges favored Urdu.
While Bengali resistance to Bengali was purely economic, in other parts of India the story was entirely different. In the North, for example, the conflict was more religious than material.
Religion took hold in the language soon after Islam entered India. Muslim conquerors found it difficult to speak with their new subjects in the difficult-to-learn Shanscript and often used their native idioms to express themselves clearly.
When this mixed dialect first appeared in Naagoree [now spelled as Nagari or Nagari] script, the Brahmmon showed disdain [One Language, Two Scripts, Christopher King, OUP India, 1994]. For Vedic experts, the Naagoree, which means to write, was too crass.
So they had their sacred books published in “polite” Naagoree, or Daeb Naagoree, [now Debanagari] or the writing of the Gods. Hindu bankers, who were very active in the Ganges delta and attracted significant traffic, circulated these books in the interior of Bengal. However, Farsi remained the official language of India until the British changed it much later.
In 1757, the British became ruler of Bengal by defeating the Muslims. Under the British, upper-class Hindus took hold in due course and made Bengali a “high-flying” medium in the Shanscript mold.
Syamacharan Ganguli, a scholar from the University of Calcutta, protested against the shanscritization of Bengali. Rather, he pushed for the assimilation of the vocabulary of written Bengali into the daily discourse of educated Bengalis. Several other giants of Bengali literature, including Rabindranath Thakur, Haraprashad Shastri and Ramendrasundar Tribedi, accompanied Ganguli.
The high-flying language was not good for ordinary people, as it was loaded with Shanscribed words. Ganguli’s Bengali was also not well-educated, as the illiterate farmers, weavers and fishermen all spoke the local dialects.[Itisestimatedthat50%oftheBengaliwordsarefromtheDeformedShanscript45%arefromuptoShanscriptandremainforeign[Anestimated50percentofBengaliwordsaredistortedShanscrit45percentarepureShanscritandtherestareforeign[Onestimeque50 %desmotsbengalissontduShanscritdéformé45 %sontdupurShanscritetleresteestétranger[Anestimated50percentofBengaliwordsaredistortedShanscrit45percentarepureShanscritandtherestareforeign
As a result, the Bengali was “stunted in its growth by the overcrowding of a class of foods” that it could not digest. This caused a permanent rift with the Muslim, who viewed Shanscrit as Hindu slang. The fallout was immense.
In the rest of India, the fray was centered on Hindi and Urdu. The Hindu preferred Hindi and the Muslim wanted Urdu. When the British ordered the exclusive use of the Nagari script in school in 1880 to meet a Hindu demand in the state of Bihar, then under the presidency of Bengal, the Muslims howled.
As the feud continued between Hindus and Muslims, colonial rulers made drastic changes to the way they exchanged information with Indians. In the 1830s, English replaced Persian at the higher government level, and the vernaculars became the medium of transactions at the lower level. In much of northern India, Urdu has become the official vernacular language.
Hindi did not reach this stature until the late 1800s. Hindi began to replace Urdu in the 1870s in the central provinces and in the 1880s in Bihar, and in the late 1800s. 1900 in the northwestern provinces.
The Hindi-Urdu duel finally exploded into a Hindu-Muslim war. In free India, Hindi gained national stature as a symbol of Hindu pride and spread across the country like wildfire, in part thanks to the Bombay films.
Bengali, meanwhile, plunged into a dark abyss as the partition of Bengal eclipsed the region both demographically and economically, robbing its language of the edge it needed to be a power play. Bengali as a regional small fry has never reached the national level.
The writer is a United States-based journalist and author of “The Bangladesh Liberation War, How India, United States, China and USSR Shaped the Result” and “The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA link ”. His new book, “One Eleven Minus Two, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus and America”, will be published shortly by Rupa & Co., New Delhi.