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Envisaging Linguistic Pluralism as Our Strength and Weapon: Lecture by Dr. Ayesha Kidwai

Protest, thought of as disruption, a break from the normal everyday functioning, is understood and seen as ‘anarchical.’ It is also combative, resistant and positioned against something—an idea, a belief, an attitude, an order or a system. In this sense, a protest is always situated on a region, a subject position, a stand. Though its origin is marked, its future is not. Protest is anarchic because it lets loose multiple possibilities of existence.

JNU teachers have found a way of protesting in a truly ‘anarchical’ manner, i.e. in their discarding of institutionalised academic infrastructure and protocols, in their conception of an unmediated channel of dissemination, creating overt political engagements with the audience and offering them voluntarily to anyone who cares to listen.

Much credit goes to the JNUTA for conceiving of the idea to conduct ‘Open Classes’ on ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ as an innovative form of protest. Most commendable is the innovators’ sense of humour— a well-intended pun on ‘The Nation Wants to Know’ assumes the form of ‘What the Nation Really Needs to Know.’

The lecture titled ‘Languages or Mother Tongue? India’s Constitution and its Linguistic Diversity’ was delivered to observe the International Mother Language Day. Dr Ayesha Kidwai (CLL, SLL) mapped the lecture in a larger socio-historic time-frame by orienting her audience into South Asian history. This particular ‘International Day’ is a lineage of a historical projection which is specific to our part of the world.

21st February was declared as the International Mother Language Day by the UNESCO in memory of the student agitation of 1952 where 5 students from the University of Dhaka were shot dead for demanding the recognition of Bangla as one of the national languages. Dr Kidwai recounted this history to demonstrate the necessity of linking issues of language-based demands to ‘the sustained attack’ on JNU.

She discussed the failure of the Indian state to define and distinguish mother tongue, language and dialects. There is in fact no mention of dialects in the constitution. “The definition of mother tongue in our Constitution is very profound. It says ‘language spoken to you by your mother in the household; and in the case of deaf and mute, it is the language spoken by the mother’” she remarked sarcastically. She further went on to discuss the misleading nature of census data because of its lack of linguistic preparedness.

“How does the census of India come up with figures? The state needs statistics to group, classify and rationalise people and their languages… It is a terrible belief that Hindi is the ‘national’ language of India. Hindi in itself is 50 distinct languages put in the basket of Hindi. There is an artificial categorisation of languages in the upper case ‘L’. Linguistic pluralism is our strength and weapon. We need an argument stronger than a mere utilitarian preservation of languages for conserving ‘indigenous knowledge systems’. The written word is what will be left of our histories. If we are to be citizens, we must speak our languages every day and with pride”— were Dr Kidwai’s concluding lines.

When in conversation with us, she spoke of the inability of political forces to monopolise certain words to achieve their desired ends. According to her, certain words like ‘Hindustan’ have such strong cultural and historical associations which cannot be easily wiped out. It is in this context that other words (like Bharat since the 1990’s) have been misappropriated.

Dhaval Bhate is an MA student at CSSS and works for the News Pool of The Informer. Aakanksha D’Cruz is an MA student at CPS and works for The Informer.

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