Tamil pride or linguistic suicide?

Last Updated: Mon, Jun 28, 2010 10:32 hrs

Any idea what this means?

மார்க்ஸ் மற்றும் ஸ்பென்சர்

If you were not a Tamil-speaker – rather, a Tamil-reader – you’d never guess that was the signboard for the exclusive clothing store ‘Marks and Spencer’.

But if the Tamil Nadu government’s diktat that the prominent display on signage should be in Tamil is followed, this will soon be what greets you at the storefront.

A tourist (or for that matter, a resident of Chennai who can’t read Tamil) might well walk past without noticing the tiny subtitles under the strange design.

“People aren’t even going to know what we are,” sighed the owner of a popular beauty salon, as we watched the signage being changed.

Wikipedia pegs the number of Tamil-origin people at 77 million across the world. Given that a lot of them are expats who probably can’t speak the language leave alone read it, the number of Tamil-readers is probably about 40 million, if not less. And given the average BPL (Below the Poverty Line) population in India, less than half of these people can afford to walk into an upscale store.

What are the chances of an international chain opening an outlet in any part of Tamil Nadu, knowing that their target audience is a maximum of 20 million clients from across the globe?

In promoting the Tamil language to the exclusion of all others, the state government might well have cut off its nose to spite its face.

After being christened the ‘leader of the global Tamil community’, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi made the following announcements at the conclusion of the 'First Classical Tamil World Conference':

(a) A law will be enacted, giving preference in government jobs to those who study in Tamil.
(b) Classical Tamil will be included in the syllabi of schools and colleges in the state.
(c) The Conference firmly states that Tamil will be accepted as a language of use in the High Court.
(d) A newly-formed body called the World Tholkappiyar Classical Tamil Sangam will have sole authority to hold Tamil meets in future.

More details: 'Study Tamil to get a job'

Incidentally, the last provision is an attempt to undermine the authority of the International Association for Tamil Research (IATR), which has conducted the eight World Tamil Conferences prior to this. But IATR President and Japanese scholar of Tamil, Noboru Karashima, refused permission to hold the Ninth World Tamil Conference at short notice. The decision didn’t go down well with the state government.

The other declarations are a lot more alarming, though. If government jobs are to have a language quota in addition to the caste quota, the state might well see a large-scale emigration to greener pastures.

What impact could it have on private-public partnerships, especially those aided by foreign investors?

And if Tamil is to be made a court language, doesn’t it indirectly reserve the post of the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court for a Tamil speaker too?

Are we going to revise the Indian Constitution next? Will our right to live and work anywhere within the boundaries of our nation be modified to contain the clause “under the condition that the said citizen can speak, read and write the language of the state that has jurisdiction over the area?”

“Not everyone agrees with all the principles of the World Classical Tamil conference,” says an attendee*, “we go because we don’t want to be blacklisted. Our love for the language is there. But how is imposing Tamil different from imposing Hindi?”

Many residents of Tamil Nadu might see the compulsory inclusion of Tamil in the syllabus of all higher educational institutes as an imposition.

The Dravida Movement itself was born because a group of people saw the formalisation of Hindi as the national language, as a threat. The anti-Hindi agitation has now turned into a pro-Tamil one, but its basic tenets haven’t changed.

Related story: 'Why don't Tamilians speak their own language?'

This begs the question, does assertion of one culture necessitate rejection of another?

“Do you know we aren’t supposed to say namaskaram? The so-called guardians of Tamil stare at you and ask why you didn’t say vanakkam, which doesn’t have a Sanskrit root,” says a Tamil writer*.

In a country with no national language, two Official Languages of the Union and twenty two official languages, linguistic conflict is a given.

It’s hard to think of another country with as many diverse cultures rooted in language. In most nations that have seen even two languages fight for supremacy, like Belgium and China, ethnic clashes have established a dominant discourse.

Though the majority of minorities in India staved off the foisting of Hindi upon them, a few hundred million people still believe they are speaking the “Rashtriya Bhaasha”.

State governments realised this early enough, and came up with friendly little slogans like Aamchi Mumbai, Amar Kolkata and Namma Chennai. At first, they were used with equal enthusiasm by residents of those cities, irrespective of linguistic allegiances. But at least one of those innocuous monikers has led to ugly riots. Could Chennai go the same way?

Initially, the legislation reinforced Tamil.

It began with the name change. Those of us who grew up in Madras loved the name as much as the city. We still do. Madras is breezy (no pun intended), old world, cosmopolitan, musical, light and amicable. You thought of filter coffee, sambar, beaches, tea and sandwiches at the club, horse-riding and tree-lined streets when you said ‘Madras’. To see the name wiped out was to stand by as a part of our heritage destroyed. When ‘Bombay’ and ‘Calcutta’ followed ‘Madras’ into history, we knew the change was irreversible.

Then one fine day, the state government decided that Tamil New Year’s Day, which has been celebrated on April 14 for as long as anyone can remember, should coincide with the harvest festival Pongal, and switched the date to January 14.

But now, the proposals for laws to safeguard Tamil border on xenophobia. If one must learn to speak, read and write a language to survive in a state, isn’t it an easier option to find a job elsewhere and board a flight or train? If an international brand had a choice between putting up English signboards in one state and vernacular signboards in another, which is it likely to go with?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve studied Tamil for fourteen years and love the language for its beauty and richness, as I’m sure all Tamils do. But the state government’s aggressive positioning might accelerate its decline rather than preserve its roots.

More significantly, it could drive the economy of the state into jeopardy.

And if the show of strength at the Classical Tamil Conference sparks off similar ideas in India’s other linguistic hotbeds, our country might well find itself divided into insular pockets that shut off communication with each other.

If state boundaries are to turn into territorial markings, we might as well return to our old system of kingdoms and fiefdoms.

* All interviewees quoted in this piece spoke anonymously for fear of political repercussions.

The author is a journalist based in Chennai. She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com