There are a bevy of languages spoken in different pockets of the country’s northern regions that are fallaciously subsumed under — as dialects of — Hindi. Hindi, as it is assumed to exist, is really the language of Delhi and surrounding urban centres.
In 1977, the movie Dangal was released (not to be confused with Aamir Khan’s movie of the same name released in 2016). It was a Bhojpuri film — in fact, the first Bhojpuri colour film — starring Hindi movie villain Sujit Kumar of Aradhana fame and Prema Narayan, a seventies starlet who had never graduated to the big league in Hindi cinema. This kicked off a second wave of Bhojpuri cinema. About two decades previously, the Hindi movie character actor Nazir Hussain had sought the blessings of the then-President, Rajendra Prasad and kicked off shooting for the first Bhojpuri film Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo. It took nearly five years for the movie to hit the screen and was released in 1962. The movie was a smashing success and a rash of films followed, many of dubious quality. By the decade’s end, Bhojpuri cinema had petered out.
Dangal heralded a revival of sorts. A fresh set of films followed, many starring Sujit Kumar, who remained its most saleable star. In 1984, Amitabh Bachchan made a special appearance in Sujit Kumar’s film, Pan Khaye Saiyaan Hamar. By the late eighties, the industry ran aground again. Since the turn of the millennium however, Bhojpuri cinema has made a comeback and indeed thrived. Such has been its appeal that at least two of its stars have been inducted into politics solely on the basis of the wide acceptance of their persona among the Bhojpuri-speaking public — Manoj Tiwari and Ravi Kishan.
The success of the Bhojpuri film industry is a telling commentary on the perception that the name of the language spoken across a swathe of North, Central and East India is Hindi. Clearly, to a great many people, Hindi movies did not satisfy the need to hear ‘their’ tongue being spoken. Bhojpuri it was that their hearts actually deigned to own. Hindi remains a foreign tongue to them.
From Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh in the north through Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in central India to Bihar and Jharkhand in the east, the notion that Hindi is spoken in all of these States is a piece of fiction that every schoolboy has been fed for well-nigh half a century or even longer as fact. The many languages that are actually spoken in these States have been demoted to ‘dialect’ status, (in the national interest, of course), and Hindi as it is spoken in Delhi and perhaps, a corner of Uttar Pradesh promoted as ‘their language’. In popular telling, these States constitute the ‘Hindi heartland’ and they are spoken of by most people outside these areas as a huge parcel of territory that is more or less similar, ignoring the many local histories, traditions and indeed linguistic differences that ought to be considered when discussing these areas.
Take the case of Bihar. Hindi and Urdu are its declared State languages. A whole host of other languages spoken in Bihar — Angika, Bajjika, Magahi, Maithili and Bhojpuri (all related Indo-Aryan tongues) — do not figure in the argument at all as they were subsumed under Hindi in the 1961 Census. Only Maithili has managed to recover from this act of linguistic emasculation, having been granted Scheduled Language status in 2004. As for a language like Santali which belongs to the Austro-Asian family and is spoken mostly by tribals, it barely even registers as a language for many people.
Across Bihar, each of these tongues has a distinct territory. Angika is spoken in Bhagalpur and its surrounding areas in the south-eastern part of the State. Maithili is spoken in the north-eastern parts of the State, in Darbhanga and its nearby areas. Bhojpuri on the other hand is spoken in the north-west, in Saran, Champaran and Bhojpur areas. Magahi is spoken in south Bihar, in the districts of Patna, Gaya and Nalanda, and Bajjika is spoken at the intersection of Bhojpuri and Maithili, in areas such as Muzaffarpur and Samastipur. Santali, spoken by close to 4 lakh people (as per the 2001 Census), too is an important language whose speakers are spread across the State.
Similar is the case of Uttar Pradesh. In central Uttar Pradesh (UP), the spoken tongue is Awadhi. In Bundelkhand (Jhansi, Lalitpur and nearby areas), the tongue is Bundeli. Indeed, Bundeli is spoken in parts of neighbouring Madhya Pradesh as well. In eastern UP, especially in the areas bordering Bihar, Bhojpuri holds sway. In western UP, Braj Bhasha is the name of the language. But, in western UP, as one approaches Delhi, one also notices a preponderance of Khadi Boli which is perhaps the closest to mainstream Hindi as it gets and is spoken in Delhi by and large. This is really the clincher.
Hindi, as it is assumed to exist, is really the language of Delhi and in the Delhi fashion, is spoken in Lucknow and Patna too besides a few other State capitals and prominent urban centres. xheartland’ is not Hindi at all. In the rural heartland across these States, it is Angika or Haryanvi or Bundeli or Marwari or perhaps one of the many other tongues that have been denied the fullness of their identity owing to the need for a single language that is required to be termed ‘national’, that is the real language of the people.
Even as the southern part of the country alongwith Punjab and Bengal has kept an eagle eye for the slightest whiff of Hindi imposition, it is perhaps time for north India to think in terms of resisting Hindi imposition too. Northern India ought to own up its local languages and resist their being subsumed under the arbitrary label of ‘Hindi’. This owning up is bound to have important implications for the identity of the populations in the various States as well as for the education system in these States — their educational material is currently prepared in Hindi, which is bound to have a telling effect on the population. Acceptance of local languages will enable creation of material in the ‘true’ mother tongue. Eventually, the effect will be positive. The false identity of Hindi sub-nationalism ought to be done away with. It is an idea that has outlived its purpose.
A tongue based on false premises cannot truly fulfill the aspirations of the people. India does not need ‘a’ language. Our many languages have fed into a colourful identity of our own that have effectively challenged western notions of nationalism. Our many local identities can co-exist with our ‘Indian’ identity. Eventually, our Indian identity can co-exist with a South Asian identity that recognises the many commonalities across the region. Perhaps, in time, we will realise the true meaning of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’.
My sincere thanks to Awanish Kumar who helped identify the many languages of Bihar and UP and their geographical spread.