Hindi on Twitter: Will Modi start a culture war in India?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed officials to use Hindi on social media and in official correspondence, sparking controversy. English is also an official language.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters/File
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes his oath at the presidential palace in New Delhi May 26, 2014.

A little noticed official directive in New Delhi by the new Modi government compels that Hindi language be used more prominently than English on You Tube, Twitter, Facebook, Google and other government tagged social media. And it offers prize money to civil servants that emphasize Hindi in their work. 

That's brought a divisive firestorm of anger and charges of “language imposition” in states like Tamil Nadu in the south where Hindi is not a first or second tongue, and where language and identity are especially sensitive.

More largely, in a nation where English and Hindi have long shared official status, the directive appears to be the first visible effort since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election to alter India along the values of the “saffron agenda” of Hindu nationalism that Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party and its ideological sister organizations represent. 

Some opposition Indian websites today spoke of a “’Modi’fied India.”

In Tamil Nadu today, the flamboyant chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram said the directive, issued in late May by the Home Affairs office, was a violation of Indian law since it made Hindi “compulsory” and English “optional,” which are out of step with the 1963 Official Language Act.

The former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi, 90-years old and a veteran of India’s north-south culture wars, pled today that a “language battlefield” not be opened and that southerners in India not become “second class citizens.”

For the most part, Modi and the BJP campaigned this spring on values of hard work, and on commerce and opportunity, and what the new prime minister claimed as an “economic miracle” in Gujarat, the state he led as chief minister. 

What remains unclear is how extensive the BJP's saffron or Hindu ideological program may become, after a landslide election where the Congress Party appeared weak and faltering. 

The 2014 version of the BJP so far has been secular and circumspect on its ideological core beliefs, in contrast to the first self-proclaimed Hindu government elected in 1998, which often denigrated the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, tested a nuclear weapon in the first month of office which many called a “Hindu bomb,” and whose senior officials talked about converting Muslims to Hinduism. The BJP does maintain the belief that India will not be a whole and sacred “bharat” or nation, until it consolidates firmly around the BJP's fundamentalist notions of Hinduism.

Some Indian media have read the Modi language directive as an effort to bring New Delhi closer to the people, and to break from the perceived language of elites. About 5-10 percent of Indians speak English, which was established during the British colonial period as a practical way to speak to a country that has at least 22 main languages.

As Reuters points out:

The push for greater use of Hindi by Modi, the son of a poor tea-seller who made a stunning political rise, has been read partly as a move to break from the anglophone elite of the dynastic Congress party, which he thrashed in parliamentary polls in April and May.

"He is trying to represent a different India, which is rural and small-town oriented," said Ajay Gudavarthy, a politics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "That's the group he campaigned to, and that's the group he's from."

Other media have noted the BJP has shaken up the bureaucracy in New Delhi.

The Associated Press writes:

"Delhi’s drawing room set, especially top government officials, are deeply suspicious of this new lot of power-wielders with whom they have little in common, let alone language,” said Abhilasha Kumari, a New Delhi-based sociologist.

At his first meeting with the capital’s top officials, Modi laid down new ground rules: Reduce delays, cut red tape and ensure greater accountability and efficiency. Other edicts: swift disposal of files, holding officials responsible for delays in decision-making, and limiting cushy retirement jobs for civil servants.

The BJP has long been seen, by observers like French sociologist Christophe Jaffrelot, as an extension of several Hindu parties whose center is an organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS. The party is often seen as charitable but with an extremist branch, and dates back well before Indian independence. 

A core practical emphasis of the RSS in its meetings and in a plethora of camps and schools that arose in the 1980s and 1990s, is the need for greater discipline and organization across India. 

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