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Signs of trouble (Hindu)

Including Hindi on road signs on national highways is understandable, but not replacing English ones

After reports pointed to locations on milestones being represented in Hindi rather than English on NH 75 and NH 77 in Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Krishnagiri districts, there was the expected sound and fury from various Dravidian political parties. This happened despite the fact that Tamil signs were more or less intact on these highways. Strident opposition to the move was expressed by the working president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, M.K. Stalin; Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko; and Pattali Makkal Katchi president S. Ramadoss. Protests were threatened as the political leaders sought to blame the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre for the move.

Continuum of anti-Hindi agitations

For these parties, and many others in Tamil Nadu’s civil society, the change from the use of English to Hindi signs on milestones is not merely a matter of convenience (or inconvenience) for itinerants on the road. This was a symbolic overturning of a decades-long policy to use English on a par with Hindi as an official language, which was itself a consequence of the anti-Hindi agitations of 1965. The agitations marked a milestone in Tamil Nadu politics, which paved the way for extended Dravidian rule in the State. It is no wonder that the parties reacted with such alacrity to the reports of sign changes. These protests must also be seen in the continuum of agitations that first began in 1938 against the imposition of Hindi.

That “culture” remains the predominant idiom for political expression in Tamil Nadu was evident in the protests for the conduct of the bull-taming sport, jallikattu. Linguistic assertion is also a common ploy in these cultural protests and has been used lately by parties that have not managed to taste power at the State government level. For example, parties such as the PMK in the last decade sought to even raise the issue of hoardings being primarily in English and organised protests.

Including Hindi road signs on national highways is an understandable idea. Tamil Nadu, as the Economic Survey for 2016-17 records, is the State that has shown the fastest rise in in-migration, largely due to its significantly urbanised economy, job prospects, and presence of numerous educational institutions. Far more people from north India travel to the south, and Tamil Nadu in particular, than before. But replacing English — which connects the north and the south and helps travellers within the south — seems illogical and a way of stoking pent-up passions. The Centre would be well advised to take onboard the concerns of the Tamil Nadu polity. There is a perception that linguistic assertion, specifically against Hindi being “imposed” as the national language, is fissiparous in nature. But, as the record shows, since the anti-Hindi agitations in the 1960s, linguistic autonomy afforded to non-Hindi States has only led to greater integration.

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