When India is discussed, the violent insurgencies affecting millions of Indians often fail to register. The credit for this goes to Indian politicians, media and think-tank types who continue to keep the lid on a terrifying reality: that the large Indian union is challenged by difficult strains of armed groups that fail to disappear despite more than sixty years of brutal and unreported state response. India’s neighbours cannot ignore the country’s simmering troubles because any large scale ethnic implosion inside India will inevitably affect neighbouring countries and, in some cases, drag those countries into a wider conflict. This has already happened on a smaller scale with both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Both these countries have found themselves locked in political and military tensions with India at different times because of New Delhi’s own internal ethnic problems.
In August 2012, when thousands of poor migrant workers from Assam escaped Indian cities en masse due to an ethnic genocide scare, New Delhi tried to control a civil-war type situation by whipping up an external enemy: Pakistan. India blamed Facebook posts originating in Pakistan had caused the unrest. Most analysts, however, saw this as a desperate attempt by India to avert ethnic riots by uniting citizens against a foreign enemy. So, the threat of India’s internal ethnic tensions expanding into regional conflicts is real. Nor is this threat an exaggeration. India has been prone to large-scale ethnic tensions ever since the country was weaved together by Britain in 1947 from the many regions, nations and states in the Asian subcontinent that were part of the British Empire. At independence, India was baptized in blood when its leaders could not come to terms with a new neighbour to the west: Pakistan. The intolerance of the Hindi-speaking elite led to massacres of Muslim migrants to Pakistan, endangering the lives of Hindu populations in Pakistan who otherwise lived peacefully among Muslims for centuries. The latest reminder of India’s ethnic boiling pot came during elections on May 10 in Meerut, a small city just outside New Delhi, India’s federal capital, where Hindu-Muslim clashes were a reminder of tensions due to the rise to power of Indian religious extremists in the BJP, the party poised to win elections and form government.
In a series of articles starting with this edition of Hilal, I will explore the many sides to India’s problem with separatism and ethnic disharmony. This will be done with a view to simplify a complex problem and offer researchers and analysts a quick reference to India’s ethnic tensions. I will start with the least known aspect of India’s smoldering insurgency problem: the role of India’s ruling Hindi-speaking minority in stoking the country’s separatist troubles.
Who are the Hindi-Speakers? A web-based publication, Ethnologue: Languages of the World, lists 415 living languages in India. Out of them, only 22 are officially recognized. Hindi tops this list. It is the language of power. The most powerful Indian politicians, generals, journalists, and opinion makers have been Hindi-speakers. To be fair, this pool has considerably diversified since the creation of India. But the power remains concentrated in the hands of a Hindi-speaking minority that continues to rule majority Indians. The Hindi-speakers have their own worldview. They impose their likes and dislikes, especially in foreign policy, on the rest of India. [This point is explained with more detail below] So, who are the Hindi-speakers?
The Hindi-speakers are concentrated in northern India in a place loosely defined as the Hindi Belt, which is thought to be located in, and around, the state of Uttar Pradesh. The Hindi-speakers draw their strength from several things. One is the existence of Brahmins in their midst, the elite class in the Indian social system that divides people into castes based on the concept of purity of blood. The other reason why northern Hindi-speakers feel superior is history, where most Hindi-speakers claim descent from the Aryans of Central Asia who came to this land and pushed the Dravidians, the real Indians, to the South. The Hindi-speakers claim to be of superior racial stock to the darker-skinned and shorter South Indians. When the British created India and left the country at independence, they basically empowered the Hindi-speakers. The capital, New Delhi, was located in the Hindi Belt, and most of the bureaucracy and military was controlled by the same linguistic/racial group. Its power was further cemented when a Brahmin, Jawaharlal Nehru, seized power after the assassination of Gandhi and started a dynasty that ruled India for more than three decades without interruption.
A Minority Ruling Majority Indians Hindi-speakers are a minority ruling more than a billion Indians. According to the Indian government, the Hindi-speakers are nearly half of all Indians. But this is an inaccurate figure manipulated through the classification of languages and dialects to show the Hindi-speakers in simple majority. In 2001, a census by the Indian government showed Hindi-speakers as 422,048,642 out of a total population of 1,028,610,328. This means 41.03% of all Indians were Hindi-speaking. To show Hindi-speakers in simple majority, Indian authorities clubbed together different dialects and linguistic variations under the heading of Hindi. Entire populations of states that listed Hindi as official language were shown to be Hindi-speakers. If this artificial increase is discarded, the original Hindi Belt can be reduced to two states: Uttar Pradesh (199.6 million in 2011), and parts of Bihar (103.8 million in 2011). And even then, there are more than a dozen languages spoken in Bihar that can easily be considered different from the official Hindi.
So, from many angles, the native Hindi-speakers in India hover somewhere around one-third of the population at best, some would argue no more than a quarter of Indians. But this minority has been successful in imposing its culture, language, worldview, and even its historical insecurities and religious biases and problems on the rest of India.
How do Minority Hindi-Speakers Rule India? The Hindi-speakers were the most loyal subjects of the British colonialists. Once the masters departed, the Hindi-speaking politicians used the old British strategy of divide-and-rule to control the large new country of India. In many ways, the Hindi-speaking elite of the north replaced the departing British rulers; one minority replacing another in ruling a vast expanse of territory and people.
Delhi was created and turned into a capital city by the West Asian and Central Asian Muslim dynasties that invaded and ruled the region. Later, the British invaders retained it as the capital. Aside from the invaders, the city was never a capital of any unified Indian state in history. After the British departed in 1947, the Hindi-speaking elite retained the city as a federal (or central) capital because it was located in the Hindi belt of the north.
In order to preserve their influence, and keep New Delhi as the centre of power, Hindi-speaking politicians pitched different linguistic, ethnic and religious groups in India against each other. This helped keep them divided and prevent any challenge to Hindi-speaking minority rule. This policy was adopted immediately after the British left. So, for example, instead of abolishing a cruel social class system that divides Indians according to a mythical concept of purity of blood, the Hindi-speakers intensified divisions within Indian society, including the suppression of the ‘untouchables’ who come at the bottom of the social caste system.
The mindset of India’s northern ruling minority is dramatically different to the rest of Indians. The Hindi Belt has been under foreign rule for nearly ten centuries, and this has coloured the worldview of India’s Hindi-speaking minority rulers. Most of these ten centuries were spent under Muslim dynastic rule that mostly originated from Central Asia. At independence in 1947, the dress code and the language spoken by the Hindi-speakers were heavily influenced by the culture of Pakistan, which inherited the cultural and historical legacy of the ten-century Muslim dynastic rule. In order to assert the Hindi identity, the minority rulers of the Hindi Belt have gradually revived the dead language of Sanskrit and have successfully imposed it on India’s film industry and the media, the two prime shapers of opinion. The Hindi-speaking ruling elite pitched Indian Muslims against Sikhs and Christians, and then pitched South Indians against those in Bengal in the east, and Gujarat / Rajasthan / Maharashtra in the west.
Delhi rulers also divided northeastern regions and the northwestern ones, like Punjab, into smaller states that would not be in a position to challenge the hegemony of the northern Hindi Belt. Many Indians and language groups have complained about the arrogance of the Hindi-speaking rulers in New Delhi. These complaints existed even when the Hindi Belt bureaucracy operated under British rule. No wonder that, between 1938 and 1968, South India had seen more than a dozen anti-Hindi rebellions. Tamil Nadu, the sixth largest Indian state in terms of population, nearly seceded from India in 1968, led by the Dravidian Progress Federation, a political party better known by its Tamil initials DMK. Earlier, the regions of Bengal refused to come under Hindi control and opted to join Pakistan, as did most of the British-ruled Pakistani territories. Even the Kashmiris refused to live under Hindi-speaking powerbrokers. The Kashmiris under Indian occupation continue to resist the Indian invasion and occupation of their territory. Some historians believe the Hindi takeover in New Delhi was predesigned and occurred immediately after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, who was not a Hindi-speaker. His successor, Nehru, sealed Hindi control over the new state’s capital city and firmly placed the northern Hindi Belt in power over all of India.
The resistance by the Kashmiris and the rebellion by the Sikhs and Naxalites represent a referendum against the Hindi-speakers’ rule in New Delhi. India’s Foreign Policy belongs to the Hindi Belt A majority of Indians in the east, south and southwest have little or no interest in Kashmir or Pakistan. It is the Hindi-speaking minority living in the northern ‘Hindi-Belt’ that primarily sees Pakistan as the enemy and has turned the international dispute of Kashmir into an ego problem that defies resolution.
The views and policies of the Hindi-speakers of the north toward Pakistan are a result of a historical past that is not shared in the same intensity by Indians of the south, east and the southwest. Many activists from South India and elsewhere have described Kashmir as a dispute created primarily by the northern Hindi-speakers. India today is hostage to this festering dispute; thanks to the Hindi-speaking elite. Unfortunately, instead of resolving the problem and help create a new environment for peace in the region, Delhi’s Hindi-speaking elite is now using the media and the Indian film industry to brainwash the minds of the younger generations of non-Hindi speaking Indians. The purpose is to entrench the enmity against Pakistan and punish the western neighbour because it demands a solution to the dispute in accordance with United Nations resolutions. Similarly, Indians outside the Hindi Belt have shown little interest in New Delhi’s antagonistic relationship toward China. Few intellectuals outside the Hindi Belt share the view of Hindi-speaking politicians that India should side with the United States in a hypothetical future war against China. Most of Indian politicians and academics that advocate an antagonistic relationship against neighbouring China, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka mostly belong to the Hindi-speaking elite.
Moreover, India remains the world’s largest reservoir of poverty and disease. But most of these social ills are concentrated in parts of the country outside the Hindi Belt. The Hindi Belt is relatively more well off than the rest of the country. There is less urgency here in terms of poverty alleviation and healthcare facilities than the rest of the country. This could explain why the Hindi-speaking elite chooses to appropriate more funds to the acquisition of weapons and Pakistan-China-specific militarization than divert these funds to end poverty in other parts of the country.
The writer is a senior research fellow at Project for Pakistan in 21st Century, an independent think-tank based in Islamabad.