Language Politics and Policy in Contemporary Maharashtra

Hutatma Smarak (Martyrs's Memorial) on Flora Square in Mumbai constructed in the memory of 106 people killed during the agitation for the creation of Unified Maharashtra. The two individuals in the monument represent the worker and the farmer.

Hutatma Smarak (Martyrs’s Memorial) on Flora Square in Mumbai constructed in the memory of 106 people killed during the agitation for the creation of Unified Maharashtra. The two individuals in the monument represent the worker and the farmer.

Language politics in India

Language politics as identity-based politics has been a subject of major political concern in post independence India. Real or perceived injustice to a linguistic community has been a major driver of language politics. Part XVII of the Indian Constitution deals with the official language of the Union, Commission and Committee on Official language, regional languages, the language of the Supreme Court and the High Courts, provisions related to medium of instruction etc.

India was reorganized on a linguistic basis after protracted struggles in many parts of the country and Maharashtra is one such state. After the reorganization, constitutional provisions about regional languages had to be implemented putting in place elaborate mechanisms of language planning. That created an atmosphere that was conducive to the proactive engagement with language development. By contrast the absence of such mechanisms has put regional languages in serious difficulty.

Language policy and politics in Maharashtra

The protracted struggle led by the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (a fragile alliance of Non Congress parties) resulted in the creation of unified Maharashtra in May 1960. Participation of the cultural representatives of the subaltern class like Shahirs (ballad singers) and other folk singers was quite impressive. Participation of Non Maharashtrians and condemnation of violence gave legitimacy to the movement. Although the Samiti leadership had talked about the development of Marathi language and culture and employment issues of the Marathi speaking people, they could not evolve a comprehensive agenda for the same. The split in the Samiti after the creation of the state created a political vacuum as far as pursuing the language agenda was concerned. After taking over the responsibility as the Chief Minister of Unified Maharashtra in May 1960, Yashwantrao Chavan spelled out his vision for the development of the state and development of the Marathi language. He also expressed the need to run the administration of the Maharashtra state in Marathi language instead of English. Chavan established a number of relevant institutions such as Bhasha Sanchalanalay. (Directorate of Languages), Sahitya ani Sanskruti Mandal (Board for Literature and Culture), Vishwakosh Nirmiti Mandal (Board for Marathi Encyclopedia) and Vidyapeeth Grantha Nirmiti Mandal (Board for the Creation of University Level Reference Books). The Maharashtra Official Languages Act 1964 was passed in 1965. Although it was touted to be a tool for the empowerment of the Marathi Language, it did not work because there was no deadline by which the entire business of the administration would have to be transacted in Marathi and because there was a decided lack of commitment from the political elite and there was no punitive action against errant bureaucrats.

It was against this background that Bal Thackeray and his associates formed Shivsena Party in 1966 to fight against the perceived injustice against the Marathi speaking people in Maharashtra and especially in the city of Mumbai. The declining importance of Maharashtrians in the political economy of the city of Mumbai was a matter of serious concern even before the arrival of Shivsena. Through campaigns such as the campaign for Marathi signboards on shops and other establishments, or the campaign for renaming the city of Bombay as Mumbai, the campaign for the use of Marathi in the business of the government and judiciary, Shivsena tried to pressure the government about the use of Marathi.

Despite its many successes, Shivsena has never attempted to prepare a strategic note or action plan about the enhanced use of Marathi in administration. In fact, Shivsena shifted emphasis from Marathi Manoos to Hindujan (from the politics of Marathi language to politics of Hindu Religion) during the 1980s. However, in the absence of a parallel organization taking up the language agenda, Shivsena still monopolized the Marathi mind space.

In 2006, another party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), was split off Shivsena by Raj Thackeray with the objective of curbing the political influence of migrants, of making the teaching of the Marathi language compulsory in all schools in Maharashtra and of insisting on Marathi language and Marathi sign-boards everywhere. Currently the party appears to have run out of steam. In 2009, in the first ever state assembly election that the party fought, the party won 13 assembly seats. However, in the recent election held in October 2014, the party could win only one assembly seat. Shivsena and MNS are the only political parties to have built their politics almost entirely on the Marathi agenda.

Furthermore various civil society organizations have also been working on the issues of Marathi language and culture. However, many of them have confused literary development and language development. These organizations have used various instruments to pursue their agenda like writing letters to the editor, petitions to the government and semi-government authorities, collaborating with likeminded organizations to sensitize people over language issues, seeking information under the Right to Information Act about the use or non-use of Marathi in various domains and using this information as a tool for campaigning, lobbying political parties and their students units, trade unions wings and providing them inputs and proactive use of the media. However, such smaller, local and low cost initiatives have limited space for success because they can handle limited issues at a time, professional strategizing is missing, joining a political party may compromise their autonomy and, most importantly, penetrating the political system and bringing about macro policy changes without actual political participation is difficult.

Marathikaaran: A new politics of Marathi

Therefore a new politics of Marathi that is a product of a matrix of Marathi language, culture and the economic and political aspirations of the Marathi speaking people is imperative. This politics is slowly emerging out of a vacuum created by the failure of language based politics of Shivsena and MNS and caste based politics of various factions of the Dalit (Depressed Communities) political parties. It can be described as Marathikaran. It aims at:

  • Implementation of constitutional provisions regarding the empowerment of Indian languages (in this case the empowerment of Marathi)
  • Implementation of various provisions regarding the development of Marathi that have been enacted since the creation of Maharashtra
  • Developing suitable institutional mechanisms for the promotion of Marathi language and culture
  • Enhancing the collaboration between the government and non government institutions for developing a comprehensive plan for the development of Marathi language and culture
  • Evolving a constructive, substantive framework for the development of Marathi

Mere state initiatives or interventions cannot ensure the development of a language. However, it must be noted that nowhere in the contemporary world have languages survived or flourished without state help. The establishment of a separate department for the development of Marathi Language within the Government of Maharashtra has begun the process of language planning. However, the initiative can succeed only when a comprehensive department evolves which would include sub units working on Marathi as medium of instruction and the expansion of Marathi education, encouraging the use of Marathi in central government as well as private establishments, looking after the use of Marathi in the judiciary , looking after learning Marathi language, looking after the use of Marathi in computers and information and communication technology, dealing with the employment of the Marathi youth and looking after Maharashtrians staying in other parts of India as well as in other countries of the world.

There is increasing awareness among linguists and activists on two issues: that it is not possible to protect Indian languages unless they are linked with the economic opportunities of its speakers and that it is possible to engage with globalization using the very tools that it has created in digital communication. Consensus on usage and ownership of the language, redesigning the federal balance of power are the prerequisites of this politics.

Author Deepak Pawar

Dr. Deepak Pawar is Assistant Professor in the Department of Civics and Politics at the University of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. His research is on the post-globalization politics of language in Maharashtra. Dr. Pawar regularly writes for newspapers and periodicals in Marathi and English on issues related to language policy, language politics, state politics in India. He also regularly appears on TV as a political analyst.

More posts by Deepak Pawar
  • Alexandra Grey

    Dr Pawar, what an interesting recap of the different politics of language in regards to Marathi. You’ve highlighted the ongoing weak point of language policy generally: that policy alone does not change behaviour. Policy can be ignored, ‘consumed’ to different ends, misunderstood, traded off, simply not realised in rules or institutions etc. Even a broad language policy position that is broken down into more focused, strategic policies (like your example of the set up of the Board for the Creation of University Level Reference Books in the 60s) is going to need a lot more than bureaucracy to gain traction and make change. In particular, some tie in with economic opportunities, as you note in your final paragraph. I am finding similar hurdles in regards to minority languages in China emerging from the data in my own research.

    Could you comment further on the popular support (or lack of) for Shivsena, MNS and now Marathikaaran?