How a Bihari lost his mother tongue to Hindi

  • By Roshan Kishore
  • June 4 2019
  • roshanjnu
  • The pitfalls of forcing the use of Hindi on non-Hindi states have often been commented upon. But the hegemonic project is also threatening to subsume languages like Magadhi and Bhojpuri in the northern belt.

There was a popular self-deprecating joke among Biharis in Delhi University’s North Campus in the early 2000s. Delhiwala asks his Bihari classmate why his feet are soiled. Bihari answers in Hindi, "Arre yaar, main chal kar aa raha tha, achanak pyair kaado mein chala gaya". Now, kaado is a word used for a puddle in languages such as Bhojpuri and Magadhi. The Bihari does not use keechad, the acceptable Hindi word for puddle. It is a joke because no matter how much the Bihari tries to hide his not-so-urbane identity behind modern clothes, his language gives him away. 

Jokes apart, the exchange also captures a slow but steady cultural shift that has been taking place in the Hindi heartland. Hindi, or rather sarkari Hindi (more on this later), has been slowly eating away multiple languages spoken by millions of people north of the Vindhyas. For a typical Delhiwala it could be Punjabi, Haryanvi or even Urdu. In the region I come from, the casualty has been Magadhi, or Magahi, as we call it back home. As the name suggests, it is related to the Magadh region, which was once the seat of power for mighty emperors, such as Ashoka.


It is extremely unlikely that my young cousins, who were brought up in Delhi and other metros, would ever feel comfortable speaking this language. But just a couple of generations ago, it used to be the language of conversation in my family.


Within the Hindi academia, there is a polarized debate on whether advancing the cause of languages, such Bhojpuri and Magadhi, would weaken the status of Hindi itself.


This detachment is not without implications. Even today, these languages dominate when it comes to cultural practices. One example should suffice. Chhath is perhaps the most important religious festival in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. As the number of migrants from these regions has grown in mega cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, the question of whether or not governments should declare a public holiday on Chhath has become an important political issue. Rituals apart, Chhath is also known for its devotional folk songs.

I have not come across a single Chhath song written in Hindi. They are either in Magadhi, Maithili or Bhojpuri. Most of the Hindi speakers in Delhi would find large parts of these songs (if not all) incomprehensible. Those who are interested can try listening to some on YouTube.


A Malayali teenager who has been brought up outside Kerala but knows his mother tongue, Malayalam, can land up in Kerala any time and effortlessly understand what is going on in any social or cultural function. A Bihari of similar profile would find it difficult to relate to these Chhath songs. It would be wrong to assume that only nostalgia is at stake. Millions of people still use these languages for their day-to-day interactions. They would not be comfortable conversing with a person who does not know that kaado means keechad. The short point is that the expat Bihari teenager would be left without a mother tongue in their motherland.

How does one reconcile this with the fact that Hindi is the main language of communication in almost all of north India? A look at the census statistics, which is the country’s main source of language data, can help. The census has specific instructions for recording mother tongues. A mother tongue is the language spoken in childhood by the person’s mother to the person. There are allowances for situations when the mother is dead, but the underlying principle is clear. A mother tongue is the language spoken at home, not the medium of instruction or language of social interaction.


The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution lists 22 languages. In keeping with the mandate of capturing the mother tongue, the 2001 census (latest available data) lists sub-categories under each of these languages. The broad category of Hindi has 49 mother tongues listed under it, including Hindi. Of the 422 million people in this group, only 61% actually reported Hindi as their mother tongue. Bhojpuri and Magadhi are among the top 5, with shares of 7.8% and 3.3%, respectively.

In Bihar, the tables are turned. Less than one-fourth recorded their mother tongue as Hindi. Bhojpuri and Magadhi had a share of 33.6% and 20%, respectively. In absolute terms, these numbers would be more than 20 million and 12 million, respectively. That’s a lot more than the population of Australia, which is around 24 million, according to the latest World Bank figures.


Table 1: In Bihar only 24% of the people show Hindi as their mother tongue


These numbers bear testimony to the ongoing cultural violence inflicted by Hindi in its own backyard. Much has been written on the pitfalls of forcing the use of Hindi as the national language on non-Hindi states. But what about the hegemonic project which is threatening to subsume the likes of Magadhi and Bhojpuri? Is this yet another aspect of the politics of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan, which is associated with the political right in India? A slight digression on the history of Hindi nationalism would be useful here.


Hindi Nationalism’, by Alok Rai, can be a good primer for those who want a grounding in the topic. Orient BlackSwan’s Hindi Nationalism by Alok Rai, who has been a professor of English at the Allahabad and Delhi universities, can be a good primer for those without any grounding in the topic.


Rai happens to be the grandson of the legendary writer Munshi Premchand, who wrote in both Urdu and Hindi. The book gives a detailed account of how Hindi, as we know it today, gained dominance in India. Persian was the official script in India in the pre-British period. This acted as a natural disadvantage for the non-elite, especially Hindus, who did not know the script.

It was only in 1900 that Sir Anthony MacDonnell, lieutenant governor of North-Western Provinces and Oudh, allowed Devanagari—the script in which Hindi is written—to be allowed in courts. Rai argues that two factors were behind the decision. They wanted the language of administration to be accessible to the common people.

Also, the Muslim elite had played an important role in the 1857 mutiny. By ending the dominance of Persian in the British administration, their socio-economic position could be weakened. The Hindus who lost out for not knowing Persian had no reason to complain. What was settled by decree in the matter of script was not so easy when it came to language. The British wanted a standardized Hindi to be developed in India. Hindustani—an eclectic mix of Hindi and Urdu—was ill-suited for the job. (Do read History of Urdu, link at end).


An anecdote in Rai’s book shows that the British quest for a standardized language predates 1857. The then government’s education department’s annual report of 1846-47 talks about the principal of Benares College, J.R. Ballantyne, admonishing the students for leaving “the task of formulating the national language in the hands of villagers". Ballantyne asks them to “get rid of the unprofitable diversity of provincial dialects" and create a standard literature. His remarks were a response to a student’s argument that they did not clearly understand what the Europeans meant by Hindi as “there are hundreds of dialects, all in our opinion equally entitled to the name".

Soon the question of language spilled into the domain of politics. Competing Hindu and Muslim elites wanted to purge their standardized languages of Persian and Sanskrit words. Herein began the communalization of Hindi and Urdu. Once this binary gained momentum, hundreds of dialects “which were entitled to Hindi" became collateral damage. Anybody who opposed this was branded a traitor. Rai cites Nathuram Godse’s final testimony, where he lists Gandhi’s opposition to Sanskritized Hindi as one of the reasons for killing him.


This history is extremely relevant today. Attempts and proclamations to impose Hindi are threatening to rekindle the fires of anti-Hindi agitations of the 1950s and 1960s.

There is not enough opposition to these sectarian ploys from within the cultural and intellectual world of Hindi. As a result, the entire Hindi-speaking population is being branded as language chauvinist.

This is not surprising in the context of the preceding discussion. The biggest victim of a monolithic Hindi project has been Hindi itself. Under the garb of building a mega narrative for nation and culture, our inherent diversity has been pushed to the margins. Rai quotes Hindi poet Sudama Pandey Dhoomil’s powerful articulation of this tragedy, which was written in the 1960s:

Tumhara yeh Tamil-dukh

Meri iss Bhojpuri peeda ka

bhai hai

Bhasha uss tikdami darinde ka kaur hai

(Your Tamil pain

Is brother to my Bhojpuri pain—

Language is merely a morsel for the deceitful beast...)

Of course, the problem is easier to discuss than solve. Within the Hindi academia, there is a polarized debate on whether advancing the cause of languages, such Bhojpuri and Magadhi, would weaken the status of Hindi itself. The hegemony of Hindi is useful when lobbying for more official patronage.

I, personally, am not sure whether including Magadhi in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution (Maithili was added in 2004) or opening a couple of university departments would address the problems which were discussed at the beginning of the piece. Can such policy changes solve the growing demographic alienation from the language?

Will somebody make a Bhojpuri or Magadhi film which would be screened in a south Delhi multiplex in the next five years? Can the Hindi-belt elite rise above caste politics to promote a secular, yet vernacular, popular culture? What does Hindi-speaking India stand to lose if this diversity is allowed to erode with time? Is our political class worried about it?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the most influential mass leader in our country today, understands the importance of this diversity. On 27 October 2013, Modi addressed the Hunkar rally in Patna to launch his 2014 campaign in Bihar. He made it a point to utter a couple of sentences in Bhojpuri, Magadhi and Maithili—three of Bihar’s major dialects. The crowd, like it always does for Modi, cheered.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest so far that Modi’s political prowess on the issue can undo the damage which has happened due to the push for a Sanskritized and hegemonic Hindi by his fellow-travellers.

This is the second in a series that takes stock of the neglect of languages and the attempts to revitalize them.

This article was first published in MINT here. eSamskriti has obtained permission to share.

Also read

1 History of Hindi

2 History of Urdu

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