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The British and the Americans don’t like Marathi “chauvinism”

August 21, 2008
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Indianising old (British) names of roads and cities never stirred any fire in me although it arouses nationalistic fervour in some. I disapproved of the recent diktat of Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation (BMC) to make Marathi mandatory (no Hindi or English allowed) for all official documentation although Marathi is my mother tongue and I can read and write it. But my grumbling is one thing; foreigners grumbling another. If they can adjust to the lack of English in China or in France, surely they can adjust to it in India? In fact in India we have no dearth of translators as English is spoken widely.

A brief background
Most major cities have Indianised their names as an anti-colonial measure – from Madras to Chennai, from Calcutta to Kolkata, from Bombay to Mumbai. Also, recently the BMC (helped along by a local political outfit, MNS) ruled that commercial establishments in Mumbai write the names of their shops and businesses in Marathi (along with English or Hindi). There’s a deadline of 28th August 2008.

And now official documents to be Marathi only
I find this irritating and unneccessary but what I find odd is the way the international press has reacted.

This is what the Telegraph (U.K.) says:

Local officials privately admit that though the Marathi dialect most often spoken in the city can be easy to understand, the official version of the language is confusing and a poor substitute for English

Dialect huh. Well, they have also called Marathi a language and I guess we should be grateful for that. Surprisingly, the headline of the same article said that this move would limit “the city’s ambitions of becoming a global commercial hub.”

Why should it? Have countries like France suffered because they made their language the medium for all official documentation? What India lacks is infrastructure and that is the hurdle to growth, not some petty politicking over language! According to me this is a non-issue where development is concerned and could well be temporary.

In any case, the only reason why English is still here as one of the official languages of India is because of India’s innumerable indigenous languages.

This is what the International Herald Tribune says (Reuters story):

The decision to ditch English, the global language of business, in favour of Marathi, a language largely restricted to the surrounding state of Maharashtra, has left some officials struggling to express themselves

I am not sure whether they are upset that Marathi has replaced English and would have been alright with Hindi or whether they are upset about Mumbai ditching English.

This is what the Financial Times (London) writes:

Mumbai’s business elite, which wants the city to become an international financial centre (IFC), opposes the language change. “It will have an adverse effect on the global investment climate in the city,” warns Sushil Jiwarajka, the western regional council chairman of the Federation of Indian chambers of commerce and Industry. Former World Bank economist Percy Mistry, who advised India’s finance ministry on how to help Mumbai realize its dream of catching up with London and Hong Kong, said that an unfriendly business climate would just give companies another reason to choose cities in neighboring Indian states, such as Gujarat, rather than Maharashtra.

Will foreign investors turn their back on Maharashtra because the official communication is in Marathi? Or because of poor roads, lack of power and other infrastructure?

A blog on the Economist magazine site (blogs on these sites are penned by the journalists themselves) says: [The headline is “Watch your mouth in Mumbai”]

BRITISH businessmen working in India were recently warned about the need to abide by local customs, following reports of deals collapsing because of their inappropriate behaviour. Now those heading to Mumbai have one more thing to think about: language…No government documents will be written in English or Hindi…This is going to make life harder for several councillors who do not read and write the language fluently. And non-Marathi speakers doing business with the government could find their translators’ bills soaring.

I am not sure exactly what British businessmen are worried about. Translators’ bills, “inappropriate” behavior or what non-Marathi speaking Indian councillors have to go through.

One of the reactions to this post in the Economist was:

It’s because of stupid regulations like this that India gets a reputation as being unfriendly to business.

Another said:

The businessmen will learn Marathi as they learn now Portuguese and Chinese. What is so tragic in it?

That is exactly what I feel. What’s so tragic in it? What’s so reprehensible about it? I can understand the outrage of those whose mother tongue is Hindi or Gujarati who have trouble deciphering Marathi documents but I have difficulty in understanding the attitude of those who are not from this country.

This issue of changing the official language to Marathi is about regional politicking, it’s about coalition politics, it’s about next year’s elections and it may not even last! Relax guys! Don’t come out with doomsday predictions!

Update 22nd August: Mavin in his comment has brought to my notice that Marathi is already the official language at police stations, ration offices and the land revenue department. The government administration structure, already conducts its affairs in Marathi. The municipal corporation, even in other towns in Maharashtra, issues the property tax and water bills in Marathi. Land survey reports are already in Marathi. Therefore, conducting the affairs of the municipal corporation will not be any drastic change for foreign businessmen…it does not change anything for them. The only change now, is for the non-Marathi speaking corporators who are elected representatives of the people in Mumbai. This makes the criticism of the foreign businessmen by even more incomprehensible.

(Note: This post was written at the suggestion of Arleen, a reader.)

Related Reading: Will English dominate India in another 50 years?
The language issue in India
Does language divide Indians socially?
The multiculturalism of India

129 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2008 3:02 pm

    @ Vivek:

    “Linguistic purity is the obsession of a class (usually from the so-called “upper-caste”;..”

    That may not be the case. I am now looking for an article I recently came across on an Indian news site which suggested that the large numbers of OBCs in government offices has meant the rise of tatsam-isms of the kind that most urban, ‘upper caste’ people struggle to comprehend. This, the author(ess) contended, is their linguistic revenge. I wish I had saved the URL – it was incendiary from some people’s perspectives but totally in line with my experience in the Hindi belt.

  2. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    August 27, 2008 3:34 pm

    @ Shefaly:

    I would indeed love to see this article. But prima facie the phenomenon you report seems in keeping with the “Sanskritisation” thesis of M N Srinivas. Of course it extended far beyond language, but language was certainly part of it.

    In the limited context of modern, official Hindi, I would refer to as “pseudo-Raghuviraism” what you call “tatsamism”.

    Marginally off-topic, I am reminded of the late Vasantrao Patil, CM of Maharashtra. An astute politician, upright and well-liked by most people, he was only marginally educated, and totally at the mercy of his largely Brahmin speechwriters who peppered his speeches with so many Sanskritised tongue-twisters that Patil came across quite pathetic when he read out anything. This, of course, was the reverse of what you report — the Brahmins exacting revenge for their lost glory.

  3. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    August 27, 2008 3:40 pm


    In Maharashtra the “linguistic revenge” of the traditionally depressed classes resulted in the emergence of Dalit literature which, after considerable initial resistance by the “upper” classes, has now come into its own as a respected part of mainstream literature.

    It is also interesting that Mayawati of UP, arguably the most influential Dalit leader in India today, discovered all her icons in Maharashtra — Phule, Shahu and Ambedkar.

  4. vivek mittal permalink
    August 27, 2008 4:14 pm

    Mr Khadpekar,

    Maywati’s icon include Mr Periyar too..

    About languages, yes Hindi is language of north india only ..but I wonder what is your take on Sanskrit as i feel other Indian languages like Marathi,Bengali, Oriya, Telugu, Kannada derive many words from i believe Sanskrit has a wider reach in India (Plz correct me if i’m wrong)..Here i mean that Sanskrit can’t be singled out as a language or north or south but has a much wider reach..
    and about Tamil i’m told that it is a pure language from different origin and dosn’t derive any word from Sanskrit…but then i wonder about the names of Tamil people which seems to come straight from Ramayana or Mahabharata

    I hear names of Tamil people like

    “Muralidharan” – it’s a name of Lord Krishna

    “Parthasarathy” – as in Geeta Arjuna was referred as “partha” and Krishna was his “sarathy” so this name also mean Lord Krishna”

    “Radhakrishnan” -Radha and Krishna are a couple in Mahabharata

    “Ramanujan”- Means Lakshman as Lakshman was “Anuj” (Younger brother) of Lord Ram

    There are many examples like that…

  5. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    August 27, 2008 5:04 pm


    The only problem with this new theme is that, the moment I press ‘submit’ the text disappears altogether. I find that even in my request for correction, what I actually wanted to insert is still missing . Do you think [;] could be a problem character string?

    Let me rewrite the whole last sentence of the para as three and hope for the best:

    The ‘A’ ending also applies to case inflexions, e.g. ordAmAn — ‘in the room’. In Marathi this would be kholIt or kholImadhyE. In Hindi it would be . [Note: in Hindi the case ending becomes a separate word; in Gujarati and Marathi it is suffixed to the dhAtu].

    Hmm, not sure what you mean, but I hope it’s all there now. – Nita.

  6. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    August 27, 2008 5:38 pm

    Vivek Mittal,

    As far as I am aware, Periyar (“Mr. Periyar” is tautologous) was a later addition to Mayawati’s pantheon. She adopted the first three not because she had any special love for Maharashtra, but because her late political guru (whose name eludes me at the moment) cut his ideological teeth as a student in Maharashtra. But better check this out with an academic who has kept track of Mayawati’s career.

    Regarding Sanskrit, I am not sure what you are getting at. Sure, a lot of the words of many of the MILs can be etymologically traced to Sanskrit, but that does not validate the simplistic observation, which many people make, about its being the mother of all (or most) Indian languages. Languages, like rivers, evolve through a series of confluences of several streams. Unlike rivers they can, because of their human vectors, cross all kinds of topographic obstacles.

    On your observations regarding Tamil, I do have some ideas, but they are clustered around [a] the Aryan invasion theory; [b] caste; and [c] physical and social mobility across geographic space. I do not think a detached and objective discussion on these controversial topics is possible on this (or any other) blog. Let us not start another war zone here.

  7. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    August 27, 2008 5:43 pm


    Yes it’s OK now, except the full stop is needed only after the closed bracket, not before it. So you can delete my request of 5.04 p.m. and also this one.

  8. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    August 27, 2008 6:04 pm

    @ Vivek Mittal:

    //Radha and Krishna are a couple in Mahabharata//

    Radha is NOT mentioned in the Mahabharata. The primary source dealing with her (and also with Krishna’s days in Vrindavana) is the Shrimadbhagavatam. The most elaborate treatment of Radha and Krishna as divine lovers is in Jayadeva’s 12th century work Gita Govindam, to the full online text of which I had provided a link sometime back to Dr. Nishith Dhruv (I forget which post this was on, but it is within the last two months).

    For some Vaishnava sampradayas in different parts of India, Radha is a deity in her own right.

  9. vivek mittal permalink
    August 27, 2008 6:05 pm

    Mr Khadpekar

    There’s no question of any war or even any controversy or anything like that..this was a curiosity in me..and i thought you may throw some light…

  10. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    August 27, 2008 6:31 pm

    Vivek Mittal,

    I did not mean to suggest a war between the two of us. Those truly are controversial topics, and a blog is a pretty public forum in which you cannot moderate either the tone or the content of a discussion.

  11. vinay permalink
    August 28, 2008 10:21 am

    I often saw some americans pointing to Indians during their conversation like, “Did they change it from Bombay to Mumbai?… well it used to be Bombay since a long time huh” and they get answers like,” Yea they did” and not more than that. Unfortunately I always was a passer-by when this happens and never really got a chance to deal with such incidents directly.

    What they need is an answer that you wrote here. I love the two words here Nita: ‘anti-colonial measure’. That would deliver the slap straight on their face. I love this measure from our governments. It tells them that we’re no africa to loose our roots easily.

    Well the next step for us Indians should be to come up with a totally new concept of managing the differences. Be it languages, ethnic differences or anything. I am all for any brainwash measure by our government which will give equality and harmony in the end. Influential bloggers like you should consider writing articles about political parties like Paritran . They receive much lesser attention than what they actually need. May be writers like you can help spread the word.

    Thanks Vinay. Yes, I understand perfectly why people want to change names. about Paritran, yes I have read about it, but as I am not a political creature, I avoid writing about political parties. Haven’t written a blog post about any single party so far. However if Paritran figures in some particular issue which I feel strongly about, then I will certainly write about them, whether they figure in it positively or negatively. – Nita.

  12. guqin permalink
    August 28, 2008 11:32 am

    “Victoria Falls” always bothers me. An African waterfall shouldn’t have the name of a british bandit queen. I didn’t even know it’s located in Africa because of that name.

  13. krenim permalink
    August 28, 2008 5:09 pm

    come come,the expats are just airing their feelings how would you like it if you were in a foreign country where suddenly all the signs and paperwork was changed from english(which i presume you understand) to another language which you don’t ?

    As for the nationalism
    Yawn!just remember who built your major cities 🙂

    Hello chinaman nice olympics.for that we will call beijing as peking ,happy!

  14. guqin permalink
    August 29, 2008 9:36 am


    Both beijing and peking are just different approximations of the original Chinese pronunciations. “Victoria Falls” is different, it has a referal.

    “bandit queen” speaks a historic fact.
    “chinaman” speaks something else.
    I hope you understand that.

  15. guqin permalink
    August 29, 2008 9:56 am

    Also, thanks for pointing out westernized cities and the Olympics, I don’t consider them succuss, they only provide a way not to fail, and, eventually provide a chance for that way to fail.

  16. Sundar permalink
    August 29, 2008 9:47 pm

    vivek mittal
    August 27, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    and about Tamil i’m told that it is a pure language from different origin and dosn’t derive any word from Sanskrit…but then i wonder about the names of Tamil people which seems to come straight from Ramayana or Mahabharata

    I hear names of Tamil people like

    “Muralidharan” – it’s a name of Lord Krishna

    “Parthasarathy” – as in Geeta Arjuna was referred as “partha” and Krishna was his “sarathy” so this name also mean Lord Krishna”

    “Radhakrishnan” -Radha and Krishna are a couple in Mahabharata

    “Ramanujan”- Means Lakshman as Lakshman was “Anuj” (Younger brother) of Lord Ram

    There are many examples like that

    I think I have written about this somewhere else. But if you want me to repeat I have no probs. All these names you pointed out are mostly used by Tamil Brahmins (read Iyers and Iyengars) .They are a distinct sect by themselves and they are not genetically related to the native Tamils. Nevertheless I have to admit their contribution to Tamizh language is no less significant . When a country is flooded with immigrants who speak a different language then in due course of time a lot of new words will find their way into the language the natives speak. Tamil doesn’t have the following consonants. ( Muralidharan – There is no ‘dha’ consonant in Tamil. Parthasarathy – No ‘sa’ consonant either. Ramanujan – No ‘ja’ consonant . Radhakrishnan – No ‘sh’ consonant. ). What you have pointed out are names that are used by a particular sect of people and by no means are they a part of Tamizh language. I would be ridiculed if I say ‘Kaapi ‘ (Tamizh lingo for coffee) is English. The same way none of these words are Tamizh either.

  17. Shriram permalink
    September 1, 2008 4:12 pm

    Regarding the language issue:

    I feel, regional language is must… because people in cities might understand English but people from rural area will definitely not understand English.

    So, any official documentation should have both, English and regional language.
    E.g. Birth Certificate in Pune is in both languages, viz., English and Marathi. And you get it printed in any of the language preferred by you.

  18. September 3, 2008 1:35 pm

    @ Nita

    This will interest you, considering the French are often held up as examples of linguistic pride 🙂

  19. Abhay Bajekal permalink
    September 10, 2008 7:27 pm

    Marathi-s have no hope for getting justice from a Hindi dominated India. It was Maratha-s who first started India’s freedom struggle against foreign invaders. It was Maratha-s who gave India’s freedom struggle a proper direction. And what did they get in return? Nothing but abuses. It is time for Maharashtrians to understand that if Maharashtra had been an independent nation, it would be the richest in whole of the South East Asia. We do not need crumbs from a decrepit India.

  20. January 3, 2009 1:16 am

    Marathi needs to be an official language in Maharashtra simply because there are many people in towns and villages – outside Mumbai, Pune and other cities – who do not have a strong proficiency in English. (Even though it may be difficult for a person like me, who has lost a bit of his own Marathi mother toungue, having lived (unfortunately) abroad for several years).

    It may be good idea for English to remains as a secondary language in the official documents to facilitate ease for Indians coming to Maharashtra from other states.

  21. vasudev permalink
    February 9, 2009 12:07 am

    lots of punjabis who settled in chennai speak chaste tamil. that’s because those whom they have to deal with regularly neither understand hindi nor english.
    the pride of local lingua first appeared in madras in the 60s. they even burnt some trains. but look at it now. latest is that hindi is more prevalent and preferred than tamil. people know which side of the bread is buttered!

  22. NATO - OECD permalink
    June 11, 2009 5:52 pm

    Ye, what a nice discussion and blog entry as well. Why is is that the ‘Uttar Bharatiyas’ are not supposed to learn a single language other than their mother tongue Hindi and compulsory English? The south Indians, who speak languages that don’t have close resemblance with Hindi need to compulsorily learn Hindi, and bring down their marks in school and college. That is why CBSE toppers are not from south at 10th level, it seems but they are the greatest geeks in India!

    If ‘north Indians’ are not compelled to learn any one vernacular language at school level like Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, then they deserve to be called ‘north Indians’ or ‘Uttar Bharatiyas’ only, and the saga will continue of all this discussion and all with no solutions. Whereas, contrast this to non – Hindi people, they are considered real Indians by the ‘Uttar Bharatiyas’ only when they are able to speak Hindi!!

    Are the north – Indians superior to others? Reminds me of Hitler’s Aryan Supremacy which some north Indians seemed to have got in them in the form of ‘North Indians Supremacy’.. And it is not their fault, they are already striving for basic education. It is ALL YOU PEOPLE’s fault who haven’t compelled the Hindi – speaking people to make any one Indian language compulsory apart from Hindi. I am sure they will willingly accept it too, at least those who do not have the ‘uttar bharatiya’ imperialist ambitions.

    And Hindi being the official language in BMC? These are real imperialists… Having being lived with many a UP – people and the so called brass of educated people from Kanpur – Lucknow, I know very well the language that these guys understand. Biharis are the worst case, thanks to Lalu’s education policies. Raj Thackeray’s goons (or rather anti – imperialist fighters depending on which side you are) gave them an answer. You guys go ga ga over violence, but it is a normal occurence in many parts of UP and Bihar.

    And funny no one criticizes ‘Uttar Bharatiyas’ for their wrongdoings like removing Marathi from BMC, and also no criticizes Abu Asam Azmi and SP leaders for uinfuriating violence, promise of sending some 20 thousand goons, distributing sticks, to which Raj Bhai went on to give answers in their language.

    God save ‘non – Uttar Bharatiyas’!

  23. Shaan permalink
    September 22, 2009 8:49 am

    Tamil has been the language of official communication in TN for several years now. But no one even seemed to notice it. The real problem in Maharashtra is that Maharashtra has allowed Hindi speaking people settle in big numbers and continue without assimilation of any sort. Even in TN we have a large number of Telugus and some Malayalis and Kannadas, but believe it or not almost 90% of Telugus consider themselves more as Tamils than as Telugus. The fact that they are telugu comes up only when they tell their caste. This sort of assimilation has been achieved because the people who migrated were more than willing to adapt to the local culture and the locals never wavered from the strong passion they had towards their language and culture.

  24. Hemant permalink
    May 11, 2010 10:02 pm

    No one is as racist as British and Americans.. they are always linked with racism and fascism from 500 years of world history… BNP is the political party in Britain and they targets non christains and non whites in UK. But Americans and British government never talk about it… British goverment have indirect support to this party and BNP is spreading its white nationalism theory across USA and other countires … no one is opposing it…and they have problems with Marthis …???????????

    • vasudev permalink
      May 16, 2010 9:47 pm

      is that why the english are running away from britain to the us while the indina/paki muslims rule the roost there? is that why the aparthied system was first formulated in the us? if u go by 5000 yr old history the dalits wud have strong opinions about hinduism.

  25. illuan permalink
    September 8, 2010 9:36 pm

    Thanks for this brilliant article. Yes, i agree, why is it a problem that English is not used in documentation? When you do business, you can use translators. There is, in this perspective, a kind of denial of the value of Indian languages by some foreigners…. their main argument, to link English and prosperity, is highly specious and inexact. The reasons why a country becomes whealthy are historical and socio-economical. Germany, Norway, Japan, France…are not English speaking. Their development has the same origin as UK, the Industrial Revolution, not the English language. Still, in those countries, they can use English but as one of the foreign languages for business. As I live in France, I can say moreover, the real value is not to speak English. As it is the first foreign language learnt, many businessmen are looking now for people speaking German, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Russian…in order to invest in long-term projects with a good knowledge of the countries. If you just speak some English, it doesn’t seem so attractive.
    For Hindi, I regret the position of Mumbai. Hindi must be a cement for India and a sign of union, in the respect of the linguistic diversity. To allow its use would be a sign of benevolence towards other Indians. The opposition against Hindi, since 1965, is regretable even if the reluctancies of many can be easily understood.
    But last thing, I have noticed that in those newspapers they don’t speak about Human Rights and the legitimate defense of cultural diversity. Maybe they just don’t mind…

  26. Ricky singh permalink
    May 3, 2011 8:42 pm

    Please note that countries like China, France, Germany etc. have multiple languages (just google for it, you’ll find). However, the kind of chauvinism that WE display in India (& the kind of hate towards the most widely spoken language Hindi) is amazing. While they united to follow ONE language, we are fighting for our own respective regional language.

    Englishmen knew it, that’s why they ruled us for centuries on the basis of just one policy: “DIVIDE & RULE”. Now, MNS/ Shiv Sena/ Mamata Banerjee etc etc know it, and thus ruling us. But we as the people will never realise this ploy.

    Thanks and keep ridiculing Hindi by making Marathi mandatory or such stunts! You’ll never make for a successful unified India, since there’ll always be a Tamilian/ Bengali/ Gujarati to oppose your claim that Marathi represents entire India!

  27. Jinoop permalink
    June 1, 2011 6:42 pm

    I am from kerala.When I came to mumbai for the first time.I came to know that there is no radio stations in Marathi in Mumbai…!!….Even my home town has five private radio channels in my mother tongue.I think the reason is that Marathi film industry is not so popular , that there is lesser songs coming out.In my opinion , the media like radio and Movies are the best promoters of ones language and culture.Hindi films most of the time shows the lives in UP.Those coming from outside into the city will have better chance to learn marathi if they hear marathi songs,movies etc like I learned tamil only through tamil movies(Eventhough there is similarity with malayalam).Lets welcome films like jogva,Natrang……

  28. Harshad permalink
    January 21, 2012 3:40 pm

    What about natives? Do you want to say that locals in their homeland should speak foreign languages. According to Gujarat high court Hindi is a foreign language. So what’s the problem to adapt and speak Marathi? Congress mulech he sarv zaale aahe aani outsiders yeoon dadagiri kartaat. If anybody want business from us they must respect our language otherwise Khall -Fatack……

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