Assuming you speak Hindi…

I can’t use the terms ‘Gaganyaan’ and ‘Vyomanaut’ or ‘Gaganaut’ in place of ‘Indian human spaceflight mission’ and ‘Indian astronauts’ because of the bad taste the use of Hindi leaves on my tongue these days. I speak Hindi when I am in Delhi, and I am there often, but the moment I am expected to speak it in a context where such an expectation shouldn’t really exist, my brain automatically stops parsing Hindi words. So when a cab driver asks me where to go in Hindi in Delhi, that’s okay, but it’s not at all okay when a customer care agent in Mumbai calling someone in Bangalore assumes Hindi is the lingua franca.

It is a somewhat understandable attitude prevalent in North India, where almost everyone speaks Hindi and it’s a safe bet to assume you will be understood if you spoke it, but I don’t buy this as an excuse. Why? Because the underlying assumption has been rendered more and more offensive by the Bharatiya Janata Party – the assumption that everyone speaks it, and if they don’t, then they should. Well, if I should, then I am not going to.

The words ‘Gaganyaan’, ‘Vyomanaut’ and ‘Gaganaut’, as well as ‘Mangalyaan’, are reprehensible for the same reason. It’s not clear whether ISRO named them or the government but somehow they ended up with Hindi/Sanskrit prefixes.

I suspect the government was involved for three reasons. First, the Hindi/Sanskrit names have been foisted only on the most prestigious missions of the Indian space programme, and not on the likes of Cartosat, Risat, Astrosat, Scatsat (which certainly deserves a better name), etc. Second, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been known to rechristen missions, as he did with the IRNSS (by changing its name to NAVIC), as if he’s branding them with the stamp of his rule. Third, it was Modi who used the term ‘Gaganyaan’ when he announced the spaceflight mission in his Independence Day speech last year.

ISRO could simply have called these supposedly flagship missions by their English names, but in Hindi, it sounds as if the organisation is sucking up. CMB Bharat roused the same suspicion. It’s a proposal for a space science mission led by scientists from the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune. If it is approved, built and launched, CMB Bharat (blech) will study an extremely old volume of radiation still lingering in the universe from the time of the Big Bang. My question is about why the scientists behind the proposal saw fit to call it ‘CMB Bharat’ over ‘CMB India’. Is a file with this name on it likelier to catch the attention of the higher-ups?

Hindi is India’s official language but so is English. And if English has been taboo because of its colonialist associations, then Hindi is taboo now because of its Hindutva associations.

Frankly, I don’t know what the alternative could have been, but I would personally have preferred that they had gone with English over Hindi (more reasons enumerated here). India still has a colonial hangover problem in many ways but that stopped being a good-enough reason to reject the language long ago. After globalisation, especially, being able to speak English has meant access to better education and better jobs. What rewards does being able to speak in Hindi bring, other than letting you wander around in North India?

The government’s bias towards Hindi might have made better sense if English hadn’t been in the picture or if this was 1948. But here we are in 2019, and English is very much in the picture. If it is a bridge language that India’s administrators-in-chief seek, then it must be not implemented as such without the approval of all state governments (since states have been linguistically demarcated in India) and not in a way that edges out any of the other languages from their rightful place in the public consciousness.

Most of all, that obnoxious assumption should be shot and buried.

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Science writer and editor in Bangalore, India.