Modi-Times Now interview and the issue of language

BY ARJUN RAJKHOWA| IN Media Practice | 15/05/2014
Will we continue to have interviews in which the head of a state will speak in Hindi while being asked questions in English?
ARJUN RAJKHOWA on the language disconnect English language anchors have with Narendra Modi

The Narendra Modi-Times Now interview may have evoked a variety of reactions in India but for someone outside the country a standout feature was its manifest language ‘disconnect’. While interviews where two languages are used in parallel are not inherently disorientating (we are not unaccustomed to interviewers asking questions in English and interviewees responding in Hindi, or vice versa), the Times Now interview, given the political context, nevertheless stuck a discordant note. No doubt it was not an interview in which exclusively English was used by the interviewer but a large part of the interview, in its most substantive segments, evinced signs of a  language ‘disconnect’ which became, to a viewer outside the context of a domestic English- language audience, an indication of internal ‘diaphony’. This was not, in their mind, merely an instance of India’s multilingualism at work but, given the position of the person being interviewed, a sign of a broader political lacuna.  

By virtue of the subject’s position and proximity to political office, it would behoove the journalist conducting the interview to speak in the interviewee’s chosen language. Arnab Goswami opted to, but only part of the time. Disregarding for a moment the immensely complex and irresolvable questions that surround the politics of language in India, speaking to a political leader in the language that he or she is most comfortable in is a matter of etiquette and courtesy. When that person is someone who aspires to become prime minister, the extending of such courtesy is less a matter of whimsy and more of prerogative.  

There is a peculiar discourtesy and condescension that mars interviews in which a person of this stature is being asked questions (and sometimes hectored) in English while the responses are in Hindi. This discourtesy, which in addition to fostering a disconnect between the participants of the conversation also alienates the audience, is something of an Indian idiosyncrasy and peculiarity that appears more jarring when one is abroad. Anyone unfamiliar with Indian history finds the situation patently absurd. Flummoxed Chinese students look askance at the video and ask disparagingly, ‘Why does he continue to speak in English?!’   

For Indians, the concerns are less (strictly) linguistic and more political. More than the specificity of the language prioritised in such conversations, an overriding concern is the aporia between the idioms of political discourse in circulation. A gulf, not of incomprehension and misunderstanding but of sensibility, separates the two parties (state/governed, authority/interlocutor), and when the arena in which this gulf is especially visible is the arena of national politics then one should be concerned. For meaningful dialogue to exist, recognition of and proficiency in the political idiom in use is a prerequisite. Instead, the gaps and fissures between our political languages seem now to be widening faster than ever; the words, ideas and principles that animate each of these languages do not permeate each other in a productive manner. As a consequence, we risk becoming a polity alienated from itself, unable to communicate our needs, demands and wants effectively and meaningfully.  

Arguably, there is nothing new about any of this. India has been grappling with the ‘language question’ since time immemorial. The reason this assumes some urgency now is its implications for dialogue with any future government. 

Will we continue to have interviews in which the head of state (whoever they may be) will speak in Hindi while being asked questions in English? There are practical considerations at work here: any such presentation of our communicational style internationally will contribute to an ‘image’ problem, making us appear, on an overt level, discombobulated and self-alienated. What strikes one as jarring from the outside is not just the use of two languages in a single interview (which in and of itself can be both necessary and pragmatic) but the implications this has given the interview’s subject and context. The communicational gap that we know exists in the country assumes gargantuan proportions when a leading candidate and his interlocutor consistently speak two different languages on national television. The intention of this critique is not to make a reductive argument – there is of course Hindi news and people watching English-language channels expect a certain kind of presentation (and perhaps have no problem resolving any resulting language dilemmas) – but to highlight an incongruity that may be invisible to Indian audiences long used to the dualistic character of ‘national’ political discourse.  

Besides, another point to consider could be whether journalists should by training aim to be bilingual. In a country where a majority of people speak two or three languages fluently, and are trained in at least two through their school education, journalistic training (conversational fluency) in two languages should not require a great leap of imagination. The intent is not to impose linguistic straightjackets but to facilitate meaningful conversations on television and in print media. To this end, the onus evidently lies on English-language channels, but whether or not this is something that viewers and journalists consider desirable or constructive is up for debate.  

Finally, a politician like Narendra Modi, given the tone of the BJP’s campaign in various constituencies as well as his political ‘past’, obviously has a lot of questions to answer, and it would be so much more productive if he were challenged and asked these questions in his own idiom.

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