Arts & Culture

Decolonisation and Resistance Through the Lens of Language

Language has always been much more than a mere tool for communication, translating into a reiteration of one’s identity, an instrument for rejecting oppressive ideals and consequently, an affirmation of the revolutionary faith. Colonising entities suppressed mother tongues, replacing them with English or other western languages with the motive of establishing dominance and power. Not only does it cause discomfort and emotional pain, but it also attempts to wipe out the historical and cultural richness of the colonies that are woven into the grammar and syntax of their indigenous languages. 

The politics of language differ across the world and in former colonies like India, language has a complicated legacy, with the British having left behind a culture of aggressive language erasure. Indigenous stories and subaltern voices were suppressed, ingraining hegemonic hierarchies in our minds. During this ugly reign of power, the colonial agenda had a keen intent of dominating the so-called “natives” linguistically, by generating feelings of inferiority, worthlessness and shame around their mother tongue.

They controlled our tongue in every which way: not only colonising the truth we spoke or wrote but also how we did so.

Regional movie poster symbolising resistance to colonial oppression. Credits:

Three decades short of a century later, these feelings of shame in our mother tongue are still systematically perpetuated to erase our history, our identity and our literary culture. Time has held testament to the fact that dismantling linguistic colonisation is far from possible in India. And that we are now susceptible to neo-colonisation, wherein are minds are still enslaved to the understanding of language through narratives of superiority and power, rather than as a means to bring people together while holding on to the culture of communication that we belong to. For anyone who has had to access to English from an early age, this hegemony translates not only into speaking this language but also thinking in it, while being disconnected from their mother tongue.

Those Individuals Who Belong to the Lowered Classes are Often Associated with Vernacular Languages

And this idea is furthered by the social and professional structures that surround us. In India, access to English and a cultivated fluency in it is still an important weapon in maintaining the status quo, furthering the intersectional class and caste divide, with those considered to belong to the lowered class being associated with vernacular languages.

These create further divides in educational and workspace environments. For an average Indian looking for a job, fluency in English is a bigger asset than many technical skills they might have acquired, which is just one of the many manifestations of linguistic neocolonialism in the modern world.

In his pathbreaking work Decolonising the Mind‘, Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes about attuning one’s mind to resist the bindings of our collective past, to fight against imperialism and its all-pervading nature. He talks about systemic change, advocating for societies and governments to pool more resources into the nurturing of vernacular languages, which will initiate a domino effect in initiating a conversation around the acceptance and normality of our mother tongues over English.

Where the mind is without fear by Rabindranath Tagore. Credits:

This sentiment is one that was shared by Tagore, a stalwart of Indian literature and a firm pioneer of the belief that the mother tongue must be valued above all, because of the power implicit in embracing one’s coloniser’s language over their own. In Tagore’s iconic work,Chitto Jetha Bhoyeshunno, Uccho Jetha Sheer‘, or ‘Where the Head is Held High‘, he invokes a war cry for freedom from our mental chains, where words come out from the depth of truth and language isn’t a barrier in knowledge and liberation. His words resonate deeper than ever this International Mother Language Day, as he rallies for our minds to be freed from the colonisation of our minds, that pervades our lives to this date.

Language as a Mechanism to Preserve One’s Identity, Voice,Cultural and Ethnic Roots

Holding on to the words and colloquialisms that one has grown up speaking becomes an act of resistance in itself. The power of languages transcends the instructions of political and social structures. If need be, the language that one chooses to speak has the power to be a weapon of choice— a mechanism to preserve one’s identity, voice, and cultural and ethnic roots.

In this way, a mother tongue has the potential to be the key to the collective imprisonment of a group of people, thereby also bonding those who are suffering or resisting to their fellow brethren. 

For instance, the Gaelic language played a hegemonic role in Ireland’s struggle for independence. The revival and restoration of the language was also a motivating factor for those who were fighting British rule. In the fight for decolonisation, the reclamation of the agency of a colony’s native languages makes way for the oppressed to assert their authority over the oppressors through their linguistic power. 

Amrita Pritam’s famous dirge addressed to the Punjabi poet Waris Shah also shares the same sentiment— ‘Aaj aakhan Waris Shah nuu, kiton qabraan wichon bol, tey ajj kitaab-e-ishq daa, koi agla warka phol.’ Using poetry as an outlet for her grief, Amrita appeals to Waris to arise from his grave, record the horrors faced by people in Punjab during the Partition of India and to turn over a new page in Punjab’s history. 

Globally, language has contributed significantly to social resistance as a tool of self determination

Similarly, the contribution of languages to social resistance is also reflected in the role that Urdu has played and continues to play in Kashmiris’ fight for their right to self-determination. The Indian government’s majoritarianism and nationalism, and the draconian measures it comes up with to promote the same, have all deprived Kashmiris in the Indian-occupied territory of their fundamental human and civil rights.

The communication blockade imposed in the territories following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution may have been successful in impeding the online demonstration of the anguish felt by those affected, but it couldn’t possibly take away from the support lent to the revolution by Kashmir’s rich cultural history, language and literature. 

Sher by Mirza Ghalib, Credits: Riddhi Mukherjee and Shirley Khurana 

Faiz Ahmad Faiz, one of the most celebrated writers of the Urdu language, very rightly said— ‘dil na-umid to nahin nakam hi to hai…lamb hai ?ham ki shaam magar shaam hi to hai.’ 

Literally translating to ‘the heart has not lost hope, but just a fight that is all.. the night of suffering is long, but it is just a night after all,’ his writing perfectly encapsulates just how potent language, poetry and other written and spoken word compositions can be in giving a reason to those who are weary and hurting to hold on, to fight a bit longer and to persevere through adversity.

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Riddhi Mukherjee

Shirley Khurana