Thinking about federalism at a train station

 

 

That language you hear in the public address system of Madhubani train station is Maithili, a dialect of Hindi that is native to north Bihar and plains of Nepal. I find it exceptionally sweet to the ears. What I found surprising is that Maithili was being blared out by the PA, at all, along with Hindi and English. Usually, in Bihar or any north Indian state where Hindi is the dominant language, announcements in train or bus stations are in Hindi and English, with no regard to local dialects, which can vary considerably from standard Hindi. The Bihar administration’s decision to pay attention to Maithili is commendable.

Which got me wondering about federalism, especially this brilliant book by Alfred Stepan, Juan Linz and Yogendra Yadav. Indian state governments, especially in the South and East, have worked diligently to create a distinct provincial identity, even while paying diligence to local ethno-cultural sentiments. Some of the efforts have been focused on promoting local languages, including cosmetic changes such as renaming places from their anglicized, colonial names to the way are spelled by natives (See: Bangalore to Bengaluru, Calcutta to Kolkata etc.). At the same time there have been more concrete policies promoting local languages and culture through the state administration, aided by the federal government in Delhi. Together, the policies have helped create what Linz or Yadav would call a state-nation: many within one.

European countries like France follow the nation-state model, by coercing citizens to integrate to one national language and a singular idea of “French (or inert country)” culture. Both have their merits but in a country, as ethnically and religiously diverse like India, the state-nation model have significant upsides by embracing the core ideals behind federalism. Federalism cannot be just laws that define political or administrative power sharing. The ideals need to reach the grassroots – the citizens and only by respecting the local cultures, dialects can a nation build the social capital and civil societies that sustain the pillars of democracy.

Would the uptick in ethnic identity formation as a result of state-nation promoting policies lead to distributional problems when it comes to public goods? Plausible. There is scholarship arguing both sides of the question – do ethnic diversity lead to better or worse public goods provisioning? But that is a discussion for another day. For now, after 70 years of sovereignty, let’s chew over the fact that India remains a functioning democracy where democratic institutions have taken root because successive governments and the public have pushed for a state nation that, despite two centuries of colonialism, have not forgotten the history of the many ethnicities, religions and cultures that make India a working model of federalism: Unity in Diversity.

Edit: The ever erudite Neelanjan Sircar tells me that Maithili is no longer considered a dialect of Hindi as per a Govt. Of India. So it makes sense why it was being blared out in train station PAS. Of course, notifying Maithili as a separate language itself is a product of state nation-izing, if you will, in India.

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