A TEXT message that began my morning on Saturday was from the government system. A beep and a GovtInfo message said that the Dhaka South City Corporation — the north city corporation still lags behind — has taken up a programme named ‘Swachchha Dhaka’ on the birth anniversary of great politician Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The city corporation could clean up the dirtied places in the neighbourhood if requests are made to a number that the message provides.
The phrase that describes the programme readily rings the bell of another programme that India’s prime minister Narendra Modi launched in New Delhi in October 2014 — Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission. The aim was to clean up the streets, roads and infrastructure of India’s cities, small towns and rural areas. The other aim was to eliminate open defecation through the construction of household- and community-owned toilets. The mission got going on the 150th birthday anniversary of Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi.
The programme that India launched in 2014 may have success in all these years. It is only expected that such a big programme, involving a huge amount of money, should have brought in the success that was aimed at. But when India launched the programme and its television channels started advertising it, they showed the spectacles of Gandhi, with the word ‘Swachh’ inside one glass and ‘Bharat’ inside the other.
As this was an all-India programme, television channels in all other languages may probably have aired the same promotional, designed in and dubbed from Hindi. At least television channels in West Bengal, where the state language is Bangla, did.
This reeked of a ploy of the Delhi government, which is hell bent on imposing Hindi on all non-Hindi states, much like the case of 1947–1952 when the West Pakistan-based ruling quarters tried to impose Urdu on the Bangla-speaking majority of East Bengal. The planners of the promotional did not use Bangla phrases, or from any other languages, for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan even when they were fed to people of other languages.
One assumption, or arrogance, that is at play is that the ruled would be knowing the words, if not the language, of the ruling quarters. ‘Swachh’, in Hindi, means ‘clean’. In Bangla, at least in West Bengal and at least in the case of the promotional in question, ‘swachchha’ — unlike Hindi, Bangla has an ‘a’ suffixed in pronunciation — started to mean ‘clean’ and most Bangla-speakers of West Bengal agreed to the proposition.
But in Sanskrit, where the word ‘swachchha’ has derived from, the word clearly does not mean ‘clean’, but ‘clear’. A Sanskrit English Dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams gives a series of meanings: very transparent or clear, pellucid, crystalline; bright-coloured; clear, distinct (as speech); pure (as the mind or heart); healthy, sound, convalescent (in this sense perhaps Prakrit for swastha); rock-crystal; the jujube tree; white, durva grass; a pearl; an alloy or amalgam of silver and gold; pure chalk.
The benchmark Bangla dictionary by Jnanedramohan Das, A dictionary of the Bengali language, which is said to have 36 per cent of its word coming from Sanskrit, mostly in the same spellings of Sanskrit’s and a little less in the same meaning as that, gives ‘clear; white’ crystalline; healthy’ as meanings. Bangla, which has not evolved from Sanskrit but was heavily influenced by it, in most of the cases follows what Sanskrit says as for words it has taken from Sanskrit or for words that have been Sanskritised, in spelling and meaning. ‘Swachchha’ in both Sanskrit and Bangla means ‘clear.’ Northing more than nothing less, more or less.
Even in view of such instances, many Indians who are proponents of the Hindi language believe that Hindi is closer to Sanskrit than Bangla is. This has never been the case. Bengalis need to write the Sanskrit word ‘swapna’ (dream) in a broken form, espeically in poems and songs, and they retain the ‘sw’ in the broken form ‘swapan’, almost religiously, although in both the instances the ‘w’ is silent. But in Hindi, the broken form has always been ‘sapna’, the last vowel being a long one, even in the written form. Hindi has never been a follower of Sanskrit as closely as Bangla has been.
But in Hindi, ‘swachch’ means ‘clean’, which has since October 2014 taken over the Bangla word ‘swachchha’ in meaning in the variety of Bangla spoken in West Bengal, to the consternation of some people and to the delight of many. Being in the same political entity of many languages, such instances of linguistic aggression by the language that is more powerful for reasons political and economic are nothing new. It has always so happened.
The problem has so far remained on the other side of the border in a land where people also speak Bangla. But the text message that I received on Saturday morning brings it here to. Some people in the city authorities, because of their absolute stupidity or because of their fine quality of imitating others thought it to be a way to name a campaign or programme. Here lies the problem.
With an official use of the word ‘swachchha’ to mean ‘clean’, it is highly likely that it, the meaning of ‘swachchha’ as is used in Hindi, might set in, firmly, in Bangla that we speak. There are other words in Bangla to mean ‘clean’ and there are many of them. What prompted the city authorities to use the same word that Hindi rulers of India in Delhi do to mean ‘clean’ in Bangladesh, which has for long been a different geographical and political entity?
Officials in city authorities could easily go for proper words such as ‘parichhanna’ or ‘parishkar’, both of which means ‘clean’. Very often in the morning, we come across people, both female and male, in green jackets sporting ‘parichhana karmi’ on the back. The authorities definitely wanted to mean ‘cleanliness worker,’ or ‘parichhannata karmi’, but used a phrase to mean ‘clean worker’, instead.
This is sort of a linguistic aggression of Hindi on Bangla, knowingly or unknowingly, with the authorities being in the know of it or not. It is bad if the city authorities have done it knowingly and it is worse if they have done it unknowingly. But the speakers of Bangla have never given the city authorities such a mandate to bring in such changes in the meaning of Bangla words. They must stop.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.