No Diversity in Babel


Published 22nd September, 2013, in Mid-Day

The girl who got molested spoke only Tulu. But the FIR was filed in Marathi at the police station. And in court, the judgement was in English. This is the tragedy of India. We have too many languages: seventeen on the rupee note itself, eighteen if we count Braille. Sometimes one wonders if it wouldn’t be better if we were like United States with just one language as in the US dollar bill. Even Europe faces huge problems as the Union struggles with language: should the lingua franca be German, they wonder, and the French protest vociferously.

But order and homogeneity resulting from a common global language or template has problems. This is best expressed in the Bible in the story of the Tower of Babel. After the Great Flood, people came to be ruled by one King Nimrod. Everyone spoke a single language. King Nimrod decided to give his subjects a single goal – building a tower so immense that it’s top would reach the skies. This was the tower of Babel and it demonstrated the greatness of man and it made Nimrod truly feel he was master over all that he surveyed and all of humanity bowed to him. Dismayed at the vanity and stupidity of Nimrod, God twisted the tongues of all his subjects causing people to speak the different languages. This led to confusion at first. Then people who spoke the same language formed groups and separated from each other. Thus the various nations of the world came into being, thinking differently, speaking differently, often quarrelling with each other.

This story can be seen as the act of an insecure and jealous God twisting the tongues of people so that they cannot unite against him. Or it can be seen as a tale that speaks of the folly of trying to unite people through a common language and a common purpose. For when this happens, there is no diversity of thought, no challenge to our plans to build the Tower of Babel.

A single language goes against the very notion of diversity and diversity is necessary for survival. Nature has diversity, not uniformity. Culture argues for uniformity and in doing so crushes alternate identities like Nimrod.

We often see India’s diversity as a problem. We often seek ‘unity’ behind diversity. The tendency is to assume that diversity is divisive. Yes, diversity creates conflict and competition but it also allows for the rising of new ideas. We push and pull (perhaps too much) but it enables us to see the world from different points of view and it reminds us that no matter how hard we try, we cannot make life simple. It will be seen differently by different people in different languages that will keep changing with history and geography.