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Should a democratically elected representative necessarily be fluent in the language of the people who have chosen her to represent them?

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I have been, for sometime, following the “classical liberal” blog “Sanjeev Sabhlok’s Revolutionary Blog”  by a former IAS officer who is now an Aussie civil servant. While most of the time he is quite reasonable and forceful in representing the classical liberal philosophy he sometimes lapses into nativism (regrettably). One such incident was his criticism of Sonia Gandhi for writing her Hindi speeches using the Roman script (which he extrapolated to her utter lack of any Indian language — though logically the proof offered has no bearing on whether she can understand and speak Hindi or not, she may understand and speak enough to get by though she may fail to write a Madhushala) According to Sanjeev this shows —

  1. EXTREME SHAME for India, that we couldn’t find ONE PERSON who knows an Indian language, to govern India. (capitalization his)
  2. This is the manifestation of a foreigner ruling independent India
  3. The entire Sikh religion being besmirched by some Sikh dude’s actions

As a libertarian (minarchist trying to get to grips with David Friedman’s anarcho-capitalism) I find his criticism offensive and contrary to classical liberal philosophy

  1. Sonia Gandhi may have been a foreigner when she married Rajiv Gandhi but she did affirmatively acquire Indian citizenship. She is no longer a foreigner. How is being tied to the citizenship of the state one was born in (or one’s parents’) for life (which lest one forgets is not a matter of choice) without being able to disclaim it or being unable to choose to be a citizen of another state be compatible with the basic tenet of classical liberalism viz. individual liberty?
  2. How is the action of one Sikh (I pass no judgement on what he did) besmirch the entire Sikh religion? Wikipedia tells me that there are 25.8 M sikhs in the world. Can one person have so much power?
  3. Under the Indian constitution India is a federal entity with powers divided between the federal govt and state (provincial) govts. The Union list enumerates areas of exclusive federal jurisdiction and the Concurrent list which lists areas where both the federal govt and the state govts can make laws. The Union list contains matters such banking, insurance, mining, saltmovies, opium, estate duty.
    • Given that the federal govt can affect the lives of every Indian (from J&K to Tamil Nadu and from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh), Sanjeev’s argument should be that if one wants to lead India and all Indians then one must be fluent in all Indian languages . Why should a Tamilian consent to being governed by a PM who does not know how to speak, read, write or otherwise communicate in Tamil? (As an aside I am not a Tamilian). Sanjeev replies that an Indian leader should know atleast one Indian language. He also asks whether  a square peg represent a billion round pegs? But he has no answer to the question that if said leader want to, say, lead Tamilians, should said leader know Tamil? By that logic Muslims can be represented only by a Muslim, Dalits, by a Dalit etc … (does that also mean that men can be represented by only men and women by only women?). Sanjeev, however chose not answer such inconvenient questions.
    • Note: the State list enumerates areas of (near) exclusive state jurisdiction (if this gives anybody the erroneous impression that Indian federalism is similar to US federalism, it is not; the federal govt in India is vastly more powerful vis-a-vis the state govts compared to the United States — in fact the powers of the state govts is enumerated and anything not under their jurisdiction is under the jurisdiction of the federal govt — an exact opposite to the Tenth Amendment to the US constitution)

4. Finally my most important point — Sonia Gandhi is a freely elected member from her constituency of Rae Bareilly. The people living in the constituency chose her to represent them. Why they chose her (she belongs to the Nehru-Gandhi family, she is Fair & Lovely etc) is not relevant. That they believe her to be the best representative for their interests is the only relevant metric.

5. If one wants to criticise Sonia, criticise her on her policies not whether she is fluent in Hindi (her fluency has no relevance to her policies)

Ultimately Sanjeev may personally feel ashamed that an Italian-born non-Hindi reading person is the leader of the governing party of a nation with a large number of Hindi speaking people. I don’t see why India should be ashamed.

And a point Bhagwad Jal Park made

 Coming to the British, if the British gave everyone equal rights, established democracy, treated everyone equally, and maintained proper law and order, why would you or anyone for that matter have a problem? What is the goal here? The goal is to live peacefully without oppression and with freedom and rule of law. The goal is not to have a person speaking a particular language at the top.

Hear! Hear! Ultimately government is there to serve the people not lead, govern, rule.  If the British can provide democracy, law and order and guarantee rights and equal treatment in a better fashion than any Indian speaking group then what is wrong with letting the British form the government? What would one say if the Afrikaners in South Africa tomorrow say that the only govt they would consider would be a white government? This is equivalent to insisting that only people fluent in “Indian” languages can form government in India. Ultimately what matters is whether the government can enable one’s enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And one final point — Nothing above should be construed as implying that Sanjeev is not a classical liberal. He and I have the same goals — small government and free markets. I do believe that sometimes he leads himself astray by focusing on irrelevancies. I have great respect for his writings even when I disagree with him and I encourage all to read his wonderful blog. He is a forceful exponent for liberty in the Indian context.

Written by Polevaulter Donkeyman

January 29, 2012 at 23:38