India's Many Tongues
March 08, 2010
Can a billion people be shepherded toward a single language? And
should India's government try? Shreyasi Singh investigates.
By Shreyasi Singh
You'd think the citizens of a country with a population of 1.17
billion people, who between them speak more than 1,600 languages and
dialects, would understood that language is about communication, not
identity. Yet, time and again in India, fissures over regional
identities reveal in sometimes ugly ways how far the country is from
achieving this ideal.
In November last year, newly-elected Maharashtra state legislator Abu
Azmi was assaulted by members of the right-wing Maharashtra Navnirman
Sena (MNS) for insisting on taking his oath in Hindi. MNS chief Raj
Thackeray, the now-estranged nephew of Shiv Sena supremo Bal
Thackeray, had earlier written to all 288 state legislators of
Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, urging them to take their
oath in Marathi. Azmi was slapped, pushed and punched by MNS
politicians when he rose to take his oath in Hindi—hooliganism in the
country's high offices that was broadcast live on TV for the nation to
The incident followed the controversy a few weeks earlier that erupted
after a request by the first-time Member of Parliament from southern
Tamil Nadu state, Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilisers M. K.
Azhagiri, to speak in his mother tongue in the Lok Sabha (the Indian
Parliament's elected house) was turned down. Tamil speakers were
outraged, arguing the speech could easily have been translated into
Hindi and English for the rest of the House. They also claimed the
decision violated their rights and was an insult to Tamil, which they
see as much a national language as Hindi.
The Tamil-Hindi tussle has a long history. Over the decades, many
non-Hindi speaking states have opposed the imposition of Hindi
nationwide. However, southern Tamil Nadu's resistance has always been
the most sustained and most vociferous, while anti-Hindi campaigns in
Tamil Nadu saw mass mobilisation both before and after India's
independence was secured in 1947.
Although seemingly omnipresent, in part due to its cultural reach
through Bollywood (the Hindi film industry), Hindi is not actually a
national language. According to the 2001 census, Hindi and its various
dialects are spoken by about 422 million people or just over 41
percent of the national population.
India has no legally-defined national language, and although Article
343 of the Constitution declares Hindi and English to be the official
languages of the union of India, to be used for administrative,
judicial and legislative business in Parliament and other central
bodies, there are 18 official languages that states can use to conduct
their intra-state affairs.
The situation is complicated further by the special provisions made
for the development of Hindi under Article 351 of the Constitution,
which states: 'It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread
of the Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as a medium
of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India
and to secure its enrichment by assimilating without interfering with
its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in
the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule.'
Some experts on India's Constitution believe the nation's founding
fathers did, in fact, intend that Hindi would become the lingua franca
of the country—the 'link' speech—but that language-based regional
identities didn't allow this to happen.
Kapil Sibal, India's Union Minister for Human Resource Development,
has indicated he believes in such primacy for Hindi, arguing that
fluency in the language will help students from across the country
integrate. 'Our education system should change from MOTS (More of the
Same) to HOTS (High Order Thinking Skills),' he said in August. 'We
should create knowledge which will be used by other people. Now we are
a recipient of knowledge and in the future we should produce the
Sibal has recommended that Hindi be taught in all schools across
India, along with English and a regional language of choice.
'Now the lingua franca is English for professionals. When we become
producers of knowledge then we can set our language as the lingua
franca,' he said.
Unsurprisingly, his statements were derided by many, with some arguing
that it was short-sighted of the minister to be promoting Hindi as a
'common' language after the issue was supposedly settled for good
following the 1967 amendment of the Official Languages Act 1963.
Others, including Dalit author and activist Kancha Ilaiah, have
instead suggested a two language formula to bridge the country's
language divide and help prepare it for future economic growth.
'We should become a nation of 2 languages. 50 percent of our syllabus
across all schools in the country should be taught in English and the
remaining 50 percent in another language,' Ilaiah says, outlining an
alternative to Sibal's more ambitious three-language proposal. 'This
way, we will all be able to speak in English and maintain our base in
our myriad regional languages.'
He says that English has already become the language of those running
India, and that it's simply unfair not to ensure it is accessible to
every citizen, regardless of their economic status.
'English today is the richest language in the world in terms of
vocabulary and scientific terms, and the language of a very advanced
knowledge source base,' he says.
'The right to aspire to becoming a teacher, a bureaucrat or to go
abroad is linked to English. The right to aspire is a fundamental
right. We have no alternative but to adopt English,' Ilaiah says,
dismissing worries that doing so would damage the cultural fabric of
the country and lead to Westernisation. There's no 'historical
evidence' to suggest language changes culture, he adds.
Rajendra Yadav, a leading light of Hindi fiction, agrees the
functionality of English—and its role in economic empowerment—can't,
of course, be disputed. But, he says it would also be wrong to
under-emphasize the utility of Hindi. 'Hindi is undoubtedly an
important link language. There can be no debate on that,' he says.
'From Kanyakumari (the southernmost tip of India) to Kashmir, it's the
only common language that can still be somewhat understood everywhere.
Even English can't be.'
But he argues that even if this debate is to take properly, it need
not be seen in confrontational terms, as an 'either or' choice. 'I
don't think there's a regional language versus national language
debate necessary,' he says. 'It's positioned this way. [But] there's
no need for it. Where is there a contradiction in using both
provincial language and national language with ease?'
So, is this all just a utopian fantasy in a nation that has
demonstrated that language is a powerful tool for stoking jingoistic
regional fervour? As The Economist noted in an article last month
about superstar actor Shah Rukh Khan and his tussle with the
right-wing Shiv Sena, liberal, secular India has suffered the likes of
Bal Thackeray and his band of thugs in part because of 'an abiding
sensitivity towards language-based agitations after a spate in the
1950s posed the greatest threat to India's survival.'
In fact, some trace the linguistic difficulties India now faces back
to the nation's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, claiming he is
in part responsible for heralding the beginning of the end of the
possibility for a national language in the country.
Earlier this year, at the annual Jaipur Literary Festival, an
eagerly-awaited conclave of writers from across the world,
diplomat-author Pavan Varma said independent India started on the
wrong cultural foot when Nehru delivered his memorable 'tryst with
destiny' speech in English.
Journalist Swapan Dasgupta was dismissive of Varma's 'bewildering
interventions' in a recent blog entry on the subject, writing:
'According to him (Varma), Nehru's speech was indicative of a perverse
mindset and testimony to how the roots of our own languages were
weakened in 200 years of colonial rule. Nehru, it would, seem, set the
tone for the subsequent marginalization of the mother tongues in
He says that it is nonsense to suggest the spread of English will mean
India becomes another cultural outpost of the Anglosphere, arguing,
'India's English is the language of abstraction, ideas and business.'
Yet it is difficult to find a suitable and comforting model for a
country the size of India—not even next door neighbour China really
fits the bill. Although China has a population of over 1.32 billion
people hailing from more than 50 ethnic groups, Mandarin speaking Han
Chinese constitute a huge percentage of the national population, and
the country only has one official language.
Naysayers say theres no way any single language in India can follow in
these footsteps, not even Hindi. Indeed, two-language advocate Ilaiah
even argues that the space available for Hindi, especially in its
written, literary form, is actually diminishing.
Yet Yadav points to the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, which he says is
'the fastest growing newspaper in the world,' as a sign of Hindi's
vitality. 'It has nearly 40 editions with a total circulation of over
15 million copies across its editions. At the grassroots level,
language newspapers and language literature is really growing,' he
Clearly, the last word on this subject is yet to be had, whatever
language it is spoken in.
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