File photo of Dhoop Chaoon, an Atlanta-based Hindi theater group, performing during the 2nd Hindi Divas celebrations at Gujarati Samaj in 2017.
BY MOHAN NAIR*
Following religion, language is the most inflammable subject invented by politicians to ignite the sentiments of voters in India. All political parties, some regional parties in particular, have tasted the fruits of this divide and continue to bring up the language issue as an electoral weapon from time to time. Some parties use it wrapped in regionalism while others strongly oppose the imposition of another language on them. More than the language itself, it is the intent of the political parties that has kept this issue alive in the country.
India is a multi-lingual society. There are hundreds of spoken dialects and several of them have distinct scripts. In ancient times, Sanskrit, written in the Devanagari script, was the only common language used throughout the country. However, the use of Sanskrit was by limited to temples and theaters. As the rituals in temples were commonly followed across the country, Sanskrit acquired an undeclared link language status even though it was not backed by any sovereign sanctions. The use of Sanskrit continued even after the Muslim invasion and the subsequent British rule. However, the Muslim rulers and the British Empire felt the need for people who could take orders in the language that the rulers were fluent in and implement those orders. They would have loved to ordain the masses to learn the language of the rulers. However, this was expensive and impractical in such a vast country of diverse dialects. Realizing this challenge, they incentivized a few to learn the language of the rulers and serve as the link between the rulers and their subjects. The courtiers also used these languages to write odes to the rulers, memoires, history etc. and thus Urdu, and later English, shot into prominence. Since language is the key to communication, those who served in the administration of the rulers wielded great power and a new class of self-proclaimed intellectuals was born. During the British rule, the government administration and courts transacted their business in English and people who were fluent in the language rose to elitism.
During the struggle for India’s independence and after independence, the need for an Indian language to replace English as the official language got some momentum. Sanskrit, which was still used across the country, could not win the place of national language because it was not used by many even though it was prevalent all over. One reason that Sanskrit could not become the language of the people was because of the caste system and the taboos and restrictions attached to learning Sanskrit. Therefore, the search continued, and the choice narrowed down to Hindi. Hindi had three distinct advantages: (1) Hindi is spoken by more than half of the Indian population (2) Hindi is written in the Devanagari script similar to Sanskrit and (3) Spoken Hindi already contained Urdu and Sanskrit words to some extent. No other language came close to Hindi to merit the adoption of independent India’s official language.
Article 343 (1) of the Constitution of India states “The Official Language of the Union Government shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.” Unless the Parliament decided otherwise, the use of English for official purposes was to cease 15 years after the constitution came into effect, that is, on January 26, 1965.
However, English continues to be the language of the administration to date. It is used in the Parliament and in the courts. The pertinent question then, is why did Hindi not become the full-fledged official language of India?
Those who haven’t gone deep into the Hindi controversy will conveniently blame it on south Indians, Tamils in particular. The reality is different and is that the opposition to Hindi is a by-product of the intent with which the language was sought to be implemented. The leadership in the Indian National Congress and in the government at the time failed to convince the people that it was in the interest of the nation to adopt a widely understood Indian language to become the official language of the country and that, at the same time, regional languages would be protected from extinction. Instead, the Hindi heartland politicians cited their poor representation in higher positions to the lack of their fluency in English. They believed that some non-Hindi speaking people had mastered English and had benefited from it. They refused to believe that it was as difficult for the south Indians and the east Indians to learn English as it is for them. They were overzealous and vocal in their intent to dislodge this presumed beneficiary group by bringing them under a language policy in which they were certain to struggle. They refused to acknowledge that the effort it takes for someone to adopt a language which is not their native language is the same as learning a foreign language such as English. Additionally, most of the higher-ranking government employees at that time were foreign educated and it was convenient for them to continue with English as the language of the administration. Therefore, their efforts to implement Hindi as the official language of the administration were half-hearted. The Central leadership at the time made the fundamental mistake of not implementing Hindi on day one and not giving adequate incentives to the non-Hindi speaking people to adopt Hindi.
This approach of the Centre and the Hindi heartland politicians made the non-Hindi speaking population suspicious. They saw an obvious disadvantage and a direct loss. The suspicion turned into agitation and a big vote gaining theme. Political parties were born and won elections on the issue of imposition of Hindi. Like many other temporary provisions in the Constitution, this one also continues to get unending extensions until there is a consensus on the issue. The politicians who have harvested this high yielding crop called anti-Hindism continue to fertilize and grow it to the maximum political yield.
The non-Hindi speaking states have suspected every move made by the center as an imposition of Hindi on the non-Hindi speaking people. The suspicion has only grown stronger with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who are widely regarded a Hindi-Hindu party, in power. Not only did the much celebrated three-language policy announced by the Centre earlier this year in India fail to make much of an impact, it was never implemented in some of the southern states in the country. Hindi speaking states added credence to the suspicion of the non-Hindi speaking population by their unwillingness to adopt one of the modern south Indian languages that was identified as the preferred elective language for the Hindi speaking states. They found an escape route through choosing Sanskrit or Urdu as an alternative option. The much-desired integration via learning each other’s language remained only on paper.
During his tenure as the Prime Minister of India, the Late Rajiv Gandhi came up with a policy encouraging populations in Hindi speaking states to learn modern south Indian languages but that effort was a failure due to lack of funding, non-availability of teachers and lack of motivation in the students to learn a language for which they found no apparent use or benefit.
The Parliament, as usual, has not mustered the courage to make a firm stand on the national language policy and remains indecisive on the cessation of English as one of the official languages. Consequently, Hindi has neither received the status of the sole official language of the Government of India nor the status of the national language of the country. This inaction by the Parliament may have been the reason why the Gujarat High Court observed in January 2010:
“Normally, in India, majority of the people have accepted Hindi as a national language and many people speak Hindi and write in the Devanagari script, but there is nothing on record to suggest that any provision has been made or order issued declaring Hindi as the national language of the country.”
This observation of Gujarat High Court was quoted by Dr. Shashi Tharoor in his response to the external affairs minister of India when speaking on a motion regarding the status of Hindi as an official United Nations (UN) Language.
Responding to a question in the Parliament on the status of Hindi as an official UN Language the late Sushma Swaraj, who was the External Affairs Minister of India at the time, had asserted that the Government of India was ready to go to any extent and was even willing to bear the entire cost of getting Hindi recognized as the Official Language in the UN. Mrs. Swaraj’s party, the BJP, mostly addressed the UN in Hindi whenever in power. Dr. Shashi Tharoor responded that the money spent for procuring Official Language status for Hindi was a wasteful expenditure, adding stating that Hindi was not spoken and understood in all states of India. He said that it would be difficult for a non-Hindi speaking person representing the country to deliver their speech in Hindi at the UN. However, if a Hindi-speaking representative preferred to make his speech in Hindi, that speech could be translated and so there was no need to incur a heavy investment to gain permanent official language status for Hindi. Dr. Tharoor continued to air his views in several forums highlighting the difficulties that the Indian political leaders would face because of this move
Dr. Tharoor’s statements and the Sonia Gandhi’s recent alleged chastising of some of the Kerala MPs for taking oath in Hindi can be interpreted as the Indian Nation Congress Party’s current view on the subject and the reason for their lackluster approach in implementing Hindi as India’s official language when they were in power.
My personal belief is that there is an obvious advantage to knowing more languages. Every language we learn improves the quality and ability to communicate. The tragedy is when a language spoken by less than one percent and understood by about three percent of the entire population bulldozes the language spoken and understood by more than 50 percent of the country’s population simply because the one percent will have to put in extra effort to learn a new language. These elites and the politicians who listen to them do not understand the burden that the education system is imposing on students by its multi-language policy. Students across the world are required to learn one language but in India they are required to learn a minimum of three languages. I am not against learning an additional language, my position is that it should be of the individual’s interest and choice.
I recently read an article by a prominent person arguing that learning English is essential because all the technical and medical books are only available in that language. I have never seen an argument more bizarre than this. Books are written, published and translated based on demand. When more and more people use a language, the market will automatically gear up to produce the books and documents to meet that demand. The fact that the opposition to Hindi continues even after 72 years of observing Hindi Divas, Hindi Saptah etc. is evidence that one cannot promote a language through such celebrations. The allocation of funds for these occasions has only resulted in the creation of interest groups rather than increasing the acceptance of Hindi. It would be more beneficial to divert the money wasted on such efforts to creating books and documents in Hindi and other Indian languages.
There are people who argue that you cannot get a job if you don’t study English or study in English medium schools. They cite foreign jobs as an example. One may have heard top politicians claiming that the English-speaking work force in India has a clear edge. This is only partially true. You do not need to have a national education policy that is focused on a few outsourced jobs. Students aspiring for such professions can continue to study English as an elective subject and qualify for such positions. The vast majority of the people stay and work in India and interact with Indian farmers, small traders, fishermen and ordinary people. A file note in English is more of a red tape for this class, a speech in English is music to the deaf hence the need for a language policy that serves the masses is very important.
I wish to conclude by stating that a country’s culture is engrained in its languages and the literary works in it. The more we use the language, more and more literature is created in that language and the richer it becomes. Indians can convey their emotions much easier in an Indian language than a foreign language. Therefore, it is in the interest of the country to adopt an Indian language of mass acceptance as its official language along with its regional languages.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.