Issue of Prioritising a Language in Multi-lingual India - Current Affair Article for UPSC, IAS, Civil Services and State PCS Examinations

Issue of Prioritising a Language in Multi-lingual India - Current Affair Article for UPSC, IAS, Civil Services and State PCS Examinations

Why in News?

Recently, Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Hindi Diwas has once again generated fear, and apprehension among non-Hindi speakers. He accentuated that it was necessary to have Hindi as a common language for he felt that it has the potential to unite India, but backtracked after the suggestion came under criticism.


Language as a potential ground for identity, power, unity and integrity has been the subject of debate among different political parties and linguistic groups in India for a considerable period of time. The argument for Hindi as a ‘common language’ or Rashtra Bhasha (national language) continues to attract a great deal of attention of scholars cutting across academic disciplines. This needs to be studied historically and analysed critically from the perspective of inclusive Indian nationalism. This is simply because the question of language has multiple and contentious layers in it.

Further, the recent National Education Policy draft has, yet again, sparked the age-old debate on the imposition of Hindi. A clause in the draft report recommended mandatory Hindi classes in all schools. However, after much backlash, especially from Southern states like Tamil Nadu, the clause was dropped. The very insertion of such a clause speaks volumes about the mindset of the people in the current administration. Portraying Hindi as a national language that should be synonymous with India as a nation is not a new trick of the government. In 2018, ahead of the 11th World Hindi Conference, the government proposed to make Hindi an official language of the UN. Even then, it received severe criticism from people and politicians belonging to the non-Hindi speaking belt.

The Constitutional Debate

As historian Ramachandra Guha argues, among the topics debated by the Constituent Assembly, the most controversial, contested and provocative question was language. A range of discussions was held on which language should be spoken in the Constituent Assembly, which language should be used to write the Constitution, and the language which should be given the singular label ‘Rashtra Bhasha.’

Remarkably, R.V. Dhulekar, a renowned freedom fighter from Uttar Pradesh, opined that Hindi should be recognised as the national and the official language of the country. Some members also demanded that the official version of the Constitution be in Hindi, with an unofficial version in English.

However, the request was rightly refused. The primary contention in the assembly was that there are several languages such as Bengali, Oriya, Tamil that are ancient and have historical significance. In such a scenario, imposing Hindi across the country would be ottally unjutisfied.

To rest the debate, the assembly finally adopted a formula devised by notable Constituent Assembly members K.M. Munshi and Gopalaswami Ayyangar. The Constituent Assembly have decided that the official language of the Union would be Hindi in the Devanagari script. However, it made it clear that the English language would continue to be used for all the official purposes for 15 years from the commencement of the Constitution.

Post-Independence Developments

In the post-independent India, two language commissions were set up – in 1955 and 1960 – to survey the progress of Hindi. The question of language was taken up once again by the Lok Sabha in 1963. While the proposed immediate implementation of the constitutional provision on official language, the parliamentarians from the South and Bengal argued strappingly for the retention of English. Consequently, a compromise was reached which led to the introduction of the Official Languages Act in 1963. The fundamental objective of this Act was to satisfy both the proponents of Hindi and non-Hindi members. As an advocate of inclusive nationalism, Nehru gave his personal assurances in parliament that there would be no attempt to impose Hindi on the non- Hindi speaking states.

Nevertheless, after Nehru’s demise in 1964, the then home minister of India, Gulzarilal Nanda, a staunch advocate of Hindi, issued a new directive notice to all other Union Ministries to report on the progress made in promoting the use of Hindi for official purposes. He also asked to indicate the steps they propose to use Hindi after the designated day of transition on January 26, 1965.

When the news of this directive reached Tamil Nadu, there were massive student demonstrations, riots, and self-immolations, which continued for several months. Consequently, Union Ministers and the Chief Ministers of all the states met in Delhi in June 1965. A compromise was reached with an assurance that Hindi would never be imposed on non-Hindi speaking states.

This significant and historic compromise of 1965 was subsequently introduced into the Official Languages Act through the Official Languages Amendment Act in 1967. This Act provided for joint use of Hindi and English in the Indian parliament. It also provided Hindi as the language of communication between the Centre and Hindi speaking states and English for communication between the Centre and non-Hindi speaking Indian states.

It is mentioned in the Constitution of India that Hindi should develop progressively. The members of the Constituent Assembly made this conscious decision not because Hindi was better or more powerful language than other languages, but for practical reasons.

Constitutional Provisions

  1. Article 29 of the Constitution of India protects the interests of minorities. The Article states that any section of the citizens who have a “…distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”
  2. Under Article 120 of the Constitution of India, the business of the House is to be transacted in Hindi or in English, but a member who cannot adequately express himself in either of the two languages can, with the permission of the Speaker, address the House in any of the languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution or in his mother tongue.
  3. Article 343 of the Constitution of India is about the official language of the Union of India. According to this Article, it is to be Hindi in Devnagri script, and numerals should follow the international form of Indian numerals. This Article also states that English will continue to be used as an official language for 15 years from the commencement of the Constitution.
  4. Article 346 of the Constitution of India is about the official language for communication between the states and between a state and the Union. The Article states that the “authorised” language will be used. However, if two or more states agree that their communications shall be in Hindi, then Hindi may be used.
  5. Article 347 of the Constitution of India gives the President the power to recognise a language as an official language of a given state, provided that the President is satisfied that a substantial proportion of that state desires that the language be recognised. Such recognition can be for a part of the state or the whole state.
  6. Article 350B of the Constitution of India provides for the establishment of a Special Officer for linguistic minorities. The Officer shall be appointed by the President and shall investigate all matters relating to the safeguards for linguistic minorities, reporting directly to the President. The President may then place the reports before each house of the Parliament or send them to the governmentss of the states concerned.
  7. The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India contains a list of 22 recognised official languages.

Policy of Multilingualism

As a functional tool, language inherently serves a communicative function. It enables us to transfer knowledge and ideas, and serves to transmit cultural heritage and preserve historical memories. Multilingualism should be an aspirational value. This spirit of aspiration ought to inform the design of linguistic policies in multicultural societies. On average, we interact more frequently with people from diverse linguistic backgrounds than our ancestors. Language should be looked at as an important skill to operate in a world which is more connected today than at any other point in time. This is not to contend that our linguistic heritage should be neglected or trivialised.

The problem we faced at the time of drafting the Constitution, as we face even today, is that the approach towards linguistic policy seems to be driven more by the politics of identity than values of aspiration or accommodation. The primary argument in favour of Hindi has been reduced to assertions of slim majoritarianism. Even then, there are concerns about the claim based on mere numerical strength, as only 25 per cent of Indians seem to recognise Hindi as their mother tongue (Census 2011).

Today nearly 35% of people are migrating daily for work. In such a situation, we have to conceptualise a new form of language identity for our states. Our cities must be recognised as multilingual entities. This will help us in unhinging the education policy for some large metropolises. The current practice of clubbing together multilingual spaces with monolingual habitats is not fair to the large cities today. A united nation has to have space for diversity. India is united in its diversity. Diversity is a great philosophical idea and should never be seen as a cultural burden. We cannot discard it for a purely majoritarian reason. Any idea of one link language, whether Hindi or English, will be economically disastrous for India. It will slow down migration and reduce the ease of capital flow. It will not be wrong to say that all these emotive issues thrown in the country’s face by the current dispensation keep diverting attention away from the economy, which has hti an aalrming low.

Linguistic Disaster in India

Let us look at where the linguistic disaster has happened in our country. All tribal languages are rapidly disappearing. That is because there are not enough livelihood opportunities in those languages. Livelihood possibilities for tribals are diminishing; languages are not encouraged and people are getting assimilated in some larger language. This may appeal to some rabid pseudo-nationalists. But there is a huge loss entailed in the process, both economically and culturally. So far we have not monetised the loss caused. If we do that, the results would be shocking. Language diversity is a great economic proposition. India is uniquely gifted in that out of the world’s 6,000 languages, we have close to 10% of the spoken languages.

Is it time to Rethink the Three-Language Policy?

There are no two opinions on what is good from the point of pedagogy. When a child goes to school, her initial language of instruction should be as close to the language spoken by her mother or home language. If it is Konkani or Bhojpuri, the primary schools must use that as a medium of instruction. Then, gradually, the child should be shifted to the state’s official language, say, Marathi or Kannada. English can and should be taught from the beginning as a language but not as a medium of instruction. Those who need higher-level skills in English for higher or technical education should be given that, but everyone need not be burdened with that.

Hindi should be introduced in non-Hindi-speaking states from an early stage and the Hindi-speaking states should introduce a non-Hindi Indian language. That was the threelanguage formula. For a country like ours, this was a reasonable solution worked out by all Chief Ministers and backed by educationists in the Kothari Commission.

Sadly, the formula was sabotaged from two ends. While most non-Hindi speaking states did introduce Hindi, unfortunately the Hindi-speaking states bypassed the requirement to teach a non-Hindi language (preferably a South Indian language, said the original formulation). Instead of learning Tamil or Telugu — languages that are older and richer than Hindi — they fulfilled the third language requirement with perfunctory Sanskrit. What was a move to encourage national integration began to look like an imposition of Hindi.

Way Forward

Language, used as a political weapon, can be divisive and chauvinistic. It can be used to create hierarchical identities and unequal power dynamics. When we look at languages primarily as markers of identities, we build barriers to acceptability. People begin to assert linguistic supremacy, resist learning a language which they perhaps would not have objected to otherwise.

It is essential to move the discussion away from the binaries of Hindi and non-Hindi camps. The issue which merits attention is the manner in which linguistic policies ought to be designed in a multicultural society. The linguistic diversity that India has to negotiate is without precedent. We started off on a wrong foot at the time of Independence by confining language as an issue of identity. We must learn to avoid the same pitfalls which have damaged our polity so deeply.

General Studies Paper- II

  • Topic: Indian Constitution- historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure.

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