India’s Many Tongues
Image Credit: Lakshman Anand

India’s Many Tongues


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 see.

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.

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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.

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