Features | Society | South Asia

India’s Many Tongues

Can a billion people be shepherded toward a single language? And should India’s government try? Shreyasi Singh investigates.

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.

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.

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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 knowledge.’

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.

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‘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 India.’

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 says.

Clearly, the last word on this subject is yet to be had, whatever language it is spoken in.