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Language and Basic Rights in India: Beyond English

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The Pulse

Language and Basic Rights in India: Beyond English

Why India cannot become truly integrated or democratic until it uses its native languages more.

Language and Basic Rights in India: Beyond English
Credit: Hindi religious text on wall via

In a previous article on the role of English in India, I argued that privileging English over Indian languages hurts Indian education and economic development. While this is the most profound effect of India’s misguided linguistic focus, the use of English also has negative social, political, and administrative consequences, and is in essence anti-democratic.

The prevalence of the English language has many negative effects for the average Indian citizen in all walks of life. This is because the majority of Indians go through their lives dealing with a bureaucracy, political system, and services that largely work in a language they do not understand: English. For example, most courts in India function in English despite the fact that this puts the largely non-English speaking defenders at a grave disadvantage. It also prevents the majority of India’s people from communicating with their government and conversely, their government from responding effectively to them. In short, it denies the majority of India’s population an equal opportunity to make use of their rights. Additionally, it limits nationwide public discourse to a small elite that mostly hails from a similar socioeconomic background and prevents the emergence of a lively public discourse that encompasses all levels of society. This is why India’s media, English-educated elites, and its government have often seemed out of touch with the majority of India’s population.

Today, over 70 percent of the adult Indian population remains functionally illiterate. While this is largely due to the poor quality of education in India, this might also come down to the lack of function for the average person’s literacy. Since the average person is schooled in his or her native language and these languages have very little administrative use, being able to read confers little benefit, causing many individuals to lapse back into illiteracy. At the same time, few can access government and private services in English, save for the elite and a part of the middle class.

The extensive use of English as a language of administration and public discourse has made it out to be an extremely prestigious language, the key to upward mobility. The problem with this is that it is logistically impossible for all Indians to learn English well enough to use it in this manner, which limits its learners to those who are either good at learning languages or to those who grow up in an environment that exposes them to it from birth so that they pick it up easily. Hundreds of millions of Indians who are otherwise hardworking or talented but poor or not good with languages often do not get the opportunities in life that they deserve simply because they do not know English.

Of course, it is socially true that English is the key to upward mobility but this is not to say that it is inherently true that somehow the English language ought to confer power and prestige. After all, any concept expressed in English can be expressed in a major Indian language. English’s guardians in India really use it as a gate to differentiate themselves from the masses and to initiate individuals into the most exclusive circles. Why else, for example, would Bollywood actors who act in Hindi movies speak extensively in English instead of Hindi?

Ram Manohar Lohia, a major Indian political thinker, picked up on the class differences that English promoted, arguing that “high-caste, wealth, and knowledge of English are the three requisites” for being a member of the ruling class, adding that “anyone possessing two of these [belonged] to the ruling class.”  According to Lohia, in an age that made it difficult to justify one’s position on the basis of caste alone, choosing a language different from that of the masses and justifying its use for administrative and scientific purposes was a way to continue to reinforce class divides that would have otherwise disappeared.

Lohia argued in favor of abolishing private schools in order to forcibly integrate Indian society’s various groups together through common schooling and common language. This would prevent the secession of a privileged group of Indians from the masses and would allow all of Indian society to become modern instead of a small group embracing modernity while leaving the rest behind. India must first be bound together before being integrated with the rest of the world. A country as diverse and class-based as India needs to resort to centralized, public policies that reduce inequality and privilege. Otherwise, the highly entrenched hierarchical nature of Indian society would manifest itself again relatively quickly.

India should adopt a policy similar to that of Switzerland or Belgium, with different languages being mandatory for services and education in different regions. It is not sensible to attempt to use all of India’s hundreds of languages, but the list should contain all of India’s 22 official languages, which would each be used in their respective areas. This would allow the maximum number of people in each state to access services and communicate with their government. In this way, every language will have due dignity and not only English, or as some fear, English and Hindi. Although some would argue against having to learn, for example, Kannada in Bangalore, this is no different than having to learn Japanese in Tokyo or French in Paris. The latter two are still cosmopolitan cities where English is used but not at the cost of local language services.

Why India needs a native lingua franca

Although regional languages ought to be used a lot more in their states of origin, there is still a role for a lingua franca, the lack of which could dangerously inhibit national integration. Hindi and English can still serve as official languages for the central government in order to facilitate communication between states and for those who travel between states. It is inevitable that some sort of lingua franca would emerge. Outside of elite circles, the language that has emerged is Hindi, or a common form of it called “bazaar Hindustani,” (Hindustani also encompasses Urdu, the lingua franca of South Asian Muslims) a link language throughout most of the country except the deep south and the northeast. It is important for there to be a native lingua franca instead of English because of the social effects of English highlighted earlier and the need for the average person to communicate with other Indians in a language easy for most Indians to pick up.

If there is a perception in India that Hindi is more prominent than other Indian languages, it is because some form of it has served as a lingua franca since at least the Mughal Empire, it is widely understood throughout the country, and it is much more closely related to many other Indian languages such as Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, and Marathi than English, making it easy to pick up passively. It has spawned dialects and variations everywhere in India, including outside its native belt such as Bombay Hindi in Mumbai and Andaman Creole Hindi on the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Hindi is relatively flexible in borrowing foreign words, including those from English and is not particularly associated with only one state or ethnic group. For these reasons, which have more to do with chance than the literary quality of the language, Hindi has become the most widespread Indian language and since it is already in that role, its role as a lingua franca ought to be embraced (sensitive ethnic groups can still use English if they wish as well). The role of Hindi in India is not too different from that of Indonesian, a variation of Malay, which is another marketplace lingua franca not too closely tied to one ethnic group. Chosen as an official language, Bahasa Indonesia has done a good job at unifying a diverse country, though it has not faced the obstructions Hindi has due to regional parties stirring up anti-Hindi sentiment. In all this, the use and evolution of Hindi is surprisingly similar to English in many ways: both are grammatically simple (relatively speaking) languages that are flexible and open to borrowing, used by a large number non-native speakers to communicate between groups and for trade while not being bound too tightly to a single geographical location.