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Cover Story: Language Imperialism

Recognising territorial links to languages essential for Indian federalism

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
Bengali textbooks  and novels being burnt outside the Manipur Legislative Assembly premises by protesters demanding that Meitei should substitute Bengali in educational institutions, in Imphal in February 2005.

Bengali textbooks and novels being burnt outside the Manipur Legislative Assembly premises by protesters demanding that Meitei should substitute Bengali in educational institutions, in Imphal in February 2005.

  Anti-Hindi agitation  by college students in Madras (now Chennai) in January 1965.

Anti-Hindi agitation by college students in Madras (now Chennai) in January 1965.

Territorial identification and recognition of languages has been an integral part of the federal structure of post-independence India. Policymakers and planners need to be sensitive to this diversity.

Historically, the symbiotic relationship of a language with the idea of a nation has been marked by much contestation across the world since the nineteenth century. The emergence of nation states and their geopolitical and territorial demarcations have been mired in wars and conflicts with neighbouring nation states over languages and their cultural-social spaces. Languages inhere in them an incredible human cognitive world with shared histories, cultures, emotions and habitus of communities and people. Hence, any effort to impose one language over others in a multilingual country has always been resisted. The European model of a constructed political community through one language, culture and one nation has not found many takers.

At the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee held on April 8, 2022, Home Minister Amit Shah commented that in all the north-eastern States Hindi would be made compulsory until Class 10. He also said that people of different States should communicate with each other in Hindi rather than English, and that the Centre might be pushing the case for Hindi with about 70 per cent of the Cabinet agenda now prepared in Hindi and 22,000 Hindi teachers having been recruited in the north-eastern region. He further stated that nine tribal communities from the region have adopted the Devanagari script for their dialects. Shah used the “one nation, one language” slogan in June 2019 soon after the Draft New Education Policy was made public. This had led to the resurrection of anxieties and emotive despair among people in various parts of the country. Can the efforts to make Hindi a sole national language on the part of the BJP government, reiterated over the years, yield to the ushering in of a Hindi/Hindu Rashtra/Bharat of the Hindutva ideology, or has it become a camouflage raised by the RSS-BJP political regime every now and then?

Mosaic of linguistic diversity

India is among the most linguistically diverse and complex countries of the world. Along with the 22 official languages known as scheduled languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, India is home to about 100 non-scheduled languages spoken by more than 10,000 speakers each. It houses more than 700 languages, 1,800 mother tongues, and numerous dialects, minor or unrecognised languages. This linguistic diversity reflects in public and private domains, such as All India Radio broadcasting programmes and news in more than 24 languages and about 150 dialects; and in the more than 850 cable and satellite TV channels telecasting programmes in all the major languages of the country. There seem to be about 70 languages used for primary school education and for the spread of literacy across the country.

Also read: Linguistic imperialism

Since 1872, when the first census was held in colonial India, linguistic diversity and its tabulation has been a significant component of subsequent censuses and surveys. A few additional language surveys such as the Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) by Grierson followed by K.S. Singh’s People of India (POI) survey, and more recently Ganesh Devy’s People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) have continued to record the country’s incredible linguistic diversity. The ethno-linguistic surveys, census records, reports, National Sample Surveys (NSS) and language data provided by several non-government agencies and organisations map the geographical and regional spread of languages, dialects and speech varieties through the country. PLSI counts about 200 languages as endangered, out of potentially 780 living languages in India at present.

Languages, cultures and States

In 1837, Persian was replaced by Urdu as the dominant language of the country.But within six decades, a powerful Hindi Nagari movement emerged in northern and central colonial India to finally make Hindi in the Devanagari script the court language of the North Western Provinces and Oudh in the year 1900, spearheaded by none other than Madan Mohan Malaviya, a nationalist and the founder of Banaras Hindu University. Gandhi called for the elite and anglicised Indian National Congress to turn into a mass-based political party and urged for the reconstitution of Provincial Congress Committees on the basis of the 20 regionally dominant languages across India. This radically altered the composition of the Congress party and how it communicated with the people to bring them into the fold of the national movement. But the period between 1920 and 1950 saw the resurgence of a number of language-based political movements. And the demands for regions and States to be reorganised linguistically became irresistible by the time of Partition and Independence.

To avoid more divisions and territorial disintegration, Nehru proposed the setting up of the States Reorganisation Commission in 1953 to assess the situation on the ground for linguistic formation of States. On the basis of its recommendations, 28 States and more than 550 princely States were reconstituted into 14 States and eight Union Territories in 1956. The long-drawn process of reorganisation continued over the next several years, resulting in the division of larger States and their forming of smaller States.

Also read: The curious case of Urdu

The idea of language was associated with culture and identity so much that a number of regional political parties were formed to foreground this aspect of various ethnic communities—such as the Shiv Sena, the Telugu Desam Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and the Asom Gana Parishad. Territorial identification and recognition of languages became part of the federal structure in post-independence India.

Democratic accommodation

The insertion of the Eighth Schedule (ES) in the Constitution was a “compromise formula” arrived at by the members of the Constituent Assembly to provide safeguards for regionally dominant languages. B.R. Ambedkar, as chair of the drafting committee, described the debate on the language question in independent India as the most acrimonious, taking the maximum time to deliberate, without any consensus or unequivocal resolution in the Constituent Assembly debates. The efforts to make Hindi the national language, or Rashtra Bhasha, were vociferously opposed by prominent members of the Constituent Assembly on the grounds that this would lead to internal divisions and violence in the country immediately after Independence.

The steady increase in the number of languages in the ES from 14 at the time of inauguration of the Republic in 1950 to 22 at present is testimony to the long-standing demands of various language groups and communities for their linguistic-cultural rights and recognition. These languages have been accorded constitutional protection in the areas of administration, education, occupation, information, art and culture, electronic and print media, communication, cyberspace and numerous other private and public spheres. In addition, there are demands now from 38 ethno-linguistic communities to include their languages in the ES. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 also recognises this dilemma, primarily in the context of the idea of mother-tongue education in schools to strengthen the country’s multilingualism.

Also read: ‘Attempts to impose Hindi not new’

Does the call for ‘one nation, one language’ not undermine this long democratic and secular struggle of the people and their movements to protect the cultural and social habitus and capital of their languages? The Constitution makers enshrined provisions for the protection of languages in the Directive Principles of State Policy to strengthen their rights and make them part of the federal educational structure of the country. The novel constitutional position of the ES provides a model for institutionalised language planning that recognises India’s linguistic pluralism. It has accommodated languages and their social, religious, cultural and ethnological spheres in a democratic and secular way. The ES is a significant component of India’s linguistic federalism; its retention and expansion over the last seven decades can be interpreted as an expression of the democratic rights of diverse language communities, in that it privileges language rights as cultural-political rights within the complex issues of societal multilingualism, social-cultural pluralism and multiculturalism.

Three language formula 

NEP 2020 recommends that two of three languages should be native languages for school education at the primary level. It aims to promote and retain multilingualism through the existing Three Language Formula (TLF) proposed first by the Kothari Commission in 1964-66 and introduced from 1968 onwards. Education commissions and committees set up intermittently since then have continuously recommended the retention of the TLF in schools. NEP 2020 suggests that States can decide on the medium of instruction in schools by choosing the mother tongue, and a local or regional language in addition to two other languages. However, the lack of data about linguistic literacy at the local and State levels is a huge challenge to understanding the linguistic pluralism that exists in different regions and States.

NEP 2020 should have worked out a deeper relationship between language and primary school education, particularly for children of lesser-known languages or minority and tribal languages, so that these children could develop cognitive skills through their mother tongues or home languages. NEP 2020 carries forward some of the unresolved contestations over the interface between language and education that have persisted since the first education commission set up in 1948.

Also read: Language in education

After protests from the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) against the Draft New Education Policy (DNEP 2019), which proposed to impose Hindi as a compulsory language until Class 8, the revised New Education Policy (NEP 2020) has endorsed the existing three-language formula with the provision that Hindi will not be imposed on the States unwilling to teach it. It also emphasises education in the mother tongue until Class 5 in both private and government schools. To push this, it emphasises bringing in language teachers to teach in regional languages or the languages of the ES.

Language riots and violence

Since Independence, Hindi promotion and imposition has encountered strong protests and agitations. Soon after Amit Shah’s latest statement, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said that a single identity based on or promoted through the imposition of Hindi would not bring unity in the country. In June 2019, two days after the Draft New Education Policy (DNEP) was made public, asking for three languages—regional language, English, and Hindi—to be made mandatory in non-Hindi speaking States, a series of agitations and emotional outbursts, particularly from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka, marred public discussion on the policy. Stalin said then that “imposing Hindi on Tamil Nadu would be like throwing stones at a beehive”.

Also read: Hindi card for a Hindu Rashtra

This comment harked back to the anti-Hindi agitations of 1965, led by the DMK and the earlier 1937 anti-Hindi protests under the leadership of E.V.R. Naicker. Since the 1960s, Tamil Nadu has used a two-language formula, with English and Tamil. The Hindi imposition issue led to the downfall of the Congress government in Tamil Nadu in 1967 and the arrival of the DMK. States like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala echoed similar sentiments from time to time. Several State governments have not included Hindi in their three-language formula or used Hindi as an official language. Kerala and Karnataka have institutionalised English teaching and English-medium schools more than introducing Hindi as a compulsory language. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has taken a new initiative to introduce English-medium teaching in all government schools, with Telugu as a compulsory subject, and not paid much attention to the teaching of Hindi. Similarly, Hindi has never been a favourite subject of learning and teaching in the north-eastern region. Several north-eastern States consider the imposition of Hindi as a step towards cultural imperialism. Similarly, the Amra Bangali movement in West Bengal and the Gorkhaland movement of the 1980s show how dominant regional language identities emerged in response to the imposition of Hindi. More recently, groups like Bangla Pokkho have been active in protecting Bengali from Hindi domination.

Which Hindi?

Hindi is not as much a global language as English is, and nor is it spoken through the country with ease. Knowledge of Hindi is not also required for trade and commerce in these times of globalisation and transborder migration of people and commodities. Can Hindi, for instance, become the language of the software industry and its associated businesses the way English has? History has shown how the forcible imposition of one language results in the polarisation and rigid identification of languages with their ethnic origins and ties, as has happened with German, French, Russian, Italian and English and their territorial spread.

Which Hindi does the Sangh Parivar want? Is it a Sanskritised Hindi or other varieties like Braj Bhasha, Awadhi, or Khadi Boli? With every few miles, Hindi varies in expressions, idioms, accents and vocabularies, and people identify with each dialect and its regional embeddedness. To call for a purified or purged Hindi is to disregard its inter/intra-State spread and its multiple and rich variations. The patois of Bombaiya Hindi, Bollywood Hindustani, Daftari Hindi (Hindi used in government offices), Bihari Hindi, Rajasthani Hindi, or Haflong Hindi are not imaginary variants but part of the everydayness of the life that a language lives through its speakers and new learners.

Clubbing 56 varieties under the umbrella category of Hindi and its speakers in the 2011 census shows the intent of the Central government to show Hindi as being used by the largest number of people. Since the logic of number is often used by majoritarian regimes in their quest for imposition of rules and laws, Hindi is shown to have 53 crore speakers as per the 2011 census. But it is a well-known and documented fact that of this number, about 12 crore actually speak distinct languages with claim to independent status.

Also read: The myth of ‘Hindi heartland’

India’s language and language communities are also embedded within larger hierarchies and inequalities of caste, class, religion, region, and gender. Linguistic minorities interface with other forms of exclusion and discrimination. Tribal languages are often put under a broader category of minority languages since most of them suffer from numerical deficit, cultural dislocation of their habitus, and the lack of inter-communicability among different tribal communities.

The Hindi card will give saffron brigades another excuse to inflict uncivil and undemocratic violence on minority language speakers and communities. Caste, religion and language overlaps will be played up to fan communalisation of the language issue. Shah’s statement could be an election strategy for the 2024 general election, just as the 2017 announcement was.

The violent political language of Hindi/Hindu/Hindustan and Urdu/Muslim/Pakistan of the early 20th century, when Hindi nationalists like Pratap Narayan Mishra gave a call for this, could be used and rehearsed before and during the next general election to consolidate votes. Like food, dress, religion, Hindi will give Hindutva supporters another ground to wage battle over how and with what one thinks, speaks and communicates.

Protected by law

The Constitution protects the rights of linguistic minorities through certain fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy. Articles 20, 30, and 350 primarily aim to preserve the ‘distinct language, script or culture’ of various linguistic minorities. Article 29 confers on cultural and linguistic minorities the right to conserve their languages and cultures. Article 30 stipulates that all minorities based on language or religion have the right to establish and administer educational institutions to protect and preserve their languages and cultural resources. It instructs States not to be discriminatory against minority educational institutions but to ensure that funds are allowed to them. But Article 30 needs to be contextualised within Article 350(A), which stipulates that States should provide facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary school level. And Article 350 (B) stipulates the appointment of a Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities to ensure the preparation of an annual report to be submitted to the President. The President can instruct these reports to be laid before each House of Parliament and also sent to the Governor of the State in question.

It is not inappropriate to state that English is no longer the language of the privileged few or the powerful elite, but a language of empowerment for all, more so the marginalised. English has become a ladder for mobility, both economic and social. Unfortunately, it has become a trend for only private or elite public schools to teach English as a subject and use it as a medium of instruction. It is imperative that the government uses digital technology to strengthen the country’s existing linguistic diversity and enable younger generations to learn and use multiple languages, both in public and private domains. Given the pace at which the world is getting digitalised and technologised, it is imperative that the world of languages be safeguarded in its social ecology. Policymakers and planners, political and administrative elites, and the country’s corporate leaders need to be sensitive to this diversity.

Asha Sarangi is Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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