Language divide

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

THE Census of India 1961 identified 1,652 languages. In the 2001 Census, the figure came down to 122. The number of languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution is just 22. As language continues to be a crucial factor in defining the identity of a citizen, the consequences of listing only a few languages, in the interest of assimilation and administration, are enormous. How the state and civil society cope with the many dimensions of these consequences is th e subject matter of Language and Politics in India.

The book is a collection of articles with a unifying theme. The lapse of time has not rendered the reflections of the writers irrelevant. On the contrary, if a reader seeks to find answers to contemporary issues confronting language and politics in India, the effort to read through the book will certainly be rewarding.

Any student of post-Independence history and politics will be amazed to find the central role linguistic assertion played in the evolution of Indias polity in the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in the reorganisation of States on the basis of language, and the Union of Indias decision not to make Hindi the sole official language of India in 1965. The Constitution had originally permitted the use of English along with Hindi for the first 15 years of the Republic, giving an option to Parliament to extend the use of English for specific purposes beyond 15 years. Parliament enacted a law in 1963, bowing to the sentiments of people from the South.

Looking back, it is difficult not to concede that the role of Indian languages in contemporary polity has been rather limited compared with the historical role played by them during the freedom struggle and during the formative phase of the nation. This is partly because Indias politics of accommodation has been able to resolve disputes between various linguistic groups and the federation, and among these groups. But that does not mean that there are no language controversies remaining to be resolved.

The creation of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in 2000 on the basis of regional aspirations shows that language as the basis for reorganisation of States may be vulnerable although it was the most effective answer in the 1950s. The view that language can continue to sustain a unit in a federation is no longer valid. The popular demands for the formation of Telengana and Vidarbha reinforce this tendency, which has earned significant political accommodation in terms of recognition by political parties.

The grant of classical language status to Tamil in 2004, followed by Sanskrit (2005) and Kannada and Telugu (2008) is expected to fuel similar demands on behalf of other languages. Votaries of Malayalam are already making a serious claim for such status for their language. Critics argue that the grant of classical language status would result in value judgments being made about the relative worth of Indian languages. The status is of no practical significance beyond ensuring eligibility for substantial funds for academic research and studies.

With English becoming the language that matters, the grant of classical status to Indian languages is seen as an effort by the state to make them irrelevant by compensating them with the glory of being called classical. Take the demand for introducing Tamil as the official language of the Madras High Court, which at one time threatened to become a major controversy. The rejection of the demand, after due consideration by the Supreme Court, has underlined the limitations of making language a rallying point for playing identity politics in the changed political and social milieu.

Put in this context, the essays included in this volume assume their own significance. Granville Austins Language and the Constitution: The Half-Hearted Compromise was originally published in 1966. Austin calls the Constituent Assemblys decision that Hindi should be the official language a tactful euphemism in order to avoid calling one of the regional languages a national language.

He recalls with approval an editorial written in The Hindu at the time, which said that 15 years (for replacing English with Hindi as the sole official language) was more like a minimum than a maximum for the replacement of English. The reason for the continuation of English as the principal language of the state is that India has produced very little feeling of linguistic nationalism, he writes. Austin also believes that language provisions are not just an unhappy compromise; they have a more positive side. They show that the large majority of the Assembly believed that the use of many Indian languages and of English was compatible with national unity and with the evolution of a national spirit.

Sumathi Ramaswamy, in her essay Sanskrit for the Nation, written in 1999, exposes the hollowness of the efforts of the proponents of Sanskrit to make it the official and national language in the Constituent Assembly and subsequently through the report of the Sanskrit Commission. She demonstrates that Sanskrits claim is based on cynical reasoning: its proponents advanced the arguments that it was nobodys mother tongue and was equally difficult for all to learn; and with linguistic reorganisation of States, the Centre had an ample opportunity to develop Sanskrit, as the States are responsible for the growth of other Indian languages.

That Sanskrits proponents continue to wield undue influence on the policymakers in New Delhi was obvious when it was accorded classical language status in 2005, with no one actually making a case for it. This is acknowledged by Paul R. Brass, who finds that the number of persons claiming Sanskrit as their language is fewer than 50,000, but those who actually use it as a language of communication are certainly much fewer. Nor is there a community of Sanskrit language speakers belonging to any territory with any political influence. Its inclusion in the Eighth Schedule was another concession made to appease the pro-Sanskrit lobby.

Joseph E. Schwartzberg, in Factors in the linguistic reorganisation of Indian States, written in 1985, is optimistic about the success of linguistic reorganisation. According to him, it has provided a political milieu that is conducive to the flowering of many linguistically rooted cultures and has thereby evolved a system that greatly enriches the cultural life of the nation as a whole. The author had correctly predicted that further alterations of the system on economic and administrative grounds could not be ruled out even as reorganisation on the basis of language might have reached a saturation point.

In his article, Elite interests, popular passions written in 2004, Paul R. Brass finds that language is not at the centre of the group conflict and violence that are endemic and that the resolution of the language issue has been a success story in several respects. However, Brass approach appears inadequate to understand and resolve the intense conflicts between the speakers of Tamil and Kannada over the sharing of the Cauvery waters in recent times. Similar conflicts with linguistic overtones have been observed in other parts of the country from time to time.

That apart, his suggestion for a scholarly inquiry into the relationship between linguistic capabilities and advancement in politics makes sense. According to him, there are three broad tiers, namely, the upper elite tier of bilinguals, who are proficient in English; the intermediate tier of educated speakers of dominant regional language only; and the lower tier of poorly educated or illiterate monolinguals or bilinguals in regional and mother tongues.

Selma K. Sonntags The political saliency of language in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh is useful for understanding the different language policies pursued by Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav, although both hail from the Lohiaite tradition of opposition to English. While Lalu Prasad suggested in 1993 that English be reintroduced as a compulsory subject in schools, Mulayam Singh Yadav has always remained a champion of angrezi hatao (remove English).

The author explains that Lalu Prasad is using the English language issue to consolidate his own support base among aspiring backward caste youth who see English as their ticket for upward mobility. Opposition within his own party allowed him to back off from his recommendation of reintroducing English in schools because he felt it was not the right time to assert his stand in the House.

Mulayam Singh, on the contrary, surprised his corporate followers and the middle classes, in general, during the campaign for the latest round of Lok Sabha elections, by reviving the angrezi hatao campaign in the Samajwadi Partys (S.P.) manifesto. The author, in this 1996 essay, suggests that the prolonged struggle between the emerging backward class elite and the established national elites is likely to keep on the agenda emotive, symbolic issues such as language as a manifestation of political competition.

Faced with universal censure that its manifesto ignores contemporary realities and promises a backward, as against modern, agenda, the S.P. clarified that it was only against compulsory teaching of English and the use of computers where they deprived people of employment. But why the party came up with such a plea remained inexplicable.

D.L. Sheths analysis in The Great Language Debate: Politics of Metropolitan versus Vernacular India published in 1995, appears to provide the answer to this paradox. Sheth understands this in terms of the conflict between two elite groups: the nationally entrenched, pan-Indian English-educated elite and the new but ascendant elites who have lately emerged on the national scene but sans the trappings of English education. The sharp differences between them in socio-cultural terms, he says, are marked by the language divide. For the former English occupies a central role; for the latter its role is at best marginal.

The S.P. may have refrained from articulating its stand on the language policy in order not to alienate its new-found adherents, who might have opted to support the party on issues other than language. Sheth asks: If English is so important for development and national integration as its protagonists argue, why should access to English education remain restricted to a few? He argues that English can never serve as a vehicle for mass education in India. Sheth, like the S.P., does not argue for abolishing English but warns that making knowledge of English a blanket requirement for entry into higher education is not a sustainable policy.

Sheth agrees that English must be uniformly and efficiently taught as a subject at an early stage of schooling in all the States but its use as the medium of instruction has to be discouraged and eventually abolished, excepting for those whose mother tongue is English. English, he says, should survive but more on functional terms than as an instrument of elite domination. Considering that English is not even listed under the Eighth Schedule, his plea needs to be examined on merit.

In his essay, K. Warikoo tries to answer the question why the neglect of Kashmiri has never been a theme of unrest and anti-Indian movement in Kashmir. The author suggests that it is mainly because Kashmiri Muslims have been swayed by their intellectual elite and political leaders of all hues, most of whom have been educated at the Aligarh Muslim University, thereby imbibing the spirit of the Aligarh movement, which regards Urdu as the symbol of Muslim cultural identity.

The four articles examining the different aspects of language and the identity politics remind us that issues of language continue to be a salient point in political discourse.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment