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Cover Story: Language diversity

Lingua franca?: Controversy over Hindi puts focus on linguistic plurality

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
Hindi diwas

Hindi diwas

A controversy surrounding the promotion of Hindi as a link language brings the issue of linguistic plurality back into the limelight.

Home Minister Amit Shah’s comments in early April on the need to promote Hindi as a lingua franca among States, which was followed by an acrimonious Twitter exchange between two filmstars on communicating in Hindi, once again catapulted the language issue into the national imagination. Going beyond Tamil Nadu, traditionally the only State to aggressively protest against Hindi imposition, this time Karnataka too joined the outcry against the Central government’s hegemonic attitude.

A reality check shows that the number of Hindi speakers has grown steadily over the past five decades. Hindi speakers who spoke it as the first language accounted for 39.29 per cent of the country’s population as per Census 1991, and this rose to 41.1 per cent a decade later and further to 43.63 per cent in Census 2011.

This has happened, however, with the help of sustained support from successive Central governments in the areas of education and administration, and on the back of a healthy growth in population in the Hindi heartland States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

Also read: The myth of ‘Hindi heartland’

For instance, the Centre allocated Rs.30.95 crore in 2009-10 towards promoting Hindi as the official language of communication, which rose to Rs.52.17 crore in 2011-12. By 2017-18, during the first Narendra Modi-led regime, this allocation had risen to Rs.65.40 crore.

Officially, India has no national language but it does have 22 scheduled, or official, languages, of which 12 have more than a million speakers. As per Census 2011, Hindi ranks number one, with 57 per cent of the country’s population speaking it as a first, second, or third language. Every other language is far behind, accounting for less than 10 per cent of the population each, but together the number of their speakers runs into many crores.

Curiously, Urdu is the only pan-Indian language without a majority in any State. Nevertheless, it is spoken by around 6 crore people. It was the sixth most spoken language as per Census 2001, but fell to seventh in Census 2011.