A language travels from faraway lands, and carries its cultures along with itself. However, at times, a language may not possibly travel to the farthest corners of its own nation–and not without good reasons for the same. This premise affects the curious case of Hindi in India.
There is a widespread misapprehension that Hindi is the national language of India. Notwithstanding this misapprehension, the question is whether a national language is politically feasible for a country like India. This article, seeks to explain how Hindi as a national language is not politically viable, taking into cognizance the linguistic plurality of India. A national language for India would essentially mean, the entire country learning to read, write and speak one language irrespective of the mother tongue of a person. Also it would mean all government machinery would be bound to use a single language as the medium of instruction. So if a person who does not know Hindi, but knows English and Bodo, and if Hindi were to be the national language of India he/she would be travelling by air listening to announcements made only in Hindi, in other words risking his/her safety on board just because they do not know Hindi! Definitely a person born in a Hindi speaking family is at an advantage in such a scenario.
The foremost reason as to why India cannot have a national language is its linguistic plurality. Therefore we must take a look at the linguistic composition of India. The following is the composition of the Indian population linguistically:- Hindi languages (41.03%), Bengali (8.11%), Telugu (7.19%), Marathi (6.99%), Tamil(5.91%), Urdu (5.1%), Guajrati (4.48%), Kannada (3.69%), Malayalam (3.21%), Oriya (3.21%), Punjabi (2.83%), Assamese (1.28%) and the rest constitute 10 scheduled languages; around 100 other languages and 234 mother tongues. Interestingly, most of these languages have a distinct script and texts or their own. Asking people who identify with numerous such languages to submit to one common language that they probably don’t even know is certainly totalitarian.
The legal aspects of language in India are defined in article 343 and Schedule 8 of The Constitution on India. According to article 343, (1)
the official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script and (2) Notwithstanding anything in clause (1), for a period of fifteen years from the commencement of this Constitution, the English language shall continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union for which it was being used immediately before such commencement. The following are also excerpts from schedule 8: The President at the expiration of 15 years will constitute a commission; It shall be the duty of the Commission to make recommendations to the President as to (a) The progressive use of the Hindi language for the official purposes of the Union ; (b) Restrictions on the use of the English language for all or any of the official purposes of the Union; The Legislature of a State may by law adopt any one or more of the languages in use in the State; All proceedings in the Supreme Court and in every High Court, the authoritative texts (i) Of all Bills to be introduced or amendments thereto to be moved in either House of Parliament or in the House or either House of the Legislature of a State (ii) Of all Acts passed by Parliament or the Legislature of a State and of all Ordinances promulgated by the President or the Governor of a State, and (iii) Of all orders, rules, regulations and by-laws issued under this Constitution or under any law made by Parliament or the Legislature of a State, shall be in the English language.
Further, in a landmark Gujarat High court judgment, the court ruled saying “Normally, in India, majority of the people have accepted Hindi as a national language and many people speak Hindi and write in Devanagari script but there is nothing on the record to suggest that any provision has been made or order issued declaring Hindi as a national language of the country.”
Attempts to Press into Service a National Language and the Conflicts that Resulted
Plans to make Hindi as India’s national language began during the making of the Indian constitution. However, acknowledging the fact that at the time of independence, most of the country did not know Hindi, our constitution makers decided to promulgate Hindi as an official language on the grounds that it was the single largest spoken language in India. Even then, the house was largely divided in the vote for Hindi as an official language. It was only one vote, the constituent assembly’s President, Rajendra Prasad’s vote, that legitimized the motion for the same. After the 15-year period, the government under Prime Minister Lal Bahadhur Shashtri made it mandatory for all communication between the Center and the states to be in Hindi. Further steps were implemented to ensure Hindi was taught in schools and thus it gave the impression that Hindi was all set to become the national language of India. This led to a series of conflicts in different regions of India especially in Tamil Nadu. January 26, 1965 was the date scheduled for Hindi’s ascent to the role of sole official language of India. The day before this deadline, students in Madras picketed with cries of “Hindi Imperialism” and “Hindi never, English ever!” beginning a two month long period of agitation. During this time, sixty-six people died, two of which were members of the DMK (a political party) who committed suicide by self-immolation on the street. Jyotirindra Das Gupta, in his book, Language Conflict and National Development, says, as in many Indian agitations, the Madras agitation made visible what the official leaders had consistently refused to see. Gupta adds “in fact, the magnitude of violence in the initial stage was minimal, and the acts of violence were largely products of the ruling authority’s failure to establish communication with the people who had intense feelings concerning the language issue.”
Failure to Declare Hindi as the National Language
India is a country with many diverse languages. So diverse that each language in itself is different from the other, and just for the sake of national integration, if one tries to enforce one language on its people, they will tend to revolt against it. Also, despite various attempts by private as well as public organizations, the promotion of the usage of Hindi as a medium of instruction has failed. This can be attributed to the growing usage of English in the professional world. Regardless of the region they belong to, people now prefer English medium education than of Hindi. Furthermore, Hindi in the Devanagari script is totally different from the Hindi that is spoken in the Indian household. The Devanagari Hindi is relatively complex with respect to the Hindi language predominantly spoken, thus discouraging people from learning it. Even all the efforts made in the past have not been fruitful. These efforts, more often than not, are seen as imposing the majority over the rest. The violence that has ensued has been seen as a threat to the unity of India.
Arguments for Hindi as a National Language
There are a series of arguments that moot for declaring Hindi as the national language of India. First is the claim that it imbibes a sense of unity with the spirit of nationalism. But why Hindi? Just because it is the largest spoken language in India? It would be absurd if it is so. In the words of C. Annadurai, “if we had to accept the principle of numerical superiority, while selecting our national bird, the choice would have fallen not on the peacock but on the common crow.” Second is the argument that came from none other than the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. In India of My Dreams, Gandhi strongly advocates for Hindustani (Hindi in the Devanagari script) which was an amalgamation of Hindi and Urdu. Gandhi added that the requirement for a national language should fulfill the following: “It should be spoken by the majority of the inhabitants; it should be easy to learn for the government positions; and it should be a medium that acts as a thread throughout different religions.”
The fact that Hindustani was propagated by Gandhi appears to be an attempt made by the then Congress to unite the Hindu-Muslim community by arguing that Hindustani was a composition of both Hindi and Urdu, wherein Hindi was a Hindu language and Urdu was a Muslim language. Hindustani could not even fulfill the credentials of what Gandhi argued a national language should possess. Hindi was neither spoken by the majority of Indians (speakers of Hindi including its dialects only constituted 42% of the Indian population) nor was it a thread across different religions, as it failed to take into consideration the Christian community, for instance. At the time Gandhi wrote, all officials were discharging their duties in English. Therefore it can even be argued that English was as capable of serving the purpose of an official language, as Hindustani. Gandhi says that the similarity of Indo-Aryan languages to that of Hindustani gives a cause for it to be the national language; however he fails to acknowledge the Dravidian languages while supporting his cause. It is evident that those who moot for Hindi being the national language fail to acknowledge the plurality of India in terms of language.
Why Hindi cannot be the National or even the Sole Official Language of India
The primary reason as to why Hindi cannot become the national language of India is that it is not a language spoken by the entire population, nor is it spoken by even a simple majority of 50% of the population. The elevation of one language to the status of official language endows great benefits and advantages on those whose mother tongue it is, while it also places a discriminatory burden on others, which goes back to the example given in the beginning about the language used aboard a plane. Given a choice, English would be preferred to any other language for education purposes, since communication skills in English is seen as a gateway to a realm of opportunities which might otherwise not be available. Language is a form of identity that most people are deeply and emotionally attached to. So much so that it even at times surpasses religion. Each language has a distinct history and pride of its own. Therefore putting forth a common language that would affect us in most aspects of our common life is a subjection of a mother tongue to that common language.
The lingua franca of a country is that which enjoys speech and comprehension of the general public, in political, social, and cultural realms. It also functions as a national symbol. The Hindi language does not fulfill any of the aforementioned credentials. Leaving an impasse in the language policy of India is not desirable, therefore for all the purposes that a national/official language is mooted: a language that fulfills the criteria of acceptance, a language that is not at the advantage of one community, majority or minority, but a language that is desirable to be learned by a majority of the population must be adopted. It is the job of the policy makers to end this deadlock in the interest of the public good with respect to the use of language in our country. It may be identifying any one language or even languages, but definitely Hindi cannot be the former.