Comment: Hindi or English? The politics of language in India

Indian shoppers browse items during a sale at a clothing store in a mall in New Delhi. (AFP)

A recent directive from the new Modi government to prioritise Hindi in its official communications could have unintended side effects.

Late in May Indian civil servants were instructed by the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to give prominence to Hindi on social media, government websites and government communications.

But it wasn’t until a few weeks later, after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi concerning the subject, that the Indian media began its analysis.

Modi is a native Gujarati speaker, but is more comfortable using Hindi than English. So for his own personal and professional communication as Prime Minister, Hindi is preferred. This is perfectly acceptable.

However, there is a suspicion with this directive that the BJP’s nationalist idealism is an underlying sentiment. Conformity lies at the heart of all nationalist desires, and in such a diverse country as India this can be deemed threatening to many. 

“The anti-Hindi protests of the 1960s shocked the central government into maintaining English as an operational language alongside Hindi. This is a role it has maintained until the present.”

The Indian Constitution only gives provision for Official Languages, and not a “national language”. Despite this, Hindi has achieve some de facto national status due to its relative weight.

On current estimates there are currently 122 languages with over 10,000 speakers in India. While the Federal Government operates only in Hindi and English, there are 21 other languages with a large enough presence for the government to recognise.

There is no doubt Hindi is the biggest single language in the country. However, the language has such a large dialect continuum, of which many dialects claim separate language status, it is difficult to tell exactly how many native Hindi speakers there are. The range is anywhere between 15% and 45% of the total population of the country.

The figure of 45% includes Urdu, which although written in a different script, is the same language as Hindi when spoken (albeit with vocabulary and idioms culturally specific to Islam inherited from Arabic and Persian languages).

Traditionally, Hindustani (the name linguists give to Hindi/Urdu) has been the lingua franca across the north of the sub-continent. Which is why Urdu became the official language of Pakistan upon its formation, although it is native to only around 7% of the population.

It is this perspective towards Hindi that the northern elite used in their approach to the nation-building of India post-Independence. The hope was that Hindi’s status as the northern lingua franca would radiate throughout the country at large providing a unifying national tongue.

Initially the use of English by the Federal Government, and as means of communication between the states, was meant to only be temporary after independence while Hindi spread. Republic Day 1965 was set as the date that Hindi would become the sole language used in New Delhi.

However, this measure was met with resistance in West Bengal, Maharashtra, and in particular the southern states. Leading up to this date, the anti-Hindi riots in what is now Tamil Nadu (then Madras State), led to widespread damage and around 70 deaths. This included 12 Tamil men setting themselves on fire in protest.

While the Tibeto-Burman languages of India’s north-eastern states don’t have the numbers nor economic might to challenge any directives from New Delhi, the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and the recently formed Telangana do.

The languages of Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu that dominant the south belong to the Dravidian language family. This is an isolated language family, with linguists unable to connect them to any other wider language family.

The Indo-Aryan languages of the north (of which Hindi belongs) form part of the Indo-European extended language family. Which gives Hindi more of a genetic relationship with Icelandic than it does with any of Dravidian languages.

This may not be consciously comprehended within the southern states, but it is felt. It may be trite to suggest that related languages have a similar “vibe” - an unexplainable, but recognisable kinship - but this can be sensed.

Aside from this instinctive feeling, having Hindi as the sole language of government would give northern Indians a far greater advantage within the country. English is deemed to at least place everyone on an equal footing, which is why the south advocates strongly for it to remain official. 

To the languages of the south, Hindi is just another regional language like theirs. It has no special properties that should give it priority. Although it has the largest number of speaker within the country, it is not spoken as a mother-tongue by the majority, and therefore should not be imposed on the country as a whole.

The anti-Hindi protests of the 1960s shocked the central government into maintaining English as an operational language alongside Hindi. This is a role it has maintained until the present.

While the initial push for the Hindi-isation of the country came from the Congress Party, it has been enthusiastically adopted by the BJP as part of their Hinduvta, or Hindu chauvinist, national idealism. Which is why the instructions given to the bureaucracy by the Modi government have been viewed with such suspicion.

While the election of Modi marks a positive break from the anglophone elite, an aggressive promotion of Hindi is potentially more destabilising to the country than the feared Hindu religious chauvinism of the BJP.

Grant Wyeth is a Melbourne-based freelance writer with a keen interest in India.

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