Impulsive Imposition: Language and Politics of Majoritarianism in India

The declaration of making Bengali and Malayalam languages compulsory in state-run schools in West Bengal and Kerala has been seen as a step to promote regional languages in India. This article argues that these are reactionary steps to the centre's rigorous policy of promoting Hindi along with the larger agenda of negating federal principles. Such policies threaten the diversity and federalism of India. The states' fear of the central government's ideology of monopolising faith, education, and language will adversely affect the Indian political system, which is based on pluralism and accommodation. The policies of the centre as well as states should be viewed with precaution as they further advance the politics of majoritarianism.

Every country has one or more officially recognised languages for administrative and educational purposes. The situation is complex in multilingual countries where the selection of a single language representing all peoples and communities becomes a source of contention. India went through the turmoil of choosing one language as the medium of administration and education during the drafting of the Constitution.

The language issue took the maximum time to reach consensus, eventually becoming a “half-hearted compromise” between different sections of the Constituent Assembly (Austin 2014: 330). After vigorous debates, disagreements, and deliberations, Hindi and English became the official languages of the Indian union for communication between the union and the constituent states. Such a decision was agreeable to most states on the condition that they were free to choose the state’s official language(s).

Soon after independence, most states recognised the language spoken by the majority as the official language, whereas some, like Nagaland, chose English. Some others also chose two official languages depending on the sentiments and demographic composition of their respective territories.

The second issue that demanded attention was of deciding the language in education and the medium of instruction in state-run schools. The three-language formula (TLF), presently followed by most state government schools, was the result of long-drawn discussions between 1948 and 1961, with specially appointed committees and commissions. The first of these was appointed in 1948 under the chairmanship of Tara Chand, a well-known historian.

It recommended that: (i) admission to the degree course should be preceded by a course of primary and secondary education for at least 12 years; (ii) of the above 12 years, five years should be spent at the Junior Basic stage, three years at the Senior Basic or pre-secondary stage, and four years at the secondary stage; (iii) the teaching of the federal language should be started at the end of the Junior Basic stage and should be compulsory throughout the pre-secondary stage, but may be optional thereafter; (iv) English may be an optional subject at the Senior Basic stage and should be compulsory at the pre-secondary and secondary stages so long as it remains the medium of instruction in the universities; (v) the federal language should become a compulsory subject at the secondary stage when English ceases to be the medium of instruction in the universities (GoI 1948).

The state departments of education provided special provisions for linguistic minorities, who were granted the fundamental right by the Constitution to establish educational institutions imparting education in the mother tongue. This was further consolidated by the recommendations of the Provincial Education Ministers’ Conference held in 1949, which concluded that the mother tongue must be the medium of education in primary as well as secondary levels, with students having the choice of answering examination papers in the mother tongue for two years after the state language was started in schools. The States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) appointed by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to consider the matter of linguistic reorganisation of Indian states also suggested that linguistic minorities should not be discriminated against as language was a strong reflection of one's cultural heritage. It recommended the following of Article 347[1] by the states and proposed that a clear policy should be formulated by the Government of India in consultation with the state governments, in this regard.

The Government of India proposed the seventh constitutional amendment, following the SRC’s recommendation in 1956 and India was reorganised on a linguistic basis. This amendment also inserted two articles—350a and 350b—providing for mother tongue education at primary levels and establishing a special officer for the linguistic minorities, respectively. Viewing the language matter as capable of becoming conflictual, the Indian government called a conference of chief ministers in 1961. The main agenda of this meeting was to decide the medium of instruction and language-in-education.

The TLF which was already being discussed was comprehensively debated and reviewed in this meeting. Among other things, the ministers reiterated the desirability of developing Hindi as the medium for interstate correspondence, but emphasised the usage of English for international communication. Finally, the expert review of the TLF was delegated to the Kothari Commission, which submitted its report in 1964 and recommended certain modifications to the TLF. The objective of the Kothari Commission was “to accommodate group identity, national unity, and administrative efficiency" (NCERT 2006). It brought in the mother tongue group identity marker, Hindi for national unity, and both Hindi and English for administrative functioning, thereby fusing three interests into one framework known as the TLF. Indian states were left to adopt the TLF according to their contextual uniqueness. The TLF that emanated from this conference became a central feature of the National Education Policy (NEP) of 1968 and was not modified by the NEP 1986. This is not to say that the TLF is the perfect language formula, but it did fairly well in India and avoided any further linguistic conflicts.


Playing Politics with Language-in-Education


The centre’s order in April 2017 making Hindi compulsory in all Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) affiliated schools till the secondary level evoked various responses. Some asserted that the policy was contradictory to the right to education, which gives the student the right to choose their set of languages (New Indian Express 2017), while others expressed discontent that the centre may promote any language, but not at the cost of regional languages and “certainly not imposition of any language” (Deccan Chronicle 2017).

While the Ministry of Human Resource Development assured that no language will be imposed, it was also reported that the President of India had, “in-principle,” approved the suggestion of the parliamentary panel (making Hindi compulsory till Class 10). The presidential order, however, stated that, “the Centre, however, should draw up the policy to make Hindi a compulsory subject in consultation with states” (GoI 2017). There is no communication from the centre regarding any decision for such a joint meeting with states on the issue of making Hindi mandatory. The Supreme Court rejected a plea seeking directions to the centre to make Hindi compulsory till Class 8, citing that “people speaking other languages may also start asking why their languages are not being taught and that the government could look into it” (Telegraph 2017).


Though a final decision on the Hindi issue is still pending,[2] the West Bengal and Kerala governments reacted by making Malayalam and Bengali compulsory in all government, aided, unaided, and self-financing schools in Kerala (Hindu 2017a), and in all CBSE and Indian Council of Secondary Education (ICSE) board schools in West Bengal (Hindu 2017b). The political party at the centre has an ideological agenda in making Hindi compulsory, but the state governments’ response to it has only made them party to the rightist plot.


Utilising the Language of Federal Power-sharing


India took nearly five decades to move from quasi to a somewhat cooperative model of federalism, which seemed to be becoming a reality in the wake of coalition politics, with state governments becoming significant players in national politics. One of the greatest merits of the coalition government was its representation of diverse opinions based on India’s plural population. It is true that in the past, India has witnessed the centre’s decision overriding the states, but the time has come to take serious cognisance of this power play in a federal democratic polity.

Federalism essentially connotes a balance of power between the centre and the states wherein one should not be able to override the other. Significantly, the federal government is given an upper hand in matters relating to foreign affairs, defence, currency and finances, but the realm of primary and secondary education, which forms the backbone of state reorganisation, should have been left to the states.

Education was transferred from the state to the concurrent list by the 42nd constitutional amendment in 1976 with the objective that in states where educational development is minimal or not improving, the centre will share the burden and also introduce technical and vocational institutions for facilitating employment opportunities. The concurrent list incorporates fields that require collective wisdom of both the states and the centre and should not become another way of the centre's interference into state affairs. The conflict between the centre and the states could be resolved through a democratic dialogue utilising the federal language of power-sharing and understanding.


The centre's reach into the state's domain in terms of the language of education demands a fresh look at the federal principle of power-sharing, which seems threatened by centralisation of decision-making in India. In such a context, it remains important to revisit India’s federal principle of decentralisation and sharing of power as enshrined in the Constitution. Changes in language-education has monumental effects on people’s well-being in the country. The future generation’s economic and social prospects, freedom of choice, as well as India’s journey as a democratic polity founded on pluralism are too precious to be sacrificed at the altar of centre–state conflicts based on impulsive impositions. Such reactionary policies have a domino effect.

While scholars and intellectuals are wary of the conservative policies of the government at the centre with its narrative on nationalism adversely affecting religious harmony, the state governments' policy of making their majority languages as mandatory furthers the march of majoritarian politics and places a question mark on the rights of minority-language speakers in India.


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