National Language Debate: What Does It Mean for Indian Pluralism?

The language question is not just about imposition but about distortion of an individual's cultural identity. 


The debate over Hindi being India’s  “National Language” has been on since the time the Constitution was being written. It was recently resurrected by the Draft National Education Policy which seems to be giving Hindi more importance than other Indian languages. In fact, the number of native Hindi speakers in India are only around 44%, which includes speakers of languages such as Bhojpuri. 

The dangers of imposing a language are manifold. It can affect the learning ability of non-native speakers thereby affecting their self-confidence. It can also endanger other languages and dialects and reduce diversity. National integration cannot come at the cost of people’s linguistic identities. Language is integral to culture and therefore privileging Hindi over all other languages spoken in India takes away from its diversity.

This is an argument that has often been put forth by southern states, especially Tamil Nadu, even before independence. In fact, when the draft on the National Education Policy came out, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam President M. K. Stalin made a statement where he reminded the centre of Nehru’s promise. This was that Hindi would only serve as a linking language and it would not be imposed on non-Hindi speaking states as long as they were against it. There have also been protests in other southern states, such as in Karnataka, where pro-Kannada outfits like Karnataka Rashna Vedika held round tables to discuss how to tackle "Hindi chauvinism". Similar groups such as the Bengal Pokkoh have emerged even in Bengal that are spearheading movements against Hindi imposition. 

This reading list contextualises the long history of the national language debate in India. 

1) Language is a Primary Constituent of Identity 

One of the reasons people feel very strongly about issues related to a national language or the "imposition" of a language is because language is at the core of an individual’s identity. It is in a language that an individual conceptualises and communicates his thoughts which enables him to actively participate in society. In fact, language gives people a primary group as people can identify with each other using a language. As Papia Sengupta says

Language is not simply a tool for communication but is a central and defining feature of identity as all human thoughts are conceptualised through a language and all human values are pronounced and perceived through it. It follows that since language is a significant factor in building one’s identity, it must be preserved.

Furthermore, she argues that not knowing the dominant language can have a negative impact on an individual's political identity

Language is the most important tool of participation in the polity of the state and not being able to speak in the dominant language (or languages) of a state can have a serious impact on an individual’s employment, educational and recreational opportunities. This leads to discrimination and injustice


2) The Role of the Constituent Assembly 

The National Language Debate goes all the way back to the time of the Constituent Assembly. It was given the responsibility to debate the language question. However, many scholars such as Rama Kant Agnihotri believe that the assembly debates were dominated by a group of elites therefore marginalising the aspirations of the minorities. 

Even though India’s Constituent Assembly debates were informed by remarkable seriousness, scholarship, and integrity, most of the linguistic decisions taken by the Constituent Assembly, in many cases insightful, were located in consensual democracy and the domination of the elites in that body. The multilingual and multicultural ethos that is constitutive of Indian society was ignored. The focus was so much on containing the existing political safeguards available to the religious and backward minorities that the rights of linguistic minorities were compromised


3) The Deceptive Eighth Schedule

As multiple languages were being spoken by state populations of millions across the continent, an elusive solution came forth in the formation of the Eighth schedule. It comprises of a list of official languages and the government is under obligation to ensure their development. However, the Eighth Schedule led to the destruction of mother tongues that were relegated to subordinate positions. Sadhana Saexna explains this point when she says:  

The Eight Schedule (ES) takes no cognisance of various languages. Empowering a few has impoverished and marginalised others by exclusion. Consequently, the ES languages have gained power, recognition and prestige as 'mainstream' or 'standard' languages. The others have been left to languish with demeaning labels such as "dialects', 'minor languages', 'tribal languages' and so on. Education, the judiciary, administration, mainstream trade and commerce, national communication networks and media, even most non-government organisations all use the ES languages, totally ignoring the vast majority of Indian mother tongues. Ironically, a foreign language not listed in the ES enjoys maximum prestige.

Speaking of the reaction of the locals to a standardised language, she goes on to say that they do recognise its importance, however not at the cost of their own mother tongues being made inferior.

Ordinary people usually come out with clear reasoning. They want to learn the standard language to deal with government officials, otherwise they will not be considered literate and their voice will not be heard. But never do they believe that a standard language will replace their spoken language. The distinction they make is very clear. They want a language of power to acquire power, but not by suppressing their own languages. Obviously, this points to the need to build a multi-language milieu.

4) Language: The Centre of Nationalist Propaganda

Various policies on language have been framed both by the central and state governments that have been termed as forms of linguistic chauvinism. These include making Bengali compulsory in school of West Bengal and a pitch of making Marathi compulsory in all schools in Maharashtra. Another controversial policy was the three-language formula in the South.

Papia Sengupta highlights this when she says:

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.

Hany Babul MT takes it a step further. He says unilingual policies of governments led to the creation of a "chaturvarna system" of languages that has wrongly divided languages into a hierarchical system.

The Indian language policy is informed by a pull towards unilingual identity, inspired by the European model of nation state that is predicated on the homogeneity of its people. Language hegemony works at two tiers in India—at the state and the centre. The Constitution fails to pay more than lip service to the linguistic plurality and multilingual ethos of the peoples of India and has created a chaturvarna (four-tier order) of languages, with Sanskrit, Hindi, scheduled, and the non-scheduled languages occupying various rungs of the ladder.

S Srinivasa Rao believes that the “nationalists” today are bent on promoting linguistic nationalism that sees other Indian languages to be inferior to Hindi.   

If Macaulay and his successors have rubbished the numerous indigenous and minority languages in the name of incivility and lack of richness of literature and, therefore, are not suited for the elitist raj, the nationalist protagonists revealed their similar intentions in the artificial construction of “nationhood” through language.


5) The Emphasis Should Be on Official Languages 

V K R V Rao pleads for a patient and national approach to the problem of language. He asks decision makers to not be clouded by temporary passions or the quest for short period expediencies. He believes the focus should not be on establishing one national language, but should be shifted to strengthening the official languages whose importance cannot be disregarded.

National integration in a multilingual country does not require the imposition of one official language on the country, especially when the language selected for the purpose is one of its many regional languages even if it happens to be that of the largest linguistic group in the country. At the same time, the convenience, in fact the necessity, of having one or more languages as the official (not national, as all languages spoken in a country can claim to be national) language or languages for centre-state and inter-state communication for political, economic, legal and even social reasons cannot be disputed.


Read more:

Truth about Language in India I Santosh Kumar Khare, 2002
Language, Power and Ideology I Tariq Rahman, 2002
The Locations of Hindi I Vasudha Dalmia, 2003

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