The Plight of languages in India

The Plight of languages in India
published: (updated: )
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
history India language politics

Part I : History

The row over the May 27 circular prioritizing Hindi in social media is remnicient of many previous debates of the same kind. Right from India’s Independence in 1947, its languages have been under a constant plight to be understood by the entirety of its masses. India is perhaps, the most diverse country in terms of culture, and languages spoken therein. It’s first Prime Minister – Nehru, tried to rally Hindi as the national language, as he felt it could be picked up by most Indians, as all indian languages are allied to each other [1]. What is to be understood before delving deeper into this decision is that, for many a years, the British Empire ruling in India has set up a system of governance and offices that operated in English. Therefore, at the time of Independence, all of India’s offices and governance bodies operated in English by default. 

Nehru supported a provision in the Constitution that Hindi should be the official language, but English be used as the official language for the future 15 years, till 1965. He had hoped, like many others, that during this period, Hindi would have gained general acceptance and the required strength to become the uniting language in India.

In 1959, Nehru promised that that there would be no imposition of any language, and that English would remain an additional language for an indefinite period [1]. This was the result of the general failure of Hindi being adopted by the masses. Most of the government posts and offices now operated in Hindi, and the armed forces primarily used it as well. However, the population had failed to catch on Hindi in a way that justified it being made the national language. A provision was made to continue using English, along side Hindi indefinitely for official purposes.

By contrasting the dream of making Hindi a national language, to replacing English, the latter expanded to more people as a second or third language instead. The education system, and internationalization of communication, spread the use of English much more than any other language. In India’s multi-language states, English is often called as the ‘link-language’ as it is the preferred means of communication on a common ground for people between states.

Part II : Constitution

The current scenario lists a pseudo-bilingual system comprising of English and the regional language being the preferred choice of governing bodies, with the center primarily opting to use English along with Hindi [2]. However, all authoritative texts for all laws, and dictums made under the Parliament should be in English unless decided otherwise [3].

For Administration, the Union government is required by law to progressively increase the use of Hindi in its official work, [4]which it has sought to do through “persuasion, incentive and goodwill.” Therefore, progressively increasing the use of Hindi is a mandate the government follows in terms with the constitution. However, the words persuasion, incentive and goodwill are important as well, as they dictate the terms of a democracy and not autocracy.

Further more, the Official Language Act says that the Union Government use Hindi and English in ‘most’ administrative documents intended for the public. It also provides a higher degree of usage for Hindi in communications between offices, except Tamil Nadu where the language Tamil substitutes Hindi. Communications within offices of the same department must be in Hindi for Hindi-speaking states [5] and either in Hindi or English. It is the duty of the Government to provide a translation to other languages if required under the circumstances. Every person submitting a petition or a grievance has the constitutional right to submit it in any language used in India. [6]

The government has taken various steps over time to implement the use and increase familiarisation of Hindi extensively. Regional Hindi implementation offices at various places, most notably in Southern states, have been established to monitor the implementation of Hindi in Central government offices and PSUs. Annual targets are set by the Department of Official Language regarding the amount of correspondence being carried out in Hindi. A Parliament Committee on Official Language constituted in 1976 periodically reviews the progress in the use of Hindi and submits a report to the President. The governmental body which makes policy decisions and established guidelines for promotion of Hindi is the Kendriya Hindi Samiti (est. 1967). In every city that has more than ten central Government offices, a Town Official Language Implementation Committee is established and cash awards are given to government employees who write books in Hindi. All Central government offices and PSUs are to establish Hindi Cells for implementation of Hindi in their offices. [7]

Part III : States

The Indian constitution does not specify the official languages to be used by the states for the conduct of their official functions, and leaves each state free to, through its legislature, adopt Hindi or any language used in its territory as its official language or languages. [8] State legislatures may conduct their business in their official languageHindi or English, and members who cannot use any of these can use their mother tonguewith the Speaker’s permission. [9] The authoritative text of all laws must be in English, unless Parliament passes a law permitting a state to use another language, and if the original text of a law is in a different language, an authoritative English translation of all laws must be prepared [10]. In a nutshell, this allows a state to operate in its regional language, but all the official communication must be either in Hindi or English.

Out of the 30 States of Independent India, only 10 feature Hindi, and 11 feature English as an officially recognized language. The 2001 census lists the Hindi (or Hindi-like dialect) speaking population at 258–422 million.[11] This makes it a significant language spoken by or understood by a large number of the population. Somewhere in the area of 40%.

The Eighth Schedule to the Indian Constitution contains a list of 22scheduled languages [10]. The Government is obligated to further the enrichment of these languages. Any candidate appearing for a public service exam is entitled to use any of these languages as the medium to answer the paper. [4] English is not included in the Eigth schedule and is considered a foreign language, though it still is one of the official languages of India. 

Part IV : The Bigger Picture

The purpose of having a national language is to incorporate the culture and spirit of the country/region into its governance. But in a country like India, where culture and language are diverse across regions, the very idea of unifying the entire nation under one single language is romantic at best. The languages are mainly divided under the Aryan and Dravidian bases, with Sanskrit and Tamil acting as the bases for other languages developed respectively. Therefore, Independent India does NOT in fact, have a national language. What it has in fact, are official languages which are permitted for use in its offices. 

Usually the schools in a region have the regional language as the primary language for education. There are second and third level languages taught in the school, depending on the education system. Second languages may include Hindi, English, or other regional languages deemed important for communication. One of the prime reasons for adopting English is its wide spread use in national as well as international communications. The same is true for Hindi in northern states as it is the regional language of that area, and is also used in governance matters. But a similar argument cannot be made for advocating Hindi in non-hindi speaking states.

The central government is by choice of convenience using Hindi as a medium of communication since a large populace of Independent India can understand, or easily adopt to Hindi. However, it also features English as its official language, which non-hindi speaking states are expected to communicate in. Introducing Hindi in for example, the southern states, with the reason that it is the dominant language, is against the democratic notion of freedom to learn the language of choice. Preference should be given to regional languages, and cultures, and the introduction of Hindi as a second or third language in public schools should be at the discretion of Regional governments. Since the local governing body represents the democratic elected members of population, the choice of their decision rests with them. The government is expected to communicate in Official languages, by way of Constitution and therefore, should propagate the education in any of these languages.

The recent roar against the government, for incentivizing the spread of Hindi amongst the hindi-speaking states, is in my opinion, a very immature act of crying wolf. The constitution of Independent India binds the government to propagate Hindi in the populace as means of using a regional language (hindi) as opposed to a foreign language (english). However, the decision is at the discretion of the hindi speaking states, and none otherwise.

The call for using all the 22 (or so) languages from the Eighth Schedule, will be administratively insane. The administrative correspondence should be in a minimal number of languages, with as much less translation as possible. India’s pseudo-bilingual language system has worked well in the past years, with the regional languages being used prominently by the states. However, it is correct to call up the government and criticize on incentivizing only Hindi, even if only for the hindi speaking states. The correct dictum, for the promotion of culture and heritage through languages, would be to support and popularize the use of all languages mentioned in the Constitution. However, a strict line must be (is) drawn concerning the popularization and administrative correspondence being carried out.

I’d like to end my rant with a wise quote -

“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.”

[1] The English Language in India since Independence, and its future Role – Dr Sarvepalli Gopal
[2] Official Languages Act, 1963
[3] Article 348 Language to be used in the Supreme Court and in the High Courts and for Acts, Bills, etc.
[4] Official Languages Resolution, 1968
[5] Official Languages (Use for Official Purpose of the Union) Rules, 1976,
[6] Constitution of India, Article 350
[7] “Official Language – Constitutional/Statutory Provisions”. Government of India.
[8] Constitution of India, Article 345
[9] Constitution of India, Article 210
[10] Constitution of India, Article 344
[11] 2001 Census data on Languages of India