Long Way To Go For A National Language


A country with a single Constitution, a single flag and a single language definitely gives the impression of strength and unity.

Look at these countries and the language a majority of its people speak – Danish in Denmark, Dutch in Belgium, Albanian in Albania, Italian in Italy, Greek in Greece, French in France, German in Germany, Mandarin in China, Japanese in Japan, so on and so forth.

A majority of the nation states have a specific language, which they hail as their national language.

If you ask the question, ‘What language do the Indians speak?’ The answer is that there is no single language, rather Indians speak in diverse languages.

There is no ‘national’ language in India, though according to the Constitution, Hindi is the official language of the Union in Devnagri script. English was added as an official language following protests from South Indian states where Hindi was not their mother tongue in 1963.

States were allowed to legislate on their own for the official language of the state and today, many  languages including Assamese, Odia, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi , Kannada, Kashmiri, Malyalam, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Sindhi, Konkani, Manipuri, Mizo enjoy being the official language i.e. official work is carried out in these languages in these states. Between states and between states and the union, official work is carried out using either Hindi or English.

Interestingly, USA which is also a multi-lingual and multi-cultural society, the debate on adopting an official or national language has been going on for the last 200 years but nothing has happened so far. The reason is that keeping one language as a national language would offend those who do not speak English. English is the dominant language and used for all official purposes but attempts to enforce it by law have failed in USA.

India is also not one homogenous group or a single monolith but consists of diverse groups of people with a completely distinct linguistic and cultural history.

Here it must be understood that language is critical to a community or group, which wishes to preserve its separate identity. The core of a group’s cultural heritage whether it is its literature, myth, religion, ritual, festival, tradition, arts and craft, dance and drama are all found embedded in its language.

No wonder that people are extremely sensitive towards their own mother tongue and have been known to go to any extent to defend their language. Clashes between communities on this issue and language riots are not unheard of in India. There are 22 major languages with 13 scripts and thousands of dialects.

It is interesting to look at some official Indian figures (Census 2011) of people speaking their mother tongue in a particular language and its percentage in India, like those speaking  Hindi (43.63%), Bengali (8.03%) Marathi (6.86%), Telugu (6.70%) Tamil (5.70%), Gujarati (4.58%), Urdu (4.19%), Kannada (3.61%), Odia (3.10%), Malayalam (2.88%), Punjabi (2.74%), Assamese (1.26%), Maithili (1.12%).

Though Hindi clearly stands out as the language spoken by the largest number of persons in India as their mother tongue, there are a number of people living in India particularly south and east where several other languages are spoken and the roots of some of the south Indian languages are not even based on Sanskrit language.

There is also a feeling that the South Indian languages like Tamil, Telugu, Malyalam, Kannada were much more ancient and much stronger and richer language than Hindi, which was relatively new language and not having many classical works to fall back upon.

When a Hindu Rightist party like BJP talks in terms of  “ek nishan, ek vidhan, ek pradhan” (one flag, one constitution, one leader) a large number of people throughout the length and breadth of the country see the logic behind it but when you start expanding the same logic and want to impose a language or “Hindi” on the entire country many find it unacceptable. The plea that it is being done to evolve one own national language or keep English from taking the space of link language is found to be tenuous.

Actually, one flag, one Constitution and one leader does not touch the basic diversity of the people of the country, which to a large number of persons including perhaps the Constitution makers was one of the greatest strengths of a pluralistic democracy like India.

True, one can understand the wish of a party like BJP and its leader like Amit Shah who has been the architect of the massive electoral victory it got from across the country to think of a single “national” language for the whole country as an ideal. But that ideal does not seem to be being fulfilled anytime soon.

Recently, he has been very open when he pointed out that “unity and diversity is the strength of our country but a national language is needed so that foreign languages do not overpower our own.”

Amit Shah has said that “India has many languages and every language has its importance. But it is absolutely necessary that the entire country should have one language that becomes India’s identity globally.”

Everyone would agree. But then, should it be Hindi as seems to be the presumption of Amit Shah and RSS/BJP who want to propagate Hindi as they feel that if any language, which can unite the country it is Hindi that is spoken the most.

Many who take pride in their regional languages particularly in the south Tamil, Telugu, Malyalam, Kannada have already started voicing strong misgivings and opposition against any such move and imposition.

DMK Chief M K Stalin succinctly puts it, “If the Centre imposes Hindi unilaterally, there will only be (adverse) reaction and no support, not only in Tamil Nadu, but also in states like Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.”

English as a foreign language ( of erstwhile rulers of our colonial past) according to Constitution makers was to  be phased out as the link language in the country within 15 years of Independence.

 However instead of being slowly phased out or having a natural death due to Hindi or some other language taking over as the national language , English language spread and took deep roots in the country with English speaking courses, coaching classes sprouting in every nook and corner of the country  even today.

As it was the language of the elite and known as the lingua franca of the globe necessary if you wanted to rise internationally in the field of science, academics, business or industry, Indians took to English in a big way to the neglect of not only Hindi but to other regional languages.

Government has been fighting almost a losing battle in propagating Hindi. English and English speakers continue to enjoy a high status in the eyes of Indian public.

The BJP and RSS’s desire for an Indian language like Hindi becoming the link language instead of English may be stemming out of nationalistic fervor but in the present day scenario English cannot be replaced as the language used as official language throughout the length and breadth of the country particularly in the southern and eastern states.

Actually English being a foreign language it does come as a second language to most Indians, though today the trend is to make it the first language with many mothers speaking to their toddlers only in English to the neglect of even the mother tongue. The idea being that the child should not be at any disadvantage and should be able to speak English like it is his/her mother tongue.

Since language comes with its cultural baggage, one should be wary of what is the kind of ‘culture’ English language comes loaded with. If we have to use the language for whatever historical and practical reasons, we can do one thing Indians are good at. Let us Indianise English as much as we can. The process is already on with a plethora of Indian writers in English language writing on Indian people and Indian themes with an Indian mind set. Besides Hinglish (English and Hindi mixed) we can come out with other regional variants.

(The writer is a columnist based in New Delhi)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect that of the wen portal


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