The protests that erupted against the provision in the draft National Education Policy (NEP) for mandatory teaching of Hindi in all states has forced the Narendra Modi government to withdraw the provision in a hurry. The protests were strongest in Tamil Nadu but were also loud in other non-Hindi states like Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal. A number of ministers were suddenly deployed to assure the states that there would be no imposition of Hindi, and a modified draft of the policy omitted any mention of the disputed and controversial reference to Hindi. While the original reference was to the study of “the regional language, Hindi and English,’’
which gave no choice in the matter of Hindi, the amended version says that students may change one or more of their three languages in Grade 6 or Grade 7 “so long as they are able to still demonstrate proficiency in three languages (one language at the literature level) in their modular Board Examinations some time during secondary school.”
The claim that the original version only affirmed the three-language formula, which has been in currency since 1968, is not correct. The formula has, in fact, had different versions and has not been implemented in many parts of the country. Tamil Nadu never accepted it, and the state has had a two-language system of Tamil and English. Hindi states hardly taught any South, West or East Indian language in their schools. So, the formula has mostly been used to promote Hindi in non-Hindi states. The manner in which it was presented in the NEP certainly created suspicions because Hindi has been a part of the BJP’s political package. Despite disclaimers, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP have a vision of India as a culturally homogeneous entity and Hindi has an important role in that vision. The quick and spirited response from non-Hindi states has forced the government to backtrack, but it is not certain if it has taken a step back for good.
The three-language formula should not be used by the government to impose its language preference on students. Its framework should offer ample freedom to students and parents to make linguistic choices. In early school years, parents should have the right to choose the regional language or mother tongue as the language of teaching for their children. In later stages, students should also be able to learn English as a national and international link language. But there should be no attempt to force Hindi on students or states that do not want it. The country’s language policy should conform to its federal structure and diversity and should not violate the long-standing promise that it won’t be implemented through compulsion or coercion.