Vice President of India Venkaiah Naidu recently stated that English is an illness of colonialism that persists in the country. He advocates the use of Hindi as the official language of business for the Central government and regional languages for state governments to conduct their work. He also suggested that Centre-state interactions be conducted in Hindi.
Such statements uttered by a Constitutional authority like the Vice President prove problematic for various reasons. It widens the North-South divide among the 29 states across the country, especially the five southern states with their distinct regional languages. The Dravidian languages spoken in these states are culturally different from Hindi, unlike their counterpart states of the Hindi belt.
The question therefore arises why Hindi is perceived to be superior to the regional languages spoken in south India. Clearly, the southern states feel the need to promote their regional language to preserve their local cultures. To that extent these states perceive Hindi as an unwelcome imposition on them.
For instance, the language for selection of soldiers, sailors and airmen for recruitment into the military is either Hindi or English and surprisingly none of the regional languages are available to prove their eligibility for recruitment into the military. This clearly puts those candidates for recruitment into the military from the Hindi belt at an advantage over their southern counterparts, especially those from rural areas whose knowledge of either Hindi or English is weak.
The only states that are truly comfortable with Hindi are Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, National Capital Region, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand that form the Hindi belt. The Constitution designates the official language of the Government of India as Hindi as well as English.
The number of native Hindi speakers is about 25% of the population; however, including dialects of Hindi termed as ‘Hindi languages,’ the total is around 44% of Indians, mostly accounted from the states falling under the Hindi belt. Other Indian languages are each spoken by around 10% or less of the population.
Besides, the seven states of the north eastern region have their distinct regional languages. States such as Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura have declared English as their official language. In 1964, the Centre attempted to terminate English as an official language but faced protests from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharastra, Pondicherry, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
However, the move to derecognise English as an official language was dropped and the Official Languages Act 1963 was amended in 1967 to provide that English will continue as an official language. Till such time that every state legislature and both parliamentary houses pass a resolution to derecognise English as an official language the status quo would sustain.
Perhaps Venkaiah Naidu’s statement is attributed to the fact that English is also perceived as a language of the social elite. No wonder in 2010, pro-English campaigners from the 200-million-strong Dalit community, the oppressed “outcasts” of traditional Hinduism, erected a black granite temple dedicated to the Goddess English, at Banka village in Lakhimpur Kheri district, Uttar Pradesh to hail her as a deity of liberation from poverty, ignorance and oppression.
English is among the 22 official languages of the country under Schedule VIII of the Constitution of India. To that extent the Vice President’s statement violates the spirit of the Constitution. While the Constitution does not specify anynational language, Hindi is used for official purposes such as parliamentary proceedings, judiciary, communications between the Central government and a state government.
The Constitution provides, and the Supreme Court has reiterated, that all proceedings in the SC and the high courts, shall be in English. Parliament has the power to alter this by law, but has not done so. However, in many HCs, there is, with consent from the President, allowance of the optional use of Hindi. The Constitution draws a distinction between the language to be used in Parliamentary proceedings, and the language in which laws are to be made. Parliamentary business, according to the Constitution, may be conducted either in Hindi or English.
The use of English in parliamentary proceedings was to be phased out after 15 years since 1950 unless Parliament chose to extend its use, which Parliament did through the Official Languages Act, 1963. Also the Constitution permits a person who is unable to express themselves in either Hindi or English to, with the permission of the Speaker of the relevant House, address the House in their mother tongue.
The animosity towards English stems from the fact that it was originally an alien language that British colonisers brought to India and fosters an alien western culture. The connection between nationalism and language is complex; the diversity that characterises the country further compounds the challenge of nation building and the founding fathers believed that only Hindi would serve this purpose.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor with the Department of English, Christ-Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)