Hindi imposition: Issue needs solutions beyond politics

Last Updated : 18 October 2019, 02:37 IST
Last Updated : 18 October 2019, 02:37 IST

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Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement to make Hindi compulsory across the country (since modified) has further fuelled the controversy that has dogged India since independence.

This North-South divide symbolises a linguistic separation between the northern states which constitute the “Hindi heartland” where people think and speak in the language, and the southern states which use classical languages like Tamil which are as old as Sanskrit.

After the southern states expressed consternation over the minister’s comment, he immediately clarified that it was merely a suggestion to have a common language.

It is time that India as a nation seriously starts to rethink its language policy. A link language can connect states across the country while regional languages would address the dwindling size of native vernacular speakers and the issue of language death.

The concept of link language, which has existed from the very beginning, in fact, is borrowed from the European concept of ethnolinguistic nationalism where every country has a main language that its citizens speak.

Even in the United States, which has over 300 languages, only English is endorsed for official and cultural purposes. India, from the beginning, has desperately tried to follow these models through the introduction of Hindi into education but with little success owing to the wide level discontent from different parts of the country.

The Indian case remains unique and complex. While Hindi could serve within the country, English, the colonial language, remains a necessity to connect ourselves with the international community.

This imposes a double burden on the non-Hindi speaking people who may have to learn two languages in addition to their own regional language.

A related question is, whether English is a foreign language or not? For some at least, English has now become an Indian language despite its foreign origins through prolonged periods of usage.

In most parts of India, English is widely used for official purposes. Most often, the courts resort to English language and pronounce judgements in English. The number of English medium schools is always on the rise in cities, townships and suburban spaces.

Parents desperately attempt to make their children speak good English. Post 1990s, urban India has witnessed a mushrooming growth of spoken English coaching centres which now impart spoken English through smartphone apps.

The situation has changed to such an extent that India is now estimated to be the second-largest English-speaking country after the US. In any Indian city, one could survive without knowledge of the local language and could comfortably manage with English.

Despite such a situation, English is still not considered a link language for various reasons. Perhaps, it still considered foreign, however, one might argue about its “Indianness”.

On occasions, Hindi is even projected to be a language that can counter the growing dominance of English. But most importantly, the percentage of Indians who can speak English is still abysmally small even when the absolute number is large.

Going by the various reports, it cannot be more than 15% of the country’s population. This cannot even be compared to the major languages like Hindi, Tamil or Bengali.

However, even in the absence of a link language, the country has grown to become a powerful economy in the world. No other country has managed to do justice to its multilingual existence as much have we done, and earn credentials as a scientifically and commercially advanced nation-state.

Thus, instead of brooding too much over the link language issue, we should spend more time and energy to save its several languages which the United Nations has designated as endangered ones.

The link language is directly connected to the death of regional languages. A major reason for language protests across the country emerges from their insecurity in the face of globalisation.

Beyond political rhetoric, there is a great element of truth attached to this. In a recent observation at a UN forum for indigenous and vernacular cultures, around the world, at least one language disappears totally from the face of the earth every two weeks.

The UN atlas for endangered languages has designated 196 Indian languages which face extinction. According to the 2010 report of the Peoples Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), 400 of the 780 Indian languages are in an endangered condition.

Language death is now a global phenomenon and close to 2,000 languages have disappeared from various nation-states in the 20th century alone, according to different studies.

Utter crisis

This includes several languages spoken in Africa, South America and South Asia including India. When people shift to another language in large numbers because their mother tongue no longer is useful, that is when a language begins to be in utter crisis and start its journey towards extinction.

Several Indian languages — even those not listed in the reports mentioned above — already experience this owing to its speakers randomly shifting to English.

Today, a substantial number of people in the country still remain without access to English now acknowledged as a global language. Ironically, the same English language is increasingly displacing several vernaculars like Malayalam, Marathi, Mythili to several tribal languages.

As a result, the presence of many vernaculars has dwindled in cultural platforms like media, rural plays, ballads, religion or education over time.

Clearly, this indicates a crisis and their possible extinction in the near future. It is precisely this that has led to the growing number of political and regional movements around language.

If this is not addressed outside the narrow political interests, then it may seriously affect the country’s multicultural and multilingual texture and lead to volatile situations now and again.

(The writer is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Christ University, Bengaluru)

Published 17 October 2019, 17:30 IST

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